Each time WSU has taken on Oregon State in the last two seasons, it has felt like the Cougs were perhaps ripe to pick up a victory over the Beavers on their long climb back to relevance.
And each time, the Cougs have walked away with their tails between their legs after being outclassed.
So, here we are again. Only this time, WSU actually has proven itself to some degree, having beaten USC and Cal en route to a 4-2 record. And another important factor: This game is in Pullman, where the Beavers haven't had to travel since 2009. (That game was another beatdown -- 42-10 in front of approximately 8,000 people in the rain the weekend before Thanksgiving.)
For an inside look at what the Beavers will be bringing to Martin Stadium, we hit up our friends AndyPanda and RVM over at Building The Dam for a little Q&A. (You can read our answers to their questions here.)
CougCenter: OSU's defense has struggled a little bit this season, allowing 8.14 yards per pass attempt and 13.91 yards per completion. Every opponent's trip to the redzone has scored. What are the Beavers trying to do defensively this year and why do you think they've had some early season problems?
AndyPanda: They are trying, as in running, basically the same scheme as last year, with a lot of nickel and some dime packages, with the addition of a little 3 man-front. The differences are the lack of the experience Jordan Poyer provided in organizing those coverages, and to a lesser degree, less experience and lots of shuffling at LB.
The problems have often been mistakes in coverage angles and also the decisions that are made on every play sometimes being made without proper realization of what other players on the defense are doing, and exactly what the opposition offense is doing. Poyer had the ability to make the fine direction adjustments, and no one has approached that ability yet, so you get over-rotation, missed pass-offs in coverage, and the like, and it has been compounded by subsequent over-corrections.
Turnover of who is the starting linebacker at all three positions has compounded the problem, as inexperience and confusion there leads to safeties over-committing to run support when they are supposed to have over-the-top responsibilities, multiple people in one gap and no one in another, and the like.
RVM: Yep, don't have a lot to add from Andy's assessment above. We have been totally in agreement basically all season about the lack of the defensive "QB" back in the coverages and also the thin LB core that has been exposed with injuries. Guess to add to this all I hope some of this is getting worked out a bit more and especially with the bye week to work on things and review lots of film (is it still "film" or maybe streaming video nowadays?). I am hoping that with how things have panned out that it means the inexperience of some of the key areas of the defense is now gaining experience that will translate into what we more expected coming into the season.
CougCenter: What coverage do you expect to see from an OSU secondary that gives up 258 passing yards and 2.2 passing TD's per game when they take on the pass-happy Cougs this Saturday?
AndyPanda: It will be heavy on nickel coverages, and some dime, hopefully with fewer mistakes. It's a Mark Banker defense though, so there sometimes won't be anyone assigned to containment (the idea is often for d-line pressure to get home) if Connor Halliday takes off outside the pocket, which is where the problems keep starting from.
Oregon St.'s success if they are to have any will also come from the LBs settling in better as a now more experienced unit.
RVM: Since Andy covered the more "technical" side of things I will go more fan personal and say I expect a coverage defense that is much more fundamental sound with tight coverages. This along with my expectations for an aggressive front-line defensive pass rush and a solid shut down any scrambling lanes by the linebackers will translate to a more dynamic shutdown defense, like we saw against Colorado but this time against a more athletic and dynamic offense. Yeah I have some high expectations, but why not! Go Beavs!
CougCenter: Jordan Poyer was a big reason the Beavers were able to shut down WSU last season; do you have another nickel corner that's trying to take over that role?
AndyPanda: The best results have been from using Sean Martin and Steven Nelson, with one as the base corner, and the other the nickel. And they have been interchanged. Neither one has approached Poyer's prowess yet (Martin was a nickel/sub last year, and this is Nelson's first year at this level -- he was a JC), but both have been forces with interceptions.
That has worked better than using a safety as the nickel, because it gets more speed (Nelson has tremendous speed) on the field. It's a trade-off -- the less experienced guys are still making mistakes, but they have the speed to also make big plays themselves. The interesting part about most of Halliday's throws will be which team gets the big play, because most of them will be, one way or the other.
CougCenter: Sean Mannion has been exceptional this year, completing 68 percent of his passes and already eclipsing the 2,000-yard mark. What has made him so successful?
AndyPanda: During the off-season, Mannion took his shortcomings seriously and addressed them. That applies to both his mechanics (and getting healthy and stronger), but especially to his decision making and accuracy. Even most of his throwaways are "good throws" that go where they need to when they need to. Brandin Cooks similarly continued to improve both physically and mentally, giving Mannion a reliable go-to guy on most plays, which helps. (We've had the same discussion with every opponent prior to playing them it seems.)
RVM: Yep, total déjà vu! Mannion has developed into a on-the-field leader that not only translates to dynamic numbers but includes a sense of this is his team out there with him. Plus his field vision has improved vastly over last year. So then let's throw in a very dynamic duo of wide receivers in Brandin Cooks and a nice go-to guy in Richard Mullaney, and along with what looks to be a solid three-deep tight end core. All of which has a passing offense and a star QB that has a lot of confidence. Also, as we have noted previously, the offensive line has been an experiment in alignments to fill in injury gaps, but they have excelled so far at pass protection.
CougCenter: If WSU was going to be able to do something to disrupt him, what exactly would that be?
AndyPanda: The primary pass rush has to get to him. He's not mobile, and won't run all over, so pressure could disrupt him, though his decision making being both good AND quick has blunted that. The offensive line, despite being pieced together due to injuries, has done an excellent job in pass protection as well, and will be healthier this week than at any time this season, so that's not been so easy.
I said "primary" pass rush because using a lot of blitzes is dangerous. San Diego St. tried that, and Mannion picked them apart behind the blitzes before they could get home.
RVM: Agree totally with Andy here, the key would be a pass rush against him that puts him on edge, makes him have 'happy feet' in the pocket, and forces him to move around way too much and throw off balance. I agree too that it will be difficult for that type of pass rush to actually get to him enough will entail leaving some huge gaps in the WSU defensive coverage and Mannion has seemed to be able to exploit this even with short times to see the field. WSU might be able to get away with some packed in coverage deals, but that could be difficult too, for if you give Mannion any time he will find his guys and the main starter group of receivers can, for the most part, catch balls in tight coverage. I think the main thing would be get him out of his pocket.
CougCenter: Do you see him being able to sustain this level of play for the rest of the season?
AndyPanda: Yes, in that his decision making has been the important thing, and that will continue. I don't know that it will show in sustained numbers, because more bad weather AND better opponents are coming, and both will adversely affect anyone's numbers. I don't think the impact will be as large as it would be against a lot of QBs though.
RVM: Totally. As I mentioned above he has a receiving and tight end group that has multiple go-to players. Sure, competition is now getting tougher and tougher as we go, and sure, the running game has been an issue. But one has to feel that with Storm Woods coming back and our receivers well acclimated to Mannion and him to them, that the running game will find more of its legs. As such the passing game will open up more of the running game and in turn that will open up more of the passing game. Hope I do not seem way too cocky here but the offense just seems poised to continue on its current path and there is even room for improvement too.
CougCenter: Thirty-four percent of the Oregon State passing game goes to Brandin Cooks, very nearly a quarter of the total Beaver offense relies on him, he has twice as many receptions on the season (52) and doubles the yardage per game (161.4 yd) of the number 2 receiver ... do you think a team can stop this Beaver offense by stopping Cooks, or are you confident in the other offensive weapons at Mannion's disposal?
AndyPanda: Mullaney and Kevin Cummings, and also Storm Woods out of the backfield, still obviously have some growth and consistency to come, but I do think that if a defense can contain Cooks (which won't be easy), it will be at the price of creating more opportunities for the other receivers. That likely leads to even more use of the tight ends as well. Mannion actually has spread the ball around, but when his best target (Cooks) is usually getting open, he's naturally just going to go to him.
RVM: Again, totally agree, and as noted above I think the passing game core is too deep where if a team puts extra effort in shutting down Cooks they will be made pay by the others. But that said I also agree with Andy that Mullany, Cummings, and Woods in the passing game are still finding themselves (especially the latter two), but really it comes down the Mannion I think here. It is not so much about shutting down Cooks but more about shutting down Mannion who is very much the main focus of the OSU offensive attack.
CougCenter: Prediction for the game?
AndyPanda: We'll still be there at 11 p.m. because it will be much more of a shootout than last year's 19-6 affair in Corvallis. I do think having both Woods and Tyler Anderson back in the backfield and a healthy o-line will result in Oregon St. running the ball more, as Mike Riley will try to defend Mike Leach's offense by not letting him have the ball as much, but it will come down to a 4th quarter scoring drive, and probably a 41-38 game.
I like the Oregon St. defense to pick off Halliday a couple of times, and right now, Mannion is the better trigger man, so it will be the Beavers on the high end of that. But the spread is down to 1 point, and I think that's an accurate assessment of just how close this could be.
RVM: Not sure to be honest. I felt good about Colorado and our match-ups against them, even if people felt that Colorado has improved. I have a little of that with this game, but do very much think WSU is deeper, more athletic, and right now better coached in terms of a Pac-12 match-up than what I figured and what ended up to be an over-matched Colorado team two weeks ago. That said, I do feel like for OSU to win there could be multiple ways they could do it, but feel that for WSU to win it will have to be more of a tough struggle type of win for the Cougs (I'll let you all fill in my generalized blanks there!).
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