Mike Leach turns unheralded quarterback and wide receiver recruits into statistical stars in Washington State’s Air Raid offense.
USC is in the process of turning five-star prospects into future NFL first-round picks with its version of the spread passing attack.
Graham Harrell, who played quarterback for Leach at Texas Tech, is in his first season as the Trojans’ offensive coordinator.
Entering No. 7 Oregon’s critical road hurdle at USC on Saturday at the L.A. Coliseum (5 p.m., Fox), the Men of Troy rank 20th in the FBS in passing (296.1 yards per game), 35th in total offense (436.4 yards per game) and 51st in scoring (31.3 points per game).
And that’s despite having to use three different quarterbacks due to injuries.
“I think what we faced last week was unique and we learned a lot from it,” coach Mario Cristobal said of last week’s 37-35 win over the Cougars, which ended Oregon’s four-game losing streak to Leach. “The talent level of this (USC) team is off the charts, elite talent at a lot of different positions, so our guys have practiced well and are focused and have had a really good week.”
True freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis is completing 73% of his passes with 1,625 yards, 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.
JT Daniels was 25-for-34 (73.5%) passing with 215 yards and a touchdown before suffering a season-ending injury in the opener. Matt Fink completed 21 of 30 (70%) passes with three touchdowns filling in for an injured Slovis during USC’s 30-23 upset of then-No. 10 Utah.
Electrifying wide receivers Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown have combined for 140 receptions for 1,825 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“It’s always exciting when you go against players that you know for sure have NFL talent,” cornerback Thomas Graham said of the challenge. “It’s always amazing to go against people you know you will see on Sundays.”
USC trailed by 10 points entering last Friday in Boulder before rallying late for a 35-31 victory over Colorado.
Slovis passed for 406 yards and four touchdowns, including scores of 44 and 37 yards to Pittman in the fourth quarter.
“You look to the left, you look to the right, it’s going to be very challenging,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “That’s the challenge that comes with being in this conference and playing here.
“Thus far, we’ve had one of our better weeks of practice, so we’re hoping to improve on some techniques and fundamentals.”
Washington State quarterback Anthony Gordon finished 32-for-50 passing for 406 yards and three touchdowns against Oregon, including a 5-yard score to Brandon Arconado that gave the visitors a 35-34 lead with a minute remaining.
“Passing numbers are always going to be high when you play Washington State. It’s inevitable, it’s going to happen,” Avalos said. “It’s about winning third downs and winning as many times as you can in the red zone, limiting the amount of touchdowns and forcing them to kick field goals.”
The Ducks (7-1, 5-0) held Leach’s offense to 1-for-9 on third-down conversions, forced the Cougars to settle for two field goals, and nickel back Jevon Holland returned an interception for a 19-yard touchdown.
Oregon’s secondary will have a chance to retake a version of the Air Raid test this Saturday.
“Just playing against Mike Leach in general will always help you know the holes that are in the pass defense because he’s a person that depends on the pass,” Graham said. “So he’s going to find every small little niche in your pass game. He found it, and we just have to make sure we fix those problems so it doesn’t happen again.”
The Ducks lead the nation with 14 interceptions. Holland has four picks and freshman safety Verone McKinley has three over the last three games.
Cristobal said Troy Dye has been “practicing at full speed” and is expected to return to the lineup against USC after sitting out last week’s comeback win with a broken thumb. The senior linebacker is leading the team in tackles for the fourth consecutive season.
Avalos’ unit will have to create more pressure on Slovis after sacking Gordon only one time. Oregon still leads the conference with 23.0 sacks.
The Ducks are now second in the Pac-12 behind Utah in scoring defense (14.8 ppg), touchdowns allowed (12), yards per play (4.59) and pass efficiency defense (107.05).
“Overall, these guys are a group we really trust and believe in,” Cristobal said. “We’ve played some really good football throughout the year and we’ll continue to get better.”
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @RGDuckFootball and email podcast mailbag questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Oregon sports coverage, visit DuckSports.com.