Before the raid: Previewing the Oregon State Defense

None of this on Saturday, please. - James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Can Jared Goff and the Cal offense get back on track at home this Saturday? I sure as hell hope so!

You're probably feeling down and out, fellow Cal fan! Have three straight iffy offensive performances after explosive games against Cal's non-conference schedule have left you doubting? Well, I have some good news! Oregon State's defense is probably one of the weakest Cal will face this season. The Bears badly need something positive to hang their hats on, and they will be given an opportunity to start building something this week. Let's take a look and try to find those elusive rays of sunshine.

Personnel

Defensive Line: Jr. DE Dylan Wynn; Sr. DT John Braun; Jr. DT Mana Rosa; Jr. DE Scott Crichton

Crichton and Wynn are both veterans who terrorized a broken Cal team at the end of the 2012 season. I'd like to think that they won't be nearly as successful against a, shall we say, more interested Cal team this year. This year they have combined for just 2.5 sacks against some teams that throw an awful lot of passes, so it's a bit surprising that the numbers aren't better. And what few sacks the OSU line has gotten have mostly come against non Pac-12 opponents. Hopefully our line is up to performing like a Pac-12 offensive line should.

Rosa and Braun are both new starters on the inside, so I could imagine that OSU's ends are having trouble producing because their tackles aren't demanding as much attention as last year's starters did. It's a decent theory for a lack of production you'd expect against OSU's schedule.

Linebackers: Jr. LB D.J. Alexander; Fr. LB Rommel Mageo; Jr.. LB Jabral Johnson

From an experience point of view, probably the weak link in the defense. Losing two year starter and 2012 leading tackler Michael Doctor really hurt, and as a result D.J. Alexander is the only returning starter. Ineffectiveness from previous MLB starter Joel Skotte forced Mageo into the lineup as a freshman, but he'll probably be the first guy removed from the field when OSU plays their nickel package . . . which might be every play of the game. After starting against Colorado, Mageo didn't even record a tackle against Wazzu because Oregon State had five defensive backs on the field for the entire game.

The trio listed above have combined to record just five tackles for loss, one sack, no interceptions, one pass break up and no forced fumbles. That's bad. OSU's linebackers are, at least in terms of what is recorded on a stat sheet, providing near zero value to their team.

Secondary: Jr. CB Steven Nelson OR Sr. CB Sean Martin; Jr. FS Ryan Murphy; Jr. SS Tyrequek Zimmerman; Sr. CB Rashaad Reynolds

The only change in the secondary from the defense that was in the top 25 statistically against the pass? Losing all everything cornerback Jordan Poyer. As great as he was, you wouldn't think that would lead to something like the Eastern Washington game, not when you have three upperclass returning starters and two other veterans ready to step in. But for whatever reason, OSU's pass defense has struggled. I suspect that reason is that their linebackers are providing zero support in pass coverage, but that can't be all of it, can it?

Nelson and Martin are both listed as starters, and since OSU is likely to only play Nickle I'd expect both to be on the field for essentially the entire game. Nelson actually has five interceptions and 31 tackles through six games, which is quite a lot of production from a cornerback, which indicates to me that he's either really talented or opposing defenses have been targeting him constantly.

This Year

8.8 yards/play allowed in a 49-46 loss vs. Eastern Washington
4.2 yards/play allowed in a 33-14 win vs. Hawaii
7.5 yards/play allowed in a 51-48 overtime win at Utah
7.1 yards/play allowed in a 34-30 win at San Diego State
4.3 yards/play allowed in a 44-17 win vs. Colorado
5.0 yards/play allowed in a 52-24 win at Washington State

What you see above you is three just awful defensive performances, two acceptable performances against two awful offenses (Hawaii and Colorado) and one pretty decent performance, last week against Washington State. It didn't look like a decent performance when Wazzu scored to go up 24-17 midway through the 3rd quarter, but Oregon State forced a flurry of turnovers that you may or may not give them much credit for, depending on your opinion of Connor Halliday. You can watch them all here if you want to decide for yourself.

Against the Run

FYI: We're finally far enough into the year that we can dump increasingly misleading 2012 stats from the equation and focus solely on what Cal's opponents have accomplished this year.

4.23 yards allowed/attempt, 73rd in the nation

A surprisingly weak number, not because I expect OSU to have an amazing rush defense, but because when you look at OSU's schedule you don't see many teams known for strong rushing attacks. Eastern Washington is probably the 2nd best rushing team on the schedule! Washington State found a ton of success moving the ball on the ground and actually ran 22 times, which might make a Cal fan optimistic about what the Bears can do against Oregon State's nickel package.

Against the Pass

7.3 yards allowed/attempt, 74th in the nation

An ugly number that would be even uglier had Oregon State not held the Cougars to a paltry 4.9 yards/attempt last week. Mike Riley's Air Raid strategy, based on my brief highlight viewing, was to simply flood the secondary with as many bodies as he could throw out there. I don't know if he'll do the same this week, but it's obviously going to be absolutely paramount that Goff doesn't get baited into throws that can be picked. It would be great if Cal could rediscover the deep ball that went missing last week - I think that's something Cal's offense can do pretty well that Washington State can't.

Advanced Stats

S&P 2013

Total Defense

Standard Downs

Passing Downs

Run Defense

Pass Defense

National Rank

96

81

106

99

79


FEI+ total defensive efficiency rank: 40th in the nation

There are two very interesting wrinkles to note in Oregon State's advanced defense profile:

1. A gigantic discrepancy between OSU's S&P ranking and OSU's FEI+ ranking. There is typically a pretty decent correlation between both stats, since they're attempting to measure the same thing with slightly different focuses. S&P is focused more on the success or failure of any given play. FEI is focused more on the outcomes of each drive.

One possible explanation for the difference? FEI+ doesn't seem to take into account OSU's opening game against Eastern Washington, and also has more respect for Oregon State's schedule than one might expect at first glance. Frankly, I'm inclined to side with S&P because it seems to pass the sniff test, when you compare it to some basic standard stats. But S&P has its own issues passing the sniff test because . . .

2. Believe it or not, S&P actually has Cal's defense barely ahead of Oregon State's. Essentially, it's a statistical dead heat, but the mere fact that Cal is ranked in the same ballpark as any conference foe other than perhaps Colorado surprised me. I suspect, again, that a strength of schedule adjustment might have something to do with this little oddity, but it's interesting either way.

Of course, it's still crazy early. Despite playing in the same conference, Oregon State and Cal still only have one common opponent (Wazzu) so, you know, grain of salt everybody.

Stats of Dubious Value

As a reminder: Below are stats that, while interesting, may have little if any predictive value on what will occur over the course of 80-100 offensive snaps tomorrow.

Turnovers

15 forced turnovers, 14th in the nation (3 fumbles, 12 interceptions)

Turnovers are likely the difference between 5-1 Oregon State and 3-3 Oregon State - without them, the Beavers probably lose to San Diego State and have a competitive, could-go-either-way 4th quarter in Pullman. Pretty much everybody in the OSU secondary has gotten into the act. No throws into double teams please!

3rd Down

Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 31.17%, 20th in the nation

Well, that was unexpected. The Beavers have been getting themselves off the field when they get the chance, and unsurprisingly the Bears have not excelled in converting their own 3rd downs. I'm not hugely worried about the OSU pass rush, but you still don't want to give them carte blanche to tee off on Goff.

Red Zone

Opponent scoring percentage of 100%, 122nd in the nation
Opponent touchdown percentage of 55.56%, 47th in the nation

The Beavers are one of four teams in the country who have yet to force a turnover or see their opponent miss a field goal after reaching the red zone, which strikes me as more than a little fluky. More importantly, they've been good but not great at forcing stops inside the 20.

Conclusions

Simply stated, I think this game is a referendum on our offense. Oregon State is not a good defense, and every halfway decent offense they have faced moved the ball and scored points . . . assuming they could avoid turnovers.

If Cal's struggles over the last three weeks are just a function of good defenses and/or random turnovers at bad moments, then they will move the ball on Saturday, maybe even enough to make this a competitive game. If Cal's struggles have more to do with mounting injuries on the offensive line and some sort of mysterious regression from Jared Goff, then uh-oh.

I'm hoping, and maybe even a little bit expecting, for this game to be something of a fun shoot out, similar to the Northwestern game. There just isn't a good excuse for Cal not moving the ball on offense. I never really bought into the 'Cal could go 1-11!' panic that has cropped up here and there, but if the Bears aren't competitive in this game then maybe that is still on the table.

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