To get a Oregon State point of view on Saturday's match-up against the Beavers in Corvallis we sat down with Building the Dam for a quick Q&A.
The Beavers started off with what must have been a devastating loss to Eastern Washington (who the Buffs barely beat in '08) but have rebounded nicely to rattle off three straight wins with a forgiving portion of the schedule up next. How are OSU fans feeling about the season and the team to date?
Andy: It's clearly a split decision, as there are fans that are solidly behind the team, fans that enjoyed especially the wild wins over Utah and San Diego St., and fans that recognize 3-1 and 1-0 in conference are good things. But regardless of whether the Beavers won or lost to Eastern Washington, Utah, or San Diego St., anyone can see the clear mistakes and breakdowns by the defense, and recognize that if they aren't curbed, the season will be once the Beavers encounter more better opponents.
Robert: Thinking Andy pretty much nailed it overall. Guess I would add there is a vocal group out there that I think is a bit backseat waiting for the Beavs to lose again so they can come out again, as with the loss against Eastern Washington and give everyone the "I told you so" vent. The problem of course is that Andy is totally correct and the team is giving too many indicators of poor play to totally dispel the naysayers. The cycle of fandom and football I guess!
Sean Mannion, Brandin Cooks and the passing game have been incredible so far this season. What has clicked so far that wasn't at times in 2012? What are Mannion's strengths and weaknesses and how has he grown from last season?
Andy: Maturity occurred. Mannion actually was starting to click like this last year at UCLA & Arizona, but before anybody else could notice, he got hurt. And though he came back, he was never really healed, physically or mentally. But Mannion took his shortcoming seriously in the off-season, and really went to work on them. He's physically capable again, which helps, but his decision making has become as good as anyone's. And he's not only making good decisions, he's making them quickly.
Even his mis-throws are usually going where nothing bad can happen, and his throw-aways are well thrown balls that go where they need to when they need to.
Cooks also has continued the lessons he learned from James Rodgers and Markus Wheaton to continually keep working to get better at his craft. It was apparent from day 1 on campus that this sort of season was withing reason for him to achieve, and he's been on an upward plane since then, one that's attained pretty good altitude now
Robert: Yep, totally on the same page here with Andy about the big reasons and especially that incredible pose we are seeing from Mannion this year. I would add that it is also a passing offense with multiple weapons. Richard Mullaney looks to be a star in the making as does tight end Connor Hamlett. The younger TEs, Caleb Smith and Kellen Clute look to be improving each game, heck even our non-existent run-game has somehow merged itself into the passing offense! Sorry, I do agree with Andy below that we have seen some glimpses from the running game.
One thing missing from Andy's analysis here, which he has nicely articulated elsewhere is the offensive line and they are a patchwork at best, but they overall have been fantastic in protecting Mannion. Right now even the bad offensive performances for the Beavs in the passing game are still impressive.
While the passing attack has thrived the rushing attack has struggled. What's not working with the ground game?
Andy: The offensive line has been shuffled and re-shuffled. Injuries and illness has taken 4 players out of the rotation, and forced several others to change position, some more than once in the same game. So we have a true freshman in Sean Harlow and a couple of guys who had never played before this year in Josh Mitchell and Grant Bays. It's actually a testament that their pass protection has been as good as it has.
Compounding the problem, Storm Woods suffered a concussion against Utah, and missed last week's game at San Diego St., and fullback Tyler Anderson, who was just getting back up to speed after an ACL injury last year, missed the SD St. game, and will probably miss this week's as well, with a pulled hamstring.
The numbers are skewed further by the passing game's success though. There actually have been some crucial productive running game plays, but when Mannion and Cooks are performing at record book pace, and you are in a game where you need every point you can get, it just makes sense to keep letting Mannion complete passes. Why take the ball out of the hands of the best weapons you have?
Robert: Offensive line and being a patchwork = check, Woods' injury = check, passing game emphasis = check. Agree with all Andy has said above.
Injuries have taken a big toll on the Beaver offensive line so far this season. Who will the Buffs defensive line actually be going up against on Saturday?
Andy: The left side of the o-line is solid with Michael Phillip at LT and Josh Andrews at LG. Josh Mitchell suffered a foot injury in the second quarter at San Diego St., and only got back to practice Thursday. He could be a game time decision, and if he plays, we'll have to see how long he can go.
If Mitchell can play, he'll be at center and Isaac Seumalo will be out at RT. If Mitchell can't go, Seumalo will go back to center. If Seumalo is at tackle, Grant Bays will be at guard; if Seumalo must go back to center, Bays slides out to RT, and Sean Harlow will be in at RG.
Gavin Andrews, who is recovering from mononucleosis, just returned to practice, and may see spot action, but he may also not be ready until after the bye the week after the Buffs game.
The Beavers defense has been shaky so far this year. What hasn't worked on that side of the ball and what players do Buffs fans need to keep an eye on?
Andy: Oregon St. has changed every starter in the LB group due to injuries (coming and going) and coaches' decisions. And the secondary is still trying to figure out who is the "quarterback" of the defense in place of Jordan Poyer; someone who can make all the on-field adjustments just before and at the time of the snap.
The defense has been guilty of over-rotation, loss of containment, bad angles, and not realizing what the matchup of the guy beside you is facing when making your read and decision, and then having to chase as a result.
That said, the defense has also had some huge plays, with pick-6s the last 2 weeks, by Sean Martin against Utah, and Steven Nelson last week with the game winner at San Diego St. Nelson co-leads the country with 4 ints, and his speed has a lot to do with it. He's still learning to play the position, and has been burned at times, but his speed got him on the field, and no one else in the stadium would have made either of the interceptions he had against Utah.
Robert: Totally, the lack of the defensive "QB" has been crucial. Yes to injuries, such as losing Michael Doctor, has been important too. I am starting to feel like it is creating a spiral deal, where now we have certain areas of the defense and individual players trying too hard to make up for it as individuals versus trying to bring the entire team up to standards. They then try to over-compensate and then get out of position, others try and compensate for them, and so on and on. Lots of calls for Banker's job and I think we are at the stage where some sound coaching needs to happen along with that on-the-field leadership to settle things back down.
So what do Buffs fans that may or may not be making the trip need to know about Corvallis?
Andy: Typical small, college town. Plenty of good restaurants, but not a lot of other excitement. Parking will be a problem Saturday morning, so arrive early and be ready to hike.
Reser will be reasonably raucous, despite some defection of band-wagon fans, because it's move in week, and the student section will be large and loud. It's also the first time the full marching band (about 280 strong) will be there, so OSU first downs and Colorado third downs will be very noisy. The Buffs better be ready for chain saws.
Robert: First week back for the OSU students, 'nuff said!
Final prediction on the outcome and how it all plays out?
Andy: I expect another shootout along the lines of the San Diego St. game. Mannion and the Oregon St. offense will put up points, but I think Connor Wood and Paul Richardson will too. If Wood breaks containment, the Buffs have a real shot, because the Beavs can't contain a mobile creative quarterback.
In the end though, I think Wood's relative inexperience, and the home field advantage, will become factors, and Mannion will engineer a big 4th quarter scoring drive. If I had to bet, I say take the Beavers to win, but the Buffs to cover. Oregon St. is a 10 point favorite, but I can see this being a 34-27 game.
Robert: Well, finally going to go against Andy here! I think OSU will be a bit rough and nervous in front of the big loud student crowd at first so it could be tight for a bit, but I feel this is a tougher game for Colorado than people, I mean besides the points spread people, are thinking because of the struggles of the OSU team so far. Colorado will be coming off a long lay-off and it is the first conference game for the new staff with the old players, and in on the road venue that will more energy than I think the Buffaloes team may expect from a small town. Colorado does have an unknown component to it for the Beavs, this it is the first match up between the two since Colorado joined up and they are an improved team over last year. So I'm not discounting at all Colorado, and I will be on pins-and-needles come noon PST Saturday.
But in the end, and not trying to be disrespectful (!), I just feel the Beavs have the depth (yes even with the injuries), the really big stars in Mannion and Cooks, and the home field. I think, for some irrational reason probably, that this game has a good potential for the OSU defense to actually step up more than we are expecting coming in. As such it will take a near perfect game on the Buffaloes part or a huge brainfart game on the Beavs part (especially if the offense does not show up mentally) for me to think OSU would not take control of this game in the second half. I think it is going to be a tough match up for Colorado. (I don't predict scores, that comes back to you in the afterlife I heard.)