Can Ducks outsmart Washington State's Cougars?
Not having their starting quarterback is one issue, but having to face Washington State's offensive brain trust is quite another for the Oregon Ducks.
Coach Mike Leach and quarterback Luke Falk have figured out how to beat the Ducks the past two years. They go for three in a row Saturday at Autzen Stadium.
"He's a great offensive-minded coach," UO coach Willie Taggart says of Leach. "He's done great at Washington State and everywhere he's been. Offensive genius."
On Falk, he adds: "He's smart, understands their offense. He has a quick release, very accurate, can make all the throws. He's tough. He's a stud. Never panics. Understands where guys are going to be. It's going to be important that we get to the quarterback, because they're dangerous. He'll be playing on Sundays (in the NFL)."
• While Falk threw for 505 yards and five TDs on 50-of-74 passing in the Cougars' 45-38 double-overtime at Autzen in 2015, the Ducks played Taylor Alie and Jeff Lockie at quarterback.
Lockie went 13 of 22 for 123 yards, two TDs and an interception, and rushed eight times for 52 yards. Alie played less, but now he and true freshman Braxton Burmeister take the reins against the Cougs with Justin Herbert (fractured collarbone) out indefinitely.
Will the Ducks play Alie, the senior walk-on, or Burmeister, the touted true freshman? It doesn't matter, Leach says. The Cougars have seen Alie, they haven't seen Burmeister.
"I think they'll try to do the same stuff. Oregon always wants to run the quarterback some, throw it some," Leach says. "The biggest factor would be to figure out how well (Burmeister) runs."
• Taggart says that "absolutely" Herbert could return to play before the end of the season. "We heal a little differently around here," he says.
• It's the worst-case scenario for the Ducks with Herbert out, and it's relevant to note again that two scholarship quarterbacks — Travis Jonsen, Terry Wilson — transferred in the offseason, continuing the program's recent issues with developing backup quarterbacks.
Some recruited QBs have not panned out and left the program; others left for playing time elsewhere. Two years ago, the Ducks really struggled when Vernon Adams Jr. suffered an injury, and Alie and Lockie had problems producing with the offense — including the Alamo Bowl, in which the Ducks blew a 31-0 lead against TCU and lost.
Will relying on backup QBs hurt the team again?
• Herbert is out, and the four other top offensive players — running back Royce Freeman, receivers Charles Nelson and Dillon Mitchell, tight end Jacob Breeland — are considered day-to-day.
"We're not going to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves," Taggart says. "Washington State or anybody else isn't going to feel sorry for us."
• Of Burmeister, Taggart says: "He never gets too high or too low. He always walks around with pep in his step ... He has a better understanding of what we're doing in the pass game; a better understanding of the offense and what we're trying to do. That helps with his confidence, which allows him to play fast and execute. He can throw the football and run the football."