Roll On: Previewing the Oregon State Defense

Oregon St. might be the Pac-12 team I know least about.  They’re young, with tons of new players.  They’ve rarely been on TV in the Bay Area, and when they have it’s overlapped with the Cal game.  I watched the first quarter of their game against Wisconsin and the last five or 10 minutes of their game against Arizona . . . and that’s it.

So the first thing I did to preview the defense was to study the depth chart.  I recognized one name, and unfortunately that one name only jumped out because Jordan Poyer is the latest guy to give Chris Owusu a concussion.  There are only three players on the defense with more than nine career starts, which means the other eight guys are all regular starters for the first time this year.

After hearing that you’re probably thinking, "Damn, why couldn’t we have gotten the Beavers early in the year, before the new guys got nine games of experience?!?"  Well, it’s true that Oregon St. isn’t nearly as bad as the team that lost to Sac St., but other than a blow out win over Washington St. (who, as it turns out, is still Washington St.) OSU has been outplayed in every game.  Only a turnover storm gave the Beavers a home win over Arizona, and that was so embarrassing it ended the Stoops era.

Oregon St. is so bad this year that every team they beat will probably fire their coach at some point before the end of next year.  Cal had better not end up in that category.

Defensive Line: Fr. L End Dylan Wynn ; Jr. L Tackle Andrew Seumalo ; Sr. R Tackle Kevin Frahm ; Fr. R End Scott Crichton

You’ve got a true freshman (Wynn) a red shirt freshman (Crichton) and a walk-on (Seumalo). That’s usually not the formula for a fearsome defensive line.  Crichton has actually had a pretty solid season and will likely be a pain in our butts for the next three years.  10 tackles for loss, 4 sacks and 4 fumbles forced from a freshman is pretty legit.  Unfortunately for him his teammates on the line haven’t done much of anything else – the other three starters have a combined 1 sack.

Linebackers: Sr. SLB Cameron Collins, Jr. MLB Feti ‘Unga, So. WLB Michael Doctor

Doctor is the guy that can hurt you (Oh the irony!).  He’s been filling up the stat sheet with tackles, interceptions, sacks and pass breakups all year, which suggests an impressive degree of versatility from any linebacker, let alone a sophomore.  Another guy that will probably annoy us for a few years. 

Collins is the veteran of the unit but has, like many OSU players, missed time due to injuries.  Similarly, Unga has missed OSU’s last three games and his status is unknown.  If Unga can’t play then Jr. Rueben Robinson will likely start in his place.

Secondary: Jr. LCB Jordan Poyer, Jr. S Anthony Watkins, Sr. S Lance Mitchell, So. RCB Rashaad Reynolds

Watkins and Mitchell are both some of the leading tacklers on the OSU defense – never a good sign when your safeties are both high on that list.  Redshirt safety Ryan Martin is the nickel back, though with Cal likely to run the ball I wouldn’t think OSU would send out the nickel package except on obvious passing downs.

Poyer is the one to watch.  He’s got three picks on the year, 12 pass break-ups and 15 passes defended.  Those are numbers that could lead to all-conference consideration, and as Stanford can attest he can deliver the big hit.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see him lined up against Keenan Allen.  If that’s the case it would be nice to see Marvin Jones get involved a little more.

Against the run

4.45 yards/attempt,  76th in the nation

Not good, not awful.  For comparison’s sake, Cal’s rushing attack is similar in quality to Arizona St.’s.  Sun Devil running backs averaged 5.5 yards/carry against Oregon St.  Also for comparison’s sake – Oregon St.’s run defense is only marginally better than Washington St.’s run defense. 

"But Nick" you ask, "Surely Oregon St.’s run defense should have an advantage because they know we want to run first, so they’ll stack the box and force Maynard to throw!"  Well, that’s a fair point, kind reader.  It was my concern as well.  But there’s two reasons that doesn’t scare me.  For one, our WRs are just too good to allow a team to truly stack the box.  KA21 will make you pay. 

For another, look at OSU’s game against Utah.  The Utes without their starting QB have to be the prototypical ‘stack the box, force them to beat your through the air’ team, right?  Yet against the Beavers John White carried the ball 35 times for 205 yards while Jon Hays threw for 62 yards on 16 attempts.  Utah ran the ball SEVENTY FIVE PERCENT OF THE TIME and still Oregon St. couldn’t stop them.  Color me unimpressed.

Against the pass

7.7 yards/attempt, 88th in the nation

Beyond that iffy yards/attempt, Oregon St. has allowed opponents to complete 64.5 percent of their passes, which is pretty bad.  That implies to me that the defense tends to play back but allows receivers to come open underneath.  That the Beavers have been reasonably successful at preventing big pass plays despite games against Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson adds some credence to the idea.

But in the end it’s the same story as the UCLA and Washington St. games – guys will be open.  If Utah/Wazzu Maynard shows up we’ll move the ball.  If USC/UCLA Maynard is on the field we won’t.

Stats of Dubious Predictive Value

Turnovers

17 total turnovers forced (9 fumbles, 8 interceptions), 40th in the nation.

7 of those 17 turnovers came in Oregon State’s only two wins of the season over Arizona and Washington St.  The message is clear.  Oregon St. is not good enough to win most games without a significant advantage in turnover margin.

3rd Down

47.37% opponent conversion rate, 102nd in the nation.

Red Zone

81.08 opponent touchdown rate, 119th in the nation

Only the mighty men from New Mexico prevent the Beavers from having the worst red zone touchdown prevention rate in the nation.  I can’t even begin to guess what it is about OSU that makes them so bad in this metric (other than random chance), but there you have it.  Cal’s red zone ‘struggles’ have been overstated because of those two horrible games against Washington and Oregon, but it’s still nice to see such a high number next to Oregon State.

Conclusions

Looking at the stats, it’s been a long, slow steady decline in performance for Oregon State’s defense.  Consider:

Yards allowed/play by year:

2007: 4.5 (7th in the nation)
2008: 5.0 (37th)
2009: 5.4 (54th)
2010: 5.7 (69th)
2011: 5.8 (81st)

Every year people would wonder if Mike Riley’s inexplicable run of successful teams would end.  How could OSU keep getting such production from players with relatively little regard coming out of high school?  OSU has been sending unheralded players to the pros for the last few years, but finally they haven’t been able to replace that production.  On defense there have been gradually diminishing returns as that talent graduated.  Combine that with a weaker offense last year and especially this year, and the bottom fell out.  Now OSU is 2-7, and it's not an unlucky fluke - it’s the record they deserve.

Does that mean that Cal should win?  Yes.  Does that mean that Cal will win?  Hell if I know.  But if Cal loses it won’t be to the same OSU teams that have beaten Cal in years past.  It will be to a young, injury-ravaged, talent-starved outfit.  It would be baaaaad.  It would likely cost this team a bowl, multiple weeks of practice, any kind of positive feelings that might have developed in the off-season . . . Gotta win this game.  Not doing so would be disastrous.

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