Last Saturday in Berkeley, Sefo Liufau and the Buffs' offense put together a performance for the ages, amassing 449 yards passing and 8 total touchdowns. Unfortunately it wasn't enough to win, coming up 3 missed field goals, a 4th quarter interception, and 4 failed attempts at the goal line short. On the other side of the ball Colorado's defense was unable to contain Cal's Bear Raid, exhibiting shoddy tackling and poor coverage.
In Los Angeles, Sean Mannion and the Beavs were completely shut down by the Trojan defense, managing only 3 offensive points and 181 total yards. Oregon State's defense held up as long as it could without receiving any help from their offense, holding USC to 261 yards through the air but ultimately surrendering 35 points.
Instead of one crucial matchup, I think this game comes down to two. Which defense will do a better job of defending against the pass?
When Colorado Has The Ball
Oregon State's defense has been somewhat of a quiet strength this season. They come into this week ranked 16th in the nation in total defense, putting them 2nd in the Pac-12 behind only Stanford. They have experience within each unit and are fundamentally sound in their positioning and execution. However, in their first conference game of 2014 they weren't able to fully contain the USC Trojan offense, eventually wearing down and allowing 26 first downs and 461 total yards.
OSU will first look to get after the Buffaloes at the line of scrimmage. The Beavers go two deep down the line, with upperclassmen at each spot but they'll be without the services of two key cogs at defensive tackle. Junior Jalen Grimble is scheduled to have arthroscopic surgery on his left knee while sophomore Noke Tago's knee injury is expected to be season ending. This means Brandon Bennett-Jackson and Ali'i Robins, both juniors, will see increased action in the middle. Against USC, this defensive line caused havoc before Grimble and Tago went down, creating pressure in the backfield and stuffing the run, allowing just 13 yards on the ground through the first half. With this new rotation, it looks like senior end Dylan Wynn will move inside more often in an attempt to continue containing the run. It remains to be seen whether these new combinations can create an effective pass rush.
The Beavers also boast experience in the secondary, starting four upperclassmen. Seniors Steven Nelson and Tyrequek Zimmerman lead the defensive backs with two interceptions each on the year and 21 and 20 total tackles respectively. Zimmerman, however, didn't look 100% against USC and was spelled by Cyril Noland-Lewis who finished the game with six solo tackles. Senior SAM linebacker Michael Doctor is perhaps OSU's best defensive player, he's able to effectively drift into pass coverage and put pressure on the line with his size and speed. Liufau will have to read where he's going before every snap. Holding a talented and athletic USC offense to 261 yards passing, in the Coliseum, is a fairly decent accomplishment. The defensive backs that Liufau's receivers will be running with are a step up talent-wise from Cal's embattled secondary.
For Oregon State defensively, this one is going to come down to line play. CU still has yet to truly establish it's ground game, success there continues to come in fits and starts. Assuming Christian Powell doesn't run wild between the tackles, the Buffs will again be led by the Nelson Spruce Show. OSU's best chance of slowing this train down is getting consistent and heavy pressure on Sefo in the pocket. They're going to have to get there quickly, as Liufau demonstrated an improved ability to step up and deliver in traffic while being hurried against Cal. Otherwise, the Buffs' offense could be looking at another large day through the air.
When Oregon State Has The Ball
Sean Mannion will likely go down as one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks in Oregon State history. He's thrown for 11,462 yards and 72 touchdowns in his 39-game career. Naturally, the Beaver offense goes as he goes, and in their first game against Pac-12 opposition, they did not go. Mannion managed only 123 passing yards and 3 points, while also throwing a pick-six in the 1st quarter. The offense was restricted by the absence of its best target, Victor Bolden, who is currently listed as questionable for Saturday's game while he heals from a dislocated finger. Without him, the Beavs lack a true downfield threat and as a result USC's athletic defense was able to key on the screens and smother the shorter routes. Redshirt freshman Hunter Jarmon could eventually emerge into a threat from the slot but he finished with only one grab last Saturday night, while Mannion's best option was big Richard Mullaney who made some nice plays on OSU's only scoring drive. It looks like speedy Rahmel Dockery will return from a hip pointer to face the Buffs, adding some much needed variety to Oregon State's passing attack.
On the ground, Storm Woods is Mike Riley's first option, but he's often interchanged with Terron Ward. Oregon State is mostly a pass-centric offense but they do try to stay fairly balanced. Woods and Ward have combined for 525 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns through 4 games, although almost all of that production came against significantly inferior competition. If the Colorado defensive front can hold those two backs down, the Beavers become a tad more predictable.
The Colorado secondary got torched last weekend in Berkeley but that wasn't much of a surprise. What was a bit surprising was how evident it became that Tedric Thompson is crucial to this defense. Before leaving the game, he was flying around making tackles and his aggressive play led to two big (Mac can't comment but I will, that was a fumble) turnovers. After Thompson departed with a contusion, the secondary began to get gashed and Cal opened up the middle of the field. Fortunately for the Buffs, he's slated to return against the Beavers.
Kenneth Crawley turned in another solid performance, limiting mistakes and breaking up a few deep balls while John Walker made a few plays himself at the nickelback position. Somewhat surprisingly, Greg Henderson got uncharacteristically beat twice for touchdowns. This trio will need to put together a strong showing on Saturday to continue to frustrate Mannion and disrupt the Beavers' passing game, which this season does not have the weapons that Cal possesses.
Colorado's offense is absolutely flying right now, and while I expect the Beavers to offer much more resistance, I think the passing numbers will continue to pile up for the Buffs. Oregon State's offense will likely not be shut down again like they were in L.A. Mannion will have more time to find windows as CU's defensive line is not at all comparable to what the Trojans brought up front and the return of Dockery will help open up the field. This one won't be a shootout on the order of last weekend, but OSU's offense is going to present some problems. Ultimately, I think the Beavers' losses up front hamper their defensive efforts and CU's receivers continue to find ways to get open. Sefo gets the time he needs to move the ball downfield to put the Buffs ahead while the CU secondary gets an extra stop or two to keep them there.