Let's just get this out of the way now:
Washington State sort-of-kind-of hosts the Oregon State Beavers this Saturday at CenturyLink Field. The Cougars come in as favorites in a conference game for the first time in, well, forever! The three-point line suggests that Vegas actually views these teams as evenly matched, giving WSU the advantage for being the "home team." Despite the disparity in records (Cougs at 3-3, Beavs at 1-5) that is probably accurate.
Football Outsiders has a rankings system called F+/- in which they combine their FEI and S&P ratings. The ratings are then listed as a percentage. That percentage tells how much better or how much worse a team is than average. This particular match-up pits the 80th ranked team (WSU) and the 82nd (OSU). The Cougs are listed as 7.7% worse than an average FBS team, while Oregon State is 9.0% worse than the mean.
Over on SB Nation's Football Study Hall, they use these percentages to predict the final margins of games. In the last few weeks, they have been fairly accurate. The F+/- had Stanford favored by 26.6 points and the Cardinal won by 30. It had UCLA winning by 5.1 points, with the final margin being three. Over the last two games, it predicted a total margin for WSU of -31.7 with the reality being -33. I love you, numbers.
So what does it say for the Cougs against OSU? WSU by 4.8. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty concerned about Wazzu getting that last eight tenths of a point. I wonder if this team has that in them. I wouldn't doubt Marquess Wilson though, he is pretty spectacular. If there is anyone capable of obtaining 0.8 points on a football field, that man would likely be MQW. Offense and defense previews after the jump.
OFFENSE: 22.0 PPG, 5.3 YPP, #90 S&P
After seeing one of the conference's best ground games two weeks ago, and the nation's best quarterback last week, the WSU defense will finally get a little bit of a break. Oregon State's offense doesn't do anything particularly well and is well below average overall.
After starting the season splitting time with Junior Ryan Katz, freshman quarterback Sean Mannion took over the full-time starting QB role following OSU's early season struggles. Mannion has thrown the ball a lot (40 pass attempts/game) and has completed a good percentage (65.6%). Considering that high completion rate, he hasn't gained many yards per attempt, at 6.6. He has also been turnover-prone, throwing 9 interceptions to just five touchdown passes.
Markus Wheaton has been the top receiver for the Beavers. He has caught 46 passes for 548 yards. After him, there is a cluster of six guys between 12 and 21 catches. The big play guy is Jordan Bishop, with 14.1 yards per catch. Super senior James Rodgers is always a threat in the slot.
The passing attack overall has not produced. The Beavs are 86th overall in passing S&P and 69th on passing downs. However, there is still a talented group of wide receivers who can makes plays after the catch. The Washington State defense will need to be sound in tackling to prevent big gains.
Aside from the opening game performance by freshman Malcolm Agnew against Sacramento State, the running game has not been very effective. In that contest, Agnew carried 33 times for 233 yards. He sat the next four games out with a hamstring injury, and returned last week against Brigham Young, where he carried the ball just ten times. It remains to be seen if Agnew is as good as his opening week line, or if he was just taking advantage of an overmatched defense.
In Agnew's absence, the Beavs rotated carries to several different backs. The most productive of those backs has been Jovan Stevenson, who has carried 36 times for a 4.4 average. The Beavs are ranked 88th in rushing S&P. The overall number of 4.22 yards per carry (adjusted for sacks) looks decent, but take out the 6.19 YPC they posted versus FCS Sacramento State and things don't look quite as nice.
Oregon State has been among the worst on standard (non-obvious passing) downs. They are ranked 106th in standard down S&P. They've also turned the ball over frequently; 16 times in their first six games. There is hope in this game that the Cougar offense may not have to put up 30+ points to keep up with the Cougar defense. but Oregon State still has a lot of talented skill position players that can punish WSU for a mistake.
DEFENSE: 31.8 PPGA, 6.0 YPPA, #52 S&P
Oregon State's defense has been a slightly above average unit in 2011 and that is a big reason why they haven't been getting blown out in conference games, despite their offense's inability to hold onto the ball. In stark contrast to the offensive side, the Beaver defense has performed very well on standard downs, where they rank 27th. Their weakness comes when teams end up in the third and long situations. Even with that solid standard down defense, opponents are still converting 48.68% of their third down tries into first downs.
OSU has tallied 25 tackles for loss, including ten sacks, thus far. Freshman defensive lineman Scott Crichton leads the team with eight tackles for loss. Crichton is also tied with junior Rusty Fernando (best name ever?) for the team lead with three sacks. The Beavers appear to be getting good play from their defensive line, as that group has combined for 16.5 tackles for loss.
Good news for Jeff Tuel is that Oregon State has allowed opponents to complete 65.7% of their passes for 8.19 yards an attempt. The key will be staying away from mistakes. The Beavers have six interceptions and six recovered fumbles this season. They have been able to take advantage of opponents mistakes, even intercepting Arizona's Nick Foles twice (in between getting shredded). Tuel might still be getting his timing back, as he was not as accurate as usual last week. This could be cause for concern. Or not, because turnover rates have high variability and are generally not something that can be replicated from week to week.
Don't expect this game to be easy for the Cougar offense. The Beavers are very capable on defense and it would seem that passing is their biggest weakness. Is Tuel back to his old self? Will he be able to capitalize? That's a pretty big question heading into Saturday night.
Oregon State is in trouble if...They continue to turn the ball over and are unable to get much going on offense. The Cougars play a sound game on offense and special teams and avoid giving the ball away.
Oregon State's one win this season over Arizona was largely on the back of turnovers. The Cougars need to avoid mistakes in this one. This is a huge game in terms of bowl hopes, status of the program, etc. and a letdown here would be very, very painful. Regardless of how evenly matched these teams look on paper, the fact of the matter is the Beavers only have one win this season, and that's still how teams are most often judged. Losing to a one-win team in a "homish" game will not look good.
The positive is that this game is right there for WSU to take if they execute.