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Pre-Snap Read: Previewing WSU vs Oregon State

The Beavers’ defense is likely to cure what ails the Cougars’ offense.

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Minnesota v Oregon State Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The Washington State Cougars tapped into the inherent weirdness of Pac-12 night games to eke out a victory over Boise State last weekend. Very little went right on offense, while the defense and special teams both picked up the slack to carry the meandering offensive unit to a win.

Oregon State ventures to Pullman after getting blitzed by Colorado State in the second-half of its opener, then barely slipping past Portland State in Week 1, then getting boat-raced by the Row The Boat Minnesota Golden Gophers last Saturday.

Entering Year 3 of the Gary Andersen era, the OSU faithful had some optimism about a program turnaround. The Beavs added a capable-looking quarterback from Idaho in Jake Luton and an absolute playmaker from rival Oregon in Thomas Tyner to pair in the backfield with human wrecking ball Ryan Nall.

So far, the season hasn’t born that juicy optimism fruit. And with No. 6 UW, No. 4 USC, Colorado, and No. 19 Stanford on the horizon, a visit to the Palouse and date with No. 21 Wazzu is one of their only reasonable shots at a conference win until November.

SB Nation’s Bill Connelly invented a single statistic to answer two questions; how successful are you on offense, and when you’re successful, how explosive are you? This metric is called IsoPPP (Equivalent Points Per Play). There are 130 FBS teams and Washington State ranks 124th in passing IsoPPP while 2nd in passing completions. The Cougs rank 20th in Success Rate, a rough measure of how well an offense stays “on schedule” on first, second or third down.

They are also 119th in yards per completion and 102nd in yards per rush attempt.

This means WSU is highly successful at passing and also very, very good at making sure none of those completions are explosive.

Put even more simply: Washington State is not a “high powered” offense. At the moment.

A casual WSU fan will know the primary criticism of starting quarterback Luke Falk, who got benched for last weekend — namely, being too conservative. The offense has yet to open up; first, Falk encouraged James Williams to do whatever he wanted against an FCS defense, then he refused to challenge an FBS defense downfield.

The last three times Luke Falk has played the Beavs he’s went;

  • (2014) 44-of-61 for 471 yards, 5 TDs and 0 INTs
  • (2015) 39-of-50 for 407 yards, 6 TDs and 2 INTs
  • (2016) 33-of-46 for 415 yards, 5 TDs and 0 INTs

After a game where Falk was sidelined for a series in order to be gently reminded how easily it should be to move the ball in this offense, he needs a solid “get right” game — and Oregon State has a recent history of obliging.

Oregon State defensive coordinator Kevin Clune didn’t do much to transform the Beaver defense in 2016, his first year on the job after Kalani Sitaki took the head coaching gig at BYU. Sitaki was known for an aggressive, blitz-happy defensive front. Clune’s Beavers play a more generic version of a Nickel 3-4.

In their last game, Minnesota completed 7-of-8 pass attempts for 158 yards and a single TD. Portland State attempted 28 passes and Colorado State aired it out 39 times.

When facing spread formations similar to WSU’s typical alignment, Oregon State predominantly showed a Nickel Cover 4. Predominantly being close to 90 percent of the time. There hasn’t been enough games against spread passing offenses to get a feel for what OSU is really capable of, but Cover 4 is about all they put on film. When they weren’t in Quarters, they were in a very soft man coverage with a single free safety.

There’s no indication we should expect to see anything different this Saturday.

Even in the red zone Oregon State showed this Quarters coverage:

They were very consistent about going Quarters in the middle of the field against CSU’s 10 personnel sets (1 RB, 0 TEs). Either the Rush OLB to the boundary would drop to the flat or an ILB would, and whichever didn’t would rush the passer. The Beavs will normally bring four on most downs; bringing five or more was rare and rushing three didn’t seem to be a strategy they liked too much.

Occasionally the Beavs transition to a soft man coverage while showing their typical Quarters base. They’d drop two backers and send one, it varied which, to have the middle zones covered while manning up across formation and dropping their field safety to centerfield.

There isn’t anything particularly tricky about what Oregon State does on defense. They’re gonna line up and play Quarters the vast majority of the time, sprinkling in man to try and jump routes.

What has me concerned about Oregon State

Let down, look ahead: The real danger of this probably is next week against Nevada, but after a 3 OT game last week against a tough opponent, there’s always a fear the team doesn’t get up for the following week against a weaker team.

Wrecking Nall: If you need to be reminded, Ryan Nall went off for 131 yards on 19 carries against WSU last year, including an 89-yard house-call. Nall forced 47 missed tackles last season and was rated by Pro Football Focus as the “most elusive back” of 2016, judging him the hardest back to tackle in all of college football.

Constipation: “Our whole offense, we were a bunch of patty-cakers out there,” Mike Leach said of last week’s game. Following that up with, “We were one of the more constipated offenses on Earth”. Falk had the offense at 5.7 yards per attempt before leaving the game, and that would’ve looked a lot worse without a bomb to Renard Bell down the seam — as in, 4.1 yards per attempt.

Gina Mizell, beat writer covering the Beavs for The Oregonian, was nice enough to offer some insights

What are you most confident in about the Oregon State Beavers?
“Honestly…I’m not confident in much, given how the season has gone so far. The Beavers have statistically one of the worst defenses in the country and have lacked any sort of consistency on offense (they compiled just 35 yards on 18 plays in the second half of last week’s loss at Minnesota). OSU also has not won a road game since October of 2014, when Mike Riley was still the head coach. I’m not purposely trying to paint a bleak picture here, but this season has largely been a disaster for the Beavers so far.”

What has me confident in the Cougs

Next Man Up: OSU starting cornerback Xavier Crawford and nickel Dwayne Williams are both out for this game. The starting safety, Jalen Moore, is also out for the first half after a targeting ejection against Minnesota. Thomas Tyner is also out at running back.

Head coach Gary Andersen said of the injuries, “Timing's not great when you're playing Washington State in that situation, the way they throw the football. But it's an opportunity for some young kids to step up.”

Sackless: Oregon State hasn’t recorded a sack this season. In fact, they haven’t gotten any sort of pressure at all, ranking 121st in overall havoc rate.

Get Right: Falk has torched OSU in each of his last three games, and he really thrives with a clean pocket against zone defense. All of that is going for him this Saturday.

The Beaver defense isn’t very good, to put it nicely. Nearly 40 percent of opponent plays go for a first down or touchdown (122nd); they allow a 65 percent completion percentage (112th) and 14.6 yards per completion (113th); 46 points per game (128th); nearly 27 first downs and 6 TDs per game (125th and 124th, respectively); and 483.7 total yards per game (116th).

OSU, the cure for the common offense.

So ... Gina ...

What about Wazzu should concern Oregon State?

“Luke Falk and that passing attack. First, because Falk has absolutely torn up the Beavers throughout his career, throwing for more than 1,300 yards and 16 touchdowns in three games. Additionally, OSU’s secondary is depleted, with starting cornerback Xavier Crawford out with a shoulder injury, starting nickelback Dwayne Williams out with a season-ending knee injury and starting safety Jalen Moore suspended for the first half after being flagged for targeting in the second half of the Minnesota game. Filling in at those starting spots will be sophomore cornerback Jay Irvine, converted running back Kyle White and true freshman safety David Morris. Also: OSU has yet to record a sack this season.”

How I see the game playing out

This shouldn’t be close. The only real question is whether the WSU offense decides to hamstring itself again because defensively, the Beavers aren’t going to do very much to get in their way. This game should look a lot more like 2015 than 2016.

WSU comes out hot and presses with tempo on offense. OSU tries man coverage to slow receivers down who’ve been running through their zone but that only leads to big plays down the sideline to Tavares Martin Jr. and down the seam to Jamire Calvin.

Randy and/or Larry put in at least one from just outside the redzone.

The defense gets beat on a double-reverse pass or some other sort of trickeration but that’ll be about the only time OSU does anything productive. QB Jake Luton is harassed all afternoon by Hercules Mata’afa and company and forces a couple of interceptions.

Final Score: WSU 62 - 10 OSU

And Gina...

“Based on how OSU has played thus far, I can’t envision anything other than a Wazzu blowout. The Cougars’ offense should pick apart the Beavers defense, and WSU’s opportunistic defense should be able to take advantage of an OSU offense that has already committed 10 turnovers through three games. I’ll pick the Cougars 52-20, with the bulk of those OSU points coming in garbage time”.

Huge thanks to Gina for again taking the time to answer our questions. See you all in Martin.