Oregon State has been the surprise of the Pac-12 this year. The surprise has not been that they are winning, but that they do not seem to have a formula for winning. They beat Wisconsin in a defensive struggle that was all about stopping the run and they beat ASU and Arizona in high scoring affairs where speed and big plays were on display. OSU found a way to over come injuries, winning with two different quarterbacks and with two different starting running backs.
One of the reasons that Oregon State is winning despite injuries to quarterbacks and running backs is the play of their two wide receivers: Markus Wheaton (#2) and Brandin Cooks (#7). OSU Head Coach, Mike Riley, finds ways to get the ball to his play makers, whether through the air or on the ground. This play is incredibly simple, yet it is effective. Oregon State is lined up with a single back, quarterback (Sean Mannion #4) under center, a Tight End is tight to the left of the line with an H-back just outside of him, and two wide receivers split wide to the right (including Brandin Cooks who is at the bottom of the screen). Washington has four Defensive linemen, a linebacker over the Tight End, two middle linebackers, a single defensive back at the top of the screen (opposite the H-back), and two DBs at the bottom of the screen with a single deep safety. Washington is in Man-to-Man coverage.
At the snap Cooks moves laterally right, Mannion takes a one step drop and immediately throws to Cooks. The receiver next to Cooks runs down field and blocks the DB responsible for covering Cooks. The beauty of the play is that the other (circled) DB moves toward this blocking receiver in coverage until he realizes where the ball is going, then he tries to get to Cooks, but by then his angle is all wrong and Cooks burns by him with speed. The Safety takes a bad angle as well and this is a touchdown. The other players do stuff but they don't matter, the pass is so quick that no one can get near Mannion and Cooks is so fast that no one inside the hash marks can catch him.
Oregon State will also run an End Around play to either Cooks or Markus Wheaton. In many offenses this would be a trick play but in the Beavers' offense it is a staple. They ran the play at least three times against ASU and once against Stanfurd. This example is an end around to Wheaton (#2) who is lined up to the right (at the bottom of the screen). The OSU formation is very similar to the previous play: single back, TE tight left with H-back next to him and QB under center; the difference is that the receivers are on opposite sides of the field. Arizona State has four D-linemen and I have labeled the rest of the defense for convenience. The key ASU personnel will be the Defensive End (circled), the Linebacker outside of him and the Safety on that side of the field (top of the screen).
Before the snap, Wheaton comes in motion, at near full speed and when the ball is snapped he is in position to get a quick hand-off. The TE and H-back move to block the LB on the end of the line, the LB recognizes the End Around and fights to keep "outside leverage" (he does not allow himself to get blocked away from the sideline) in order to force the run back towards the middle. The Safety also recognizes the End Around and he runs up outside of the LB in support. The corner at the top of the screen is in Man coverage and Cooks runs him 20 yards down field before the CB realizes the play is a run. The DE is left unblocked by the Left Tackle, but the DE takes a moment to figure out whether this play is a fake to Wheaton and an inside hand-off and by the time the DE realizes it is not a fake Wheaton is gone.
I am sure that either the H-back or the TE was responsible for blocking the Safety but the Safety blocks himself. Wheaton cuts the run inside, his Left Tackle initially moved to block the LB in the middle but when he saw that the LB was not heading where the run was going the LT headed further down field to find another target.
Oregon State is so good at recognizing their assignments that it is obvious this play is practiced every week. The blitz alignment of ASU did not confuse them at all. Mike Riley has designed both of these plays to take advantage of the speed of Wheaton and Cooks (though Wheaton isn't quite as fast as he looks in the GIF, I had to speed it up to keep the size down).
The last play I want to look at is something that I had not seen before. Arizona State put an immense amount of pressure on the quarterback and managed to get four sacks in the first half. Oregon State made some pass protection changes at halftime and the following play is one of them. To understand this pass protection you have to know something about Mike Riley and the running game he likes to use. Riley was the offensive coordinator for John Robinson's USC teams from 1993-96, those teams used a lot of pulling linemen in the running game and it is something Riley continues to do today.
Here is how the teams lined up. By now we are used to this OSU formation: Single back, H-back and tight end to the right, two receivers. The receiver at the bottom of the screen will motion pre-snap to the hash mark and the DB on that side will follow while the Safety comes up into blitz position.
I want to look at the pass protection instead of the routes so I will focus in on the tackle box. Will Sutton has wreaked havoc on offenses all year and OSU was having their share of problems with him.
At the snap ASU comes with a Safety Zone Blitz where the linebacker on the opposite side drops into zone coverage. ASU has five rushers. Oregon State is pulling two linemen (circled), the left guard and the right tackle, the both look to be heading to the right while the Quarterback shows the ball like he is going to hand it off, this reads like a running play.
In fact this is a Slide Left, Max Protect blocking scheme. The Center and Left Tackle both block Sutton and the right Guard, Tight End and H-back all block down (to their left). The running back, after his run fake, blocks the last man on the line of scrimmage. The pulling right Tackle blocks the blitzing Safety while the pulling left Guard gets into position to block anyone blitzing up the middle.
The ball hits the receiver in the hands but he is unable to to catch the ball.
This is a clever way to mix play action into a maximum protection pass blocking scheme. Mike Riley uses his tendencies to set up play action in the red zone. Oregon State is clever and they execute well which has let to their success.
How did Oregon State lose to Washington and Stanfurd? OSU started Sean Mannion against the Huskies even though he was still recovering from knee surgery. He threw four interceptions and was ultimately replaced by Cody Vaz who nearly led a comeback. Washington also managed to knock Wheaton out of the game early with a concussion. Stanfurd, on the other hand, did something that few teams have been able to do against the Beavers: run the ball. OSU (including the Stanfurd game) has allowed 3.3 yards per carry on the season and has held opponents to just 99 yards rushing per game on average; Stanfurd ran for 162 yards (including sacks) for 4.2 yards per carry. Oregon State looked unprepared for Stanfurd QB Kevin Hogan who showed that he can run as well as pass (the Ducks will have to get ready for him this week).
What will we see from Oregon State on Saturday? Well, if Cody Vaz was playing I would say we could expect lots of sacks and fumbles. But Vaz is hurt and Mannion is starting. What we can expect from Sean Mannion depends on the health of his knee: if he is still recovering I would look for some weak throws and chances for interceptions, if his knee is recovered then we can expect Cal's secondary to be chasing down Cooks and Wheaton.
I hope we see Cal run the ball, create turnovers and get some sacks. If not, we may be treated to the new victory celebration in Corvalis: a sighting of Future Burger Flippers in the Beavers' student section (I'll have the Double Darth Maul, Sith Style).
This is the last of the Rest of the Pac Breakdown posts for the season. I have some ideas of things to post about in the off-season, I hope I can find the time to write them. I never expected to write more than a single post, much less a post every week of the season, it was your positive responses that have been my motivation to continue posting. Thank you.