To get an Oregon State point of view on Saturday's match-up against the Beavers in Boulder we sat down with Robert and Andy of Building the Dam for a quick Q&A. You can read our answers to their questions here.
Sean Mannion had his worst game in a long time last week. What happened that caused such a drop in performance and will OSU lean on the run game to compensate on Saturday? How balanced has the offense been all year?
Robert: Mannion's game was a little bit of a surprise, but also looking at how he has not fully excelled yet this season maybe not as surprising as first glance makes it seem. (He also did have a pretty crappy game against Sarkisian at the end of last year when he played Washington, so don't know if "long time" is totally accurate, as much as I wish it was!) Yes it was a pretty bad game overall for him; and even with how he has, I believe not totally excelled this season to his full potential he still has been fairly solid overall. Really though much of last week's performance has to do with the excellent game plan USC came in with and they played their fast and aggressive guys perfectly against the weakness of the offense and that is the OSU offensive line. OSU never adjusted to this, such as when it looked like the run game seemed to have some potential they never seemed to stay with it long enough to take SC out of their plan.
The offense has been surprisingly balanced this season so far, and this is what was so surprising in the reaction to the SC pressure. The run game features two different, but solid backs in Storm Woods and Terron Ward. Additionally, Mannion has been very good checking down to the backs coming out of the backfield and to the TEs, but they just seemed to me to get so flustered by the pressure. This seemed to lead more to the play calling trying to stretch the Trojans defense out deep, but that worked right into the SC game plan. I'm sure there was other stuff going on, such as the Beavs were without Victor Bolden, but to my view it was the initial perfect storm of SC's excellent defensive play calling, aggressive and energetic defensive execution, and a shaky front line for OSU. The Beavs just were never able to dig deep, weather the storm, and properly adjust.
As for this upcoming Saturday, I actually expect to see Mannion get a good number of reps passing the ball early to try and reestablish his confidence. Yes, they will try and run, but however the SC game turned out I think Coach Riley and Co. will want to get the run game going against Colorado to eat clock. But again I think it will be very important to get Mannion back on track and to feel confident and comfortable with his big guys protecting him. Run game will be part of this, but I don't know I just have a feeling things will be a bit more wide open earlier on than maybe expected.
Andy: Statistically, it was Mannion's worst collegiate game ever, and that's saying something, given a couple of the rough outings he had as a freshman.
I don't see that as the cause of the problems in LA as much as a symptom, though. Without Victor Bolden, the only wide receiver with any appreciable experience, Richard Mullaney, moved from his normal split end spot to flanker, a position he had never started at. Oregon St. had a first time starter at split end and a second time starter at the slot (and then had him off the field a lot due to the need to use 2 tight ends for blocking), and the combination of inexperience and the TEs being pre-occupied with blocking meant there was no passing game in the middle of the field. That was a total change from the relatively successful first 3 games.
Despite that, the first half against USC still wasn't too bad offensively (2 bad interception plays negated a lot of other stuff), and that's because Oregon St. maintained a run balance, and Woods had a solid first half.
After the Hail-Mary made it a 2 score game, the Oregon St. play calling went into panic mode, abandoning the running game, and that's when things went totally off the rails.
That got a lot of discussion, and so too has the issue with the TEs that are normally a huge part of a Mike Riley offense suddenly disappearing the last 2 weeks, not coincidentally because the Beavers have faced 2 defenses that sent a lot of blitzes from different places, which forced the adjustment of keeping 1-2 TEs in blocking.
I expect Riley, as the play-caller, to make a real effort to address these issues, even given that the WRs are still an inexperienced bunch. He could well deviate from balance, but probably because something is working and he'll shift to exploit that if it develops.
More Colorado - Oregon State
Oregon State comes in at 54th in defensive S+P (CU is 83rd), while sitting at 63rd in overall S+P (83rd). This suggests that the defense performs better than the offense, or is at least more efficient. How has the defense performed this year, especially relative to the offense? What is this defense's strength?
Robert: Oh wow, S+P? You got me with that one! Google time! Okay, stats stuff! Enough banter, and yes the defense has been performing much better than the offense so far this season. They are more experienced group overall, lots of returning people whereas the offense is missing key people like Brandin Cooks (draft) and Isaac Seumalo (injury). To me personally the defense really has been the spot to get the Beavs to a 3 and 1 record. They stepped up their game to control the second half against Portland State when the offense was struggling to gain more non-penalty yards vs. penalty yards, they pretty much controlled both Hawai'i and San Diego State, and the defense actually played a pretty decent game against USC. The SC game was an interesting, and frustrating example of how badly the offense was at doing anything but the defense kept the Beavs in it until the Trojans just wore them down because the OSU offense could not sustain any drives.
I would say the strengths go in this order: First is the secondary and it is a dynamic group of corners and safeties; and the corners are fairly deep and can cover well one-on-one, which allows the safeties to help in run and pass rush defense. Second, and a pretty close second, are the LBs and they are a solid, fast, and aggressive set of experienced guys there led by Michael Doctor and D.J. Alexander. Then comes the defensive line, and the upfront guys have been solid enough, but in my opinion this part of the defense could really improve a notch or two and make the defense even more potentially lights out.
Andy: 8 senior starters can not be over-stated as a component of why the defense has been so strong.
Safety Ty Zimmerman and CB Steven Nelson were always tremendous athletes, but both have greatly improved at the mental aspects of their craft, and are now leveraging their physical abilities, instead of relying on them.
Healthy linebackers are also much better than injured ones.
Oregon St. has had a lot of injuries at the position in recent seasons, but have a healthy 6th year senior in Michael Doctor, and a healthier than he's ever been DJ Alexander.
Who is the one player we should watch on offense and defense?
Robert: Offense = Sean Mannion. Okay, yes that seems like a lame no-brainer answer, but as I talked about above I think this is a huge bounce back game for him. He was very flustered and frustrated by USC and he needs to, and I personally expect he will have a big game.
Defense = I am going with senior CB Steven Nelson. Nelson was fairly quiet in the USC game and with what I expect will be A LOT of passes coming at the OSU defense from Colorado he is going to be a key leader back there and is going to have a good number of chances to make plays.
Andy: I'll add a couple of others to watch that should give a good read on how things are going, one way or another.
Offensively, slot receiver Hunter Jarmon had a breakout game against San Diego St. in his first start. He disappeared against USC, mostly because, as discussed above, he was out of the game a lot, due to other position group moves, not anything he wasn't doing.
If he again doesn't show up, then Oregon St. will have failed to adjust to the other issues we've already discussed. But against the Colorado secondary that, ahem, gave up a lot of passes to a lot of Golden Bears, I expect Jarmon will infact resurface, and with some important contributions.
Defensively, watch for LB Jabral Johnson. Johnson had a very good game against USC, with a game high 9 tackles, including a game high 7 solo. And it was all night long, even after the Oregon St. defense was getting worn down. The 3rd senior linebacker doesn't get as much press as Doctor and Alexander, but has been solid in the middle, quite an accomplishment considering he's always been an outside LB, and was moved to the middle in order to keep him on the field and get both Doctor and Alexander on the field as well, and to put more speed in the Beavers' mid-level.
That has "allowed" the secondary to not get out of position as much as was a problem the last couple of years, where they were often over-helping in run support, particularly the safeties.
How has this season gone so far in Corvallis? Disappointed? Surprised? How do you see the rest of the year playing out?
Robert: Well it has been a bit "quiet" in many ways. Really the San Diego State game has been the highlight, and don't get me wrong it was a very well played game on both sides of the ball by the Beavs, but it also was a little underwhelming in terms of showcasing talent like Mannion. The USC game was incredibly disappointing for how it panned out in the end, I really thought it was going to be a better overall football game. As such I think with a bit of the underwhelming wins and the lame loss last week that Beaver Nation is a bit still in "wait and see" which way this team is going to go. Guess I'll have to go there too, but going a bit more glass is half full right now and say I think there is still a lot of potential this season for OSU to make lots of noise in the Pac-12. That said I ain't taking the conference lightly at all and not sure I am seeing any "easy" conference wins this year.
Andy: Being 3-1 is right where most reasonable people in and outside the program thought the Beavers would be heading into October. The problem has been inconsistent play at times that hasn't necessarily affected game outcomes, but made some games more exciting than they were expected to be, and last week's less exciting than hoped.
Historically, this is life on the Riley rollercoaster, and has always been, but a lot of Beaver fans are hoping and expecting to see a measure of progress to move past some of the correctable mistakes, like 3 different games where Oregon St. has been penalized 13 times, and problems with clock management.
Realistically, a new offensive line, with 4 of last years' starters to be replaced, and the 5th moved, and a very young bunch of WRs that follows a group that sent 3 to the NFL in 2 years, with 2 of them, Markus Wheaton and Cooks, 2 of the best in the history of the program, and among the conference's best, should have been expected to be a little uneven in the early going.
Fans and the media are not generally known for being realistic though.
Back to back wins over Colorado and Utah will probably reinvigorate the masses to the point of predicting a win at Stanford. A split will probably result in doom and gloom to match the impending late fall weather setting in.
How does this game end?
Robert: Two scenarios I think could play out (from my Oregon State centric lens on things!). I could see this game going into another wild open Colorado passing deal with Mannion going wild himself and both teams scoring in the 40s. But I do also have confidence in the OSU defense, and being very good in pass defense I feel the defensive line could make a move upwards and combined with the already strong secondary keep the Buffaloes in check. I don't see Colorado's defense being able to replicate SC's success against Mannion, and I think the Oregon State offensive line will be on a mission to control the line of scrimmage for Mannion and the running backs.
Andy: The game will end before dark. That alone will be a new and different experience.
It might not end that much before dark though, as I expect a lot of balls in the air, as the Colorado defense is proven vulnerable to the pass, and to Mannion's types of passes. The Buff offense is also now proven to be able to air it out. I think it will be an entertaining game, after what will probably be a slow-ish start, as both teams feel things out.
Would you rather have fingers as long as your legs or legs as long as your fingers?
Robert: Ah, hmm, did I mention I like the Oregon State defense in this game?
Andy: If my fingers were as long as my legs, it would be very hard to type up these Q&A stories. But shorter legs would solve leg room issues encountered on these road trips.