WSU’s hopes for a bounceback rest on Oregon game

September 30, 2016 GMT

PULLMAN – Luke Falk threw a touchdown pass to Dom Williams in the end zone as the clock expired to tie the game, Shalom Luani intercepted an overtime pass to end it, and Washington State’s season took a dramatic turn for the better. WSU won five of its next six games on the way to one of its better seasons in school history.

“We took that momentum and I think everybody was like, ‘Wow, we can do this. We can win a game like that in the fourth quarter against a good program like Oregon,’” nickel Colton Teglovic said. “We really built off that game and I guess you could say it was a turning point.”

That’s so 2015, for now. But maybe a win over Oregon (2-2, 0-1 Pac-12) in front of a sell-out crowd can spring the Cougars (1-2) to better things in consecutive years.

A loss could prove particularly costly. Not just for the mathematical certainty that it will be one game harder to achieve bowl eligibility, but because the Cougars will then have sent two sellout crowds home with suboptimal experiences.

WSU must already convince a sizable portion of its fan base that it is worth making a weekend out of every trip across the Cascade Mountains to watch its games. Lose on Saturday and the Martin Stadium home field advantage could dwindle with the crowd sizes.

It’s no secret bigger crowds help the home team, and the Cougars have four more home games after UO.

“Home games with big crowds, it can affect defensive communication because our crowd really gets up for this game,” linebackers coach Ken Wilson said.

The Week 4 bye that looked a bit too early at the start of the season seems a bit more favorable right now. This seems as likely a time as any for WSU to get tricky on offense, and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch might have a few tricks up his sleeve as well, thanks to the extra practice time.

“We put in the game plan several days early,” Teglovic said.

The Ducks have a lot on the line as well. The program has not begun conference play with consecutive losses since 1996. Lose to WSU this weekend and coach Mark Helfrich’s seat will get warm. Follow that up next week by losing to Washington for the first time in 13 years and it will be on fire.

Injuries have especially hurt the Ducks this year. While star running back Royce Freeman is expected to play, starting left tackle Tyrell Crosby and speedy receiver Devon Allen are out for the season.

The most disruptive defensive lineman for the Ducks, Jalen Jelks, has already missed time this season, starting defensive tackle Rex Manu was last seen in a walking boot, as was backup Drayton Carlberg. Tight ends Pharaoh Brown and Johnny Mundt both missed UO’s game against Colorado last week.

“When you lose a Jalen Jelks, it’s a big injury,” secondary coach John Neal told the Eugene Register-Guard after Monday’s practice. “We’ve had a couple injuries with our inside linebackers. We lost a tackle last week.”

Though the Cougars have been more fortunate with injuries, key players such as quarterback Luke Falk and wide receiver Gabe Marks have at times gotten up slowly after hits or appeared to be less than 100 percent, leading to speculation among fans that they are playing through pain.

Whoever is available, both teams will just have to suffer through and do whatever it takes to get a badly needed win. All the chips are down for this one.