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Pre-Snap Read: WSU vs the Oregon State Beavers

Gary Andersen is a great coach who still finds himself in Year Zero. We dive into what to look for in the game and get help from OSU beat writer Gina Mizell of The Oregonian.

Oregon State v Washington Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Washington State (5-2) breaks out their Icy Whites for a trip to Corvallis and a nightcap with the Oregon State Beavers (2-5). The game kicks off at 7:45 PM PST — sorry East Coast Cougs -- on ESPN2.

The Beavers started out the season with a very competitive loss to Minnesota before picking up a win over Idaho State. Colorado back-up quarterback Steven Montez torched them for three TDs in the first half, two going over 50 yards, then things got a little better. The Beavs beat Cal 47-44 — which we’ll go into detail a little more down the line — and played Utah tough, losing 19-14.

Even though OSU got beat down by Washington last week, they did better than their rival did against the Huskies. So, they got that going for them.

Oregon State v Washington State
Gary Andersen
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Head coach Gary Andersen is in the middle of his second consecutive Year Zero at Oregon State. Back in December of 2014, we talked a little about the nature of program building. The first year a coach takes over is commonly referred to now as “Year Zero”, meaning that it’s being played largely with players that coach didn’t recruit, most likely in a scheme they weren’t recruited for, and everyone is in a sort of feeling out process.

Every program is a unique and special snowflake but that generality largely holds true.

Oregon State only needs to look 1,237 miles east — and a division south — to see what can happen with patience. What can happen when an athletic department realizes they’re in a de facto Year Zero with a coach and don’t hold the record against him while he installs his process.

Really, they just need to look across the sideline on Saturday night.

OSU won two games last year, neither of them conference games. They’ve already got that monkey off their back with a huge (relatively) win over the Golden Bears, who are the sixth best offense according to S&P+ and throw for the second-most passing yards per game in the nation (370 yards). The Beavers shut that down, holding Cal quarterback Davis Webb to 23-of-44 passing for 113 yards and a pick.

When you rebuild a program from spare parts you’ll start at Year Zero. You’ll lose a lot of games. Then, you’ll start to lose competitively. Then you’ll win competitively. And if all breaks right, you start to dominate those teams you should and be in games with everyone else, no matter how low the number next to their name is on the score graphic.

What doesn’t help a team in those first couple stages of rebuilding are injuries. You already have the mental fatigue of getting whipped most Saturdays, add on the true physical breakdowns and it gets easy for a team to fold on a season. To the Beavers’ — and their coaching staff’s — credit, they’ve suffered a crazy potent bite from the injury bug and have still shown up and battled.

A graphic popped up pretty early on in their game against Boise State. Two OSU offensive lineman were missing time due to cancer. One to a spinal injury. Another to a concussion and yet another to an ankle injury. Walk-on freshman quarterback Conor Blount (No. 12) went into the game after starter Darell Garretson was knocked out and no one — not the announcers, not the OSU public relations staff trying to help the announcers, not anyone in the stands that wasn’t lying — not one person could tell you what his name was. Bruce Feldman remarked the defense was cheering him on, saying “good job 12!” on the sideline because they didn’t know his name.

Conor Blount, No. 12, is also now injured.

The Beavers lost defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake to BYU this past off-season and Gary Andersen pruned Kevin Clune from his Utah State coaching tree to fill the void. Clune and Andersen shared time on coaching staffs at not only Utah State, but Utah and Southern Utah as well.

Defensively, they are less aggressive than the Sitaki unit was last year, which ranked last in the conference in yards per play allowed (6.4), pass efficiency defense (68.5 percent completion percentage), sacks (17), and forced turnovers (12).

Clune runs an odd front that looks very similar to your average 3-4, which is essentially a “glorified Nickel package”. Last year, OSU came out with the idea that manning up the Wazzu receivers and upping linebacker stunts was a good idea. Luke Falk threw six touchdown passes in the first half.

Expect them to play a combination of a softer zone shell this year with man underneath and two high safeties sparingly, in certain short down and distance scenarios.

Oregon State still has a lot of bad movement on defense before the snap, typical for learning a new scheme. Not the “we’re disguising our coverage” kind, but the “oh crap I mis-identified formation strength!” and “am I manned up on that guy motioning to way over there?” kinds.

With WSU’s newfound propensity to completely shift base alignment on an offensive play, look for a confused Beaver defense leaving someone wide the hell open. It’ll happen at least once.

What has me concerned about the Oregon State Beavers

It’s a trap!: The Cougs barely got out of Tempe with a win, playing so well at the end of the game our friendly, metropolitan beat decided suggesting WSU should NOT want to “Coug It” was worth a story.

In terms of S&P+ ranking, the fourth quarter is their best statistical quarter of the a lot.

WSU Offense;
Q1 - 76th
Q2 - 5th
Q3 - 70th
Q4 - 20th

WSU Defense;
Q1 - 26th
Q2 - 102nd
Q3 - 111th
Q4 - 23rd

Narratives and buzzwords are fun to type, I guess.

That aside, this is a classic trap game. WSU is on a five game win streak for the first time in an elementary school child’s life and rumbled the car on E into the driveway home last weekend. You have to get up for every PAC-12 game or you’ll get got, even against an injury-laden Oregon State that’s obviously rebuilding.

Oregon State v Washington
Victor Bolden
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Vitamin B and Not a Quarterback: Victor Bolden is a terrific athlete. He’s special in the return game, which is bad cause we know the Wazzu special forces aren’t quite done giving up huge returns every now and again. The other major offensive threat is wide out Seth Collins, who started at quarterback against WSU last year. He’s a dynamic athlete that likes to hurdle defenders and makes some electric plays in space to the outside.

Gina Mizell, fantastic beat reporter for The Oregonian and, was kind enough to give us her insights this week.

What are you most confident in about the Oregon State Beavers?

“This sounds cliche, but they play hard. And they've played better over the last three weeks, despite a rash of injuries to a number of key positions. The Beavers overhauled the offensive line at the beginning of the month, which has helped spring the run game even against tough defensive fronts like Utah and Washington. The pass defense has also been sneaky good -- again, even while dealing with thin depth due to injury -- so I'm curious to see how it matches up against this Air Raid. The Beavers held Cal to 113 passing yards a couple weeks ago, the lowest total during the Sonny Dykes era.”

What I’m confident in about Wazzu

Washington State v Oregon State Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Luke Falk hates OSU: Hate is a strong word, maybe let’s tone it down and just say he lights OSU on fire every time he plays them. His first start at quarterback was against the Beavers in 2014 where he went off for 471 yards and 5 TDs. I remember, Brian Floyd and I watched it. 2015 was a boat race that started at the coin toss. Maybe he hates Halloween colors? Double trouble for Oregon State this weekend.

Run defense? lol: The Beavers rank 112th in rushing first downs allowed per game (12), 116th in rushing TDs per game (2.57), 114th in rushing yards allowed per game (231) and 115th in yards per rush attempt allowed (5.2). They are dead last, 128th, in Rushing Success Rate, 119th in overall rushing S&P+, 125th in Opportunity Rate (rush plays that go five yards), and 120th in Stuff Rate.

This means we should expect to see an uptick from those seven rush attempts from last week to something more palatable, like 15 to 20 (chuckles). And we should see more BOOBIE. Always a good thing.

Air Raid is not Bear Raid: And Oregon State knows it too. When asked, Clune said “Our defense will be much different than we saw at Cal.” He continued: “These guys will hit every spot on the field more than Cal did.” The coaches went on to highlight that Dykes’ Bear Raid attacks vertically and along the sideline more than Leach’s Air Raid, which favored the Beavers locking down in man and having two safeties patrol freely to help over the top. That won’t be able to be an every down defense for them this Saturday.

Even though the Beavers shut down Cal’s aerial attack, they gotta go about it in a different way if they want to do it to Wazzu.

So, Gina....

What about Wazzu should concern Oregon State?

“The fact that Wazzu's rush defense has been great. Co-offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven went as far as to say the Cougars "sell out" to stop the run, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them take that to another level with OSU's struggles throwing the ball no matter who is playing quarterback. Marcus McMaryion, who was the third-stringer entering the Utah game two weeks ago, is about to start back-to-back games for the first time in his career. Additionally, Luke Falk has absolutely shredded OSU the previous two seasons. But as mentioned above, the Beavers' secondary is much-improved in 2016.”

How I see the game playing out

Advanced stats have this being a somewhat close game, giving WSU a 68 percent chance of winning it by a score of 33 - 26. Vegas is a little different but not by much, with a score of 35 - 22 (WSU -13, O/U 57).

The arrogant side of me wants to say this is a blowout but the pragmatist knows this will be a lot closer for a bit longer than WSU fans might think, or be comfortable with. The grind of Oregon - Stanford - UCLA - ASU catches up to the Cougs in the first quarter and we see a bit of a slow start before things click and take off in the second half.

Wazzu should be able to score on this defense better than what Vegas and Bill C’s laptop predict. I’d bet about two scoring possessions better.

Increased reliance on the run game bolsters WSU’s methodical drives and a few huge plays to Gabe Marks and Tavares Martin add exclamation points. The defense rattles a third string quarterback with a few sacks. The ground game isn’t working on a stout Cougar front and OSU starts slinging it to play catch up, leading to Robert Taylor’s first career interception on a crossing route he jumps. There’ll be another pick by a corner along the sideline against a vertical late in the 3rd quarter where things start to get out of reach.

Final Score: WSU 45 - 24 OSU

And Gina...

“I like Wazzu to win a fairly close one, something in the 34-27 range. OSU has beaten the spread in each of the last three weeks and plays better at home. But the Beavers also can't fall behind early, which has been a huge issue in Pac-12 play other than in the win against Cal. And if OSU can get a consistent run game going against another tough defense in that area, then I think the Beavers are in the game in the fourth quarter.”

Huge thanks to Gina Mizell — you can follow her on Twitter here. We’ll update this post with some links to her recent work about the match-up.