No. 11 Washington State and Oregon each face new challenges this week.
The Cougars (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12) travel for the first time this season, and that trip is to one of the most difficult places to play — Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore.
“We will practice some with loud noise to simulate a road environment,” said Washington State coach Mike Leach, whose team won at Oregon 45-38 two years ago. “We already do a good amount of non-verbal communication.”
Oregon (4-1, 1-1) must deal with Washington State’s top-rated Pac-12 pass defense (146.6 yards allowed a game) without its starting quarterback, Justin Herbert, who is out indefinitely with a broken collarbone.
Redshirt senior Taylor Alie is Oregon’s backup, but the redshirt senior also left Saturday’s game against Cal with an injury and is listed as “day to day.”
True freshman Braxton Burmeister made his debut against the Golden Bears. He could make his first career start against Washington State, which ranks 11th nationally and second in the Pac-12 in total defense (275 yards allowed per game).
Both backup quarterbacks are probably better runners than Herbert, but the passing game could suffer.
“We have some guys who’ve played the position and can run the offense,” Ducks coach Willie Taggart said. “I do think Braxton or Taylor or whoever we put in there can go in there and run our offense.”
Washington State is preparing its defense with the mindset that any quarterback can run Taggart’s offense, which ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 in scoring with 49.6 points a game.
“I think they’ll probably try to do the same stuff,” Leach said. “They want to run the quarterback some. They’ll throw it some — pop and play-action passes — but they want to run with it, so I guess the biggest factor would be to figure out how well he runs.”
Oregon running back Royce Freeman also left the Cal game with an arm injury and is questionable, Taggart said. Freeman is the second-leading rusher in the Pac-12, behind Stanford’s Bryce Love (who leads the nation in rushing with 1,088 yards on 98 carries).
Freeman has rushed for 592 yards on 103 carries. He leads the Pac-12 with 10 rushing touchdowns.
If he is a no-go, the running game will rely on Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James, who have combined to average 5.7 yards per carry. While Benoit and Brooks-James aren’t considered power runners, often using their speed and athleticism to get to the edge, they proved last week against Cal that they will also go straight ahead.
Other Oregon players listed “day to day” include wide receivers Dillon Mitchell and Charles Nelson, tight end Jacob Breeland and linebacker AJ Hotchkins.
Taggart said the Ducks lost linebacker Kaulana Apelu for the season with an ankle injury.
“We’re not going to sit around feeling sorry for ourselves,” Taggart said. “Washington State and anyone else is not going to feel sorry for us.”
Washington State has injury concerns of its own, especially at linebacker with Peyton Pelluer already out for the season with a broken foot. Isaac Dotson exited the USC game early with an apparent leg injury and did not return. He is doubtful to play Saturday.
Dotson ranks second on the team with 27 tackles, trailing only safety Jalen Thompson’s 29.
The leader of the Cougars’ defense is outside linebacker Hercules Mata’afa, who had two tackles for loss in last week’s 30-27 win over then-No. 5 USC. Mata’afa leads the Pac-12 with 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
Thompson, a sophomore who has started all 18 games in his college career, is another defensive leader. He has intercepted three passes.
As usual, though, Washington State’s “Air Raid” offense is prolific. Senior quarterback Luke Falk ranks second in the conference with 343.6 passing yards a game. He has completed 74.5 percent of his throws with 16 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
“He has a quick release, very accurate,” Taggart said of Falk. “He is tough. He’s a stud. You look at his stats and that says it all. You watch the film and he has a great understanding of what they’re doing.”
Washington State played its first five games at home, but Leach had the Cougars locked into the task at hand and isn’t making a big deal about this first road trip.
“You get into (the games), you lock into them one at a time,” Leach said.