The Oregon State Beavers stumble into Martin Stadium tomorrow with a 1-2 record that would be 0-3 were it not for a last minutes comeback against Portland State. Not that near losses or losses to FCS are everything (cough), but when combined with being outscored 106-41 by Colorado State and Minnesota, it looks bad.
The biggest bummer for OSU fans is that this felt like a season where the Beavers could take a step forward and give some people some big problems. Instead, this is sure feeling like a step backward.
We caught up with Joe Londergan of our friends at Building The Dam to get his thoughts in advance of OSU’s matchup with the Washington State Cougars.
CougCenter: What's your emotional state right about now, given that the team appears to be a lot less good than everyone anticipated?
Building the Dam: Not great, Jeff. There's been multiple gifs of burning dumpsters on the BTD Twitter the last couple weeks.
Personally, I thought that the Beavs had the potential to make a bowl game, but they would have to win their first three games given how tough the Pac-12 slate is. I'm feeling a lot less confident that they'll become bowl eligible now that they're only 1-2. I think the general feeling among Beaver fans progressed like this: 1. Super optimistic in preseason, 2. frustrated but understanding after a loss to a pretty good Colorado State team in weird conditions, 3. uneasy after a close call against Portland State, 4. Despondent after getting trounced by Minnesota.
Why the disparity between expectations and reality? What's gone wrong?
It's been a few different problems. For one, the expectations were really high (at least from BTD) for the defensive back group at the beginning of the season. But through the first three games of the season, Beaver opponents have gained 716 yards through the air. While there have been some solid talent in those offenses, there's also been some bad mistakes from OSU's DBs. A prime example was in the first quarter of the Minnesota game where senior safety Brandon Arnold wasn't where he was supposed to be and it turned into a 67-yard touchdown pass for the Gophers.
There's also the matter of the offensive line. They haven't really paved the way for OSU's running back stable to blow it open the way we all thought they would. They also gave up three sacks against Minnesota. But a big part of that is just inexperience. They lost three linemen to the NFL in this year's draft, which only leaves them two experienced starting linemen and the rest have seen minimal D1 time, if any, before this year. Pepper in some fumbles here and a bad throw resulting in an interception there and here we are.
If you could change one thing immediately for OSU to turn its season around, what would that one thing be?
The defense has to be better, but I feel like there's too many problems there for it to be contained in one thing.
I think above everything, the turnovers absolutely have to stop. Through three games they've lost six fumbles and thrown four interceptions. They're already two thirds of the way there in terms of tying their total turnovers from last season. And we're only 25% of the way through the year. You can't win games if you don't score points and you can't score points if you give the ball away.
What if it doesn't get better? Is Gary Andersen perfectly safe?
If the team doesn't at least get to 4-8 like they did last year it will be a pretty massive disappointment. But in terms of Andersen being on the hot seat, I'd be surprised if he got fired. His buyout is pretty hefty and I doubt OSU would spend the money to make it happen. They did just extend him in December, after all. Plus, part of what's keeping him in good graces right now despite the losses is the fact that his players earned 29 Pac-12 Academic honors and set a program record for term GPA. So perfectly safe: no. Reasonably safe: I think so. Hopefully he at least gets the first road win of his OSU tenure at some point this year, which would help his cause.
If OSU pulls off the upset and beats WSU, it will happen like this:
You know that scene in The Dark Knight Rises where the field blows up as Hines Ward scores a touchdown on the opening kick? It'd be that kind of scenario.
But seriously, the defense absolutely has to show up and at least keep WSU's point total below thirty. On the offensive end, the running game has to get going and the running backs have to hold on to the ball. Since their passing game just isn't quite there yet, it's going to inevitably have to be Ryan Nall and Artavis Pierce that break out some big plays and inspire some long drives that end in points. Boise State almost had Wazzu last week and the possession time was split right down the middle. If Oregon State can keep the Cougars' offense off of the field, then maybe, just maybe, they have a shot.
And my answers to his questions ...
Building The Dam: WSU pulled off a crazy comeback win over Boise last week, but what were the issues that put them down by 21 with ten minutes left to play?
CougCenter: Mostly timidity within the offense — the Cougs were halfway through the fourth quarter before they scored their first offensive touchdown, which is almost incomprehensible. Because of that, Mike Leach did the unthinkable in the third quarter and benched a healthy Luke Falk in favor of backup Tyler Hilinski. Teams have taken to flooding the passing pattern with a lot of defensive backs against Falk to try and paralyze his progressions and bait him into simply taking dump-offs to the running backs, and it’s been working. WSU’s offense even gave up a touchdown on a scoop-and-score. It was bad, and had the Cougs gone on to lose the game, the blame would have been placed squarely at Luke Falk’s feet.
However, there’s another factor that’s getting a bit less pub: The running game was surprisingly ineffective for the second consecutive week. Leach suggested at his Monday news conference that his linemen were just a little soft; their inability to open holes for our talented running backs also was a big reason why the offense was repeatedly stalling out.
Should we read anything into Luke Falk being benched and then injured against Boise State, resulting in a huge performance from Tyler Hillinski?
Well, yeah — Leach isn’t going to sit by and watch the Air Raid be hamstrung by a quarterback who refuses to take the car out of second gear, and nobody is above that. Even the guy who now owns every major passing record in WSU history. On Monday, Leach said he benched Falk because he “wanted Luke to see how easy it was out there.” And to some degree, that proved to be true — Hilinski immediately found receivers in intermediate routes to pick up chunk yardage. Falk came back in, was no better than before, got injured (we think?), and then Hilinski came back in and more or less picked up where he left off, gouging the Broncos through the air.
Now, I think most fans still believe Falk is their best chance at big time success this year. Besides, he’s led us to a bunch of big wins, and he decided to stick around for another season rather than heading off to the NFL, so fans really want to give him every benefit of the doubt. There’s definitely some sentimentality there, and we’re glad he’s starting this game. Also, it seems like playing OSU is the perfect recipe to get well — he’s torched the Beavers in his previous three outings against them, and their defense seems ... uh ... susceptible. However, if Falk struggles again versus Oregon State — and by struggles, I mostly mean plays passively against soft coverages — I think that people will lose patience pretty quickly.
What's the biggest key to slowing down this Wazzu passing offense that's averaging 397 yards per game?
Well, if OSU can continue to make Falk stand there and stare without throwing the ball, they’re well on their way. The thing with Falk is that rather than getting faster and more decisive within the offense — which you would expect from someone with 30 starts — he seems to be getting slower and increasingly indecisive, often scanning the field for upwards of five or six seconds before either dumping it off or taking a sack. This has always been a criticism of him — that he holds the ball for too long — but the grumbling is definitely getting louder about it, especially as Leach has now basically endorsed fans’ complaints with his words and deeds.
Although, maybe if you do that, Hilinski comes back in and shreds you, so ... I don’t know if OSU can slow down the passing attack for the entire game.
Defensively, WSU's first two games were pretty different from one another. What's your take on where that group is?
Real happy with where the defense is right now — shutting out a bad FCS team then following it up with giving up just 24 points in regulation to a what I think is a good midmajor offense is nice step forward from last season. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has been working to build a unit that is fast and aggressive, and that’s exactly what they were in the first two games. The defensive line has attacked to the degree that they’ve been incredibly disruptive to what opponents want to do, and the linebackers have been sure tacklers. They’re lighter than your typical Pac-12 defense, so we’re still not sure exactly what we’re going to get when some of the bigger opponents in Pac-12 play come around. But for now, I think the defense has been a bit better than expected.
What's the ceiling for this year's team, in your opinion?
Pac-12 Championship. Why not? Leach’s last two teams have gotten much better as the season progressed, and I like the baseline from which we’re currently working — 2-0 with room for improvement.
What's your final score prediction for this game?
I have a hard time imagining it doesn’t get real ugly after the way Leach voiced his displeasure with the offense this week. Let’s go 48-17, WSU.