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PREVIEW: More than you need to know about the Cougs vs. Beavs

It’s the Washington State Cougars vs. the Oregon State Beavers with bowl eligibility on the line.

Washington State v Oregon State Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Washington State Cougars look to clinch bowl eligibility and deal a major blow to Oregon State’s own bowl hopes when the two teams meet in Martin Stadium on Saturday night (6 pm, Pac-12 Network). The Cougs and Beavs both sit at 5-5 with two games to play, and both face a daunting task in the season finale.

Each program arrived at 5-5 quite differently. The Cougs started the season hot at 3-0, but have struggled to a 2-5 record in Pac-12 play. Oregon State started slow out the gate, going 1-2 in conference play. The Beavers have turned it up during league play, winning four of seven games to put themselves on the brink of their first bowl since 2013.

WSU faced a similar game with a loser-out sort of feel last week against Stanford, and came away with a decisive victory. OSU head coach Jonathan Smith brings in what is likely a more formidable foe this week, particularly on offense.

Let’s look at the key players and trends for Oregon State as they head to Pullman.

When Oregon State has the ball...

Like most teams this season, the Beavs pass the ball much more than they run—about 53 percent of the time (that number counts sacks as pass plays). However, it has been the Oregon State rushing attack that has been more explosive and more consistently successful overall.

OSU is 17th in rushing success rate—staying ahead of the chains with 49 percent of its runs. Much of that success has been driven by two guys—Jermar Jefferson and Artavis Pierce.

Jefferson had a big game against the Cougs last season and began this year as the workhorse back. However, injuries have limited him to seven games and given Pierce the opportunity. Pierce has been the more effective back overall, averaging 5.9 yards per attempt on 135 carries while Jefferson had logged 4.7 per carry on his 101 chances.

The Beavers are 50th nationally in explosive rush rate, garnering one 10 percent of carries. Pierce is the key driver there, as he has picked up 10 or more yards on 17 percent of his carries. Jefferson grabs 10 or more just under 12 percent of the time.

Pierce has more-or-less split carries with Jefferson for the last three games, so expect a nice dose of both on Saturday against a WSU defense that is woeful against the run—99th in rushing success rate against and 117th in explosive rush rate against.

That Cougar defense isn’t good against the pass either—they made Devon Modster and Davis Mills look elite the last two weeks. WSU is 89th is passing success rate allowed, 114th in explosive pass rate allowed, and 103rd in success rate allowed on passing downs.

Oregon State is no slouch in the passing game. Jake Luton has completed 63 percent of his passes for 7.3 yards per attempt, 23 touchdowns, and just two interceptions. He’s helped drive the 42nd best passing success rate nationally.

Luton’s favorite target is far-and-away former WSU commit Isaiah Hodgins. The junior wideout has 73 catches, about a third of the team’s total completions. Hodgins has used those opportunities to gain 1021 yards and score 13 touchdowns. Luton will look his way often, and even with that knowledge, teams have struggled to stop him.

Wide receivers Champ Flemings (27 catches, 325 yards) and Trevon Bradford (7 catches, 68 yards in three games) will likely see a few balls head their way, along with tight end Noah Togiai. The running back Pierce is also a solid safety valve out of the backfield.

OSU’s passing game hasn’t been an explosive one—107th in explosive pass rate. However, as we reiterate pretty much every week, that generally doesn’t matter against WSU’s secondary.

What really matters against the WSU defense is performance in scoring opportunities and the red zone. It came into play big time against Stanford last week, where the Cardinal came up empty several times when traveling inside the WSU 40.

That had been typical of Stanford’s offense throughout the season. With the Beavers, it is a much different story. While Oregon State is just 73rd in the rate at which they drive inside the opposing 40 (just under half of their drives), they convert those opportunities to touchdowns 75 percent of the time—2nd best nationally. When the Beavs get into the redzone, they get into the endzone a 85 percent of the time (best in the country).

Wazzu’s only relative defensive strength this season has been limiting touchdowns once teams get closer to the goal line. That will be put to a major test against the Oregon State offense. Don’t expect Smith to bail the Cougs out by kicking on some 4th-and-shorts inside the 40 either, he’s almost certainly going to go for it.

The Cougs will probably pick up a couple sacks and a couple other tackles-for-loss throughout the game. The timing of those will be highly important.

When WSU has the ball...

Let’s start with the most terrifying thing about Oregon State’s defense: The Beavers have logged 80 tackles for loss this season, good for 12th nationally. A significant portion of those have come from junior linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr., who has logged 22.5. He also has 14 of the team’s 29 total sacks.

However, with all those tackles for loss, this has still been a bad defense overall. The Beavers are 89th in success rate overall against, including 75th on standard downs and 115th on passing downs. Even when they put teams in difficult situations with a sack or stuffed run, they can’t get themselves off the field.

WSU’s offense, on the other hand, has only given up 31 total tackles for loss this season, second-fewest nationally. That’s a strength neutralizing a strength. Everywhere else, the Cougs can certainly exploit Oregon State’s weaknesses.

Wazzu is third nationally in success rate, including second on standard downs and fourth on passing downs. WSU is third in passing success rate against Oregon State’s defense that is ranked 80th in passing success rate allowed. The Cougs are ninth in rushing success rate against OSU’s 98th-worst rushing success rate against.

One place where things could slow down for WSU? The Cougs are 34th in redzone touchdown. Still good, but not elite. The Beavs are 46th in redzone touchdown rate allowed, one of their strongest attributes. If Oregon State can hold a couple times in the redzone, that could make a big difference.

Still, expect the Cougs to drive the ball at will again, and expect them to put up a lot of points.

The Bottom Line

This matchup was a shootout last year, with WSU pulling away in the fourth quarter. The Beavers pulled out a few tricks in that game, so it will be interesting to see if they do that again on the road with bowl eligibility on the line.

One thing I don’t touch on enough in these previews is special teams. WSU has done well in kick returns and place kicking this season. The Beavers haven’t been quite as good on returns, so that may be a field position advantage for the Cougs.

However, the most interesting thing is that Oregon State seems to have abandoned field goals. The Beavers are going to go for it in scoring range, and that should be a scary proposition for a WSU defense that struggles to stop teams and get off the field on third down, let alone that extra fourth down.

If Leach finds himself kicking field goals on 4th-and-shorts again, he might be watching his defense give up sevens while his offense is putting up threes. The Beavs are using all of their downs to score TDs, and that has to play a factor into why they are performing so well in scoring opportunities.

The advanced stats and Vegas like the Cougs. Bill Connelly’s SP+ predicts a 44-27 WSU win. Vegas opened favoring the Cougs by 12.5, that has since dropped to 10.5. Wazzu’s offense is at least a notch better, and the defenses are roughly equivalently bad. However, there are a lot of things to worry about for the Cougs.

WSU has to finish drives with touchdowns. The defense needs to step up and stop a couple fourth downs, and hopefully get a timely sack to force a three-and-out once in a while. Limiting explosives would help, particularly if WSU can get the Beavs to stall out prior to midfield.

The Cougs have played very well in its last couple games at home, but Oregon State has posted all but one its conference wins on the road. It should be a high scoring, stressful game. What else, with bowl eligibility on the line?