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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Oregon State Offense

Baby Got H-Back aka I like big fronts and I cannot lie aka...I'll stop now.

Regression is mean
Regression is mean
Steve Dykes

In last year's Oregon State preview I speculated that Sean Mannion would destroy our defense before declaring early and being a first-round draft pick this spring.  He decided to stay at Oregon State.  Big mistake.  Oregon State's offense is a mess this season.  Everyone is getting injured, the running game still cannot recover from the loss of the Rodgers brothers, the offensive line is an inexperienced mess of musical chairs, and Sean Mannion has regressed to the point where he's putting up the worst statistics of his career.  There is a catch, however (although Jordan Villamin dropped it).  Oregon State's offense has been abysmal against good defenses (except Utah) and pretty good against bad defenses.  Oregon State averaged 200 yards per game and 3.2 yards per play against USC and Stanford, but they've averaged 435 yards per game and 5.8 yards per play against everyone else.  Cal's defense is about as bad as Colorado's and Colorado gave up 445 yards on 6.45 yards per play to the Beavers.  While Oregon State has the worst offense we'll see in the Pac-12, they're capable of putting up points against us.

Oregon State's offense has several new faces, including a new offensive coordinator.  Previous offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf left to become a quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants.  Mike Riley hired John Garrett as his new OC.  Garrett has mostly coached wide receivers in his 20-year coaching career but he has never coordinated an offense.  For most of this season, Mike Riley has called the plays but last week Garrett took over primary playcalling duties.  Of course, the offense still has Riley's fingerprints on it, so we'll see the trademark fly sweep and plenty of passes to tight ends and H-backs.  We'll frequently see big fronts with two or three tight ends.  This is clearly a Mike Riley offense.  Let's get to know the Beavers.


With the second-most productive QB in the nation last year, Oregon State had a pass first, pass second, and pass third offense.  They passed on a whopping 64% of plays last year (by contrast, Washington State's Air Raid passed on 59.6% of plays in 2013).  That number is down to 53% this season.  Two big factors have limited the OSU passing game this season: the loss of four starting O-linemen (who combined for 134 starts) and the loss of Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks, a first-round draft pick this spring.  Cooks was targeted on 28% of passes last season and accumulated an incredible 1,730 yards and 16 TDs--that's 38% of Sean Mannion's yardage last year.  Oregon State has not recovered from these personnel losses.


Without a reliable, deep-threat receiver (or an O-line that can block long enough for those routes to develop), OSU is more reliant on its RBs, H-backs, and tight ends in the passing game this season.  The way OSU uses its tight ends should look familiar to those of you who read the Oregon preview last week.

Oregon likes to have its tight ends block for a moment before releasing downfield into the gaps in the defense.  Below Oregon State lines up with 22 personnel (2 RBs, 2 TEs) in an offset I-formation.  The wide receiver and weak side tight end run post routes while the fullback runs a quick out route to serve as a safety valve for Sean Mannion.  Our focal player, the strongside tight end (circled), briefly blocks the outside linebacker before releasing upfield.

The linebackers blitz and Connor Hamlett slips into the huge gap opened up by the blitz.  Because Hamlett appeared to be blocking, none of the LBs picked him up in coverage.  You know what happens next.

Here's the play in motion.

Too easy.  Mike Riley knows he has a weak O-line and that teams will try to pressure Mannion.  I would not be surprised if he consistently runs plays like this to keep the defense from sending too many defenders after Mannion.

Now we have a 12-player personnel set (1 RB, 2 TEs) in a balanced formation with 2 WRs split wide.


I've diagrammed the routes below.  From top to bottom we have a WR running a crossing route in the back of the end zone, a TE who briefly blocks the DE before releasing down field, and a WR running a post route.  Oh, doesn't this look familiar?  This time we see what happens when the defense picks up the tight end Connor Hamlett.


Hamlett released the DE, trucks through the linebacker, and scores an easy touchdown.

Hamlett could be a problem for our rather undersized defense.

Now we have 22 personnel in an offset I-formation.  You'll never guess who the target of this pass is.


Mannion fakes the handoff to the RB and the tight end blocks the outside linebacker before--SURPRISE!--releasing into the end zone for a wide open TD.

Even without the TE as an eligible receiver, this was a difficult play to defend.  The wide receiver runs a route deep into the end zone, which (in theory) could open up space underneath for the H-back's crossing route.  Furthermore, the WR and H-back are running crossing routes in opposite directions, which have potential to create confusion among the defenders (as we saw in the Wazzu preview).  The defense ALSO has to keep track of the RB and FB as potential receivers (in this case the FB stayed in for pass protection while the RB ran a shallow curl into the end zone).

As I mentioned, OSU's tight ends, fullbacks, H-backs and RBs have been receiving more passes than usual this season.  Below we have a RB screen.  The camera has zoomed out too far for me to diagram the routes clearly.  OSU has 11 personnel with a whopping three wide receivers.

The Beavers like to run go routes with the playside receivers on these screens.  This pulls the DB down the field and creates space without forcing the receiver to block.

Let's take a look at another play--this one is a bit trickier.

OSU lines up with two wide receivers on the field side and a TE and H-back on the boundary side.  One of the wide receivers goes in motion behind the line of scrimmage up toward the boundary side.  This looks like one of OSU's signature plays, the fly sweep.  The fact that OSU has a TE and an H-back on the boundary side further suggests that this is a fly sweep, as those two would make great lead blockers.

But it's not a fly sweep!  It's a screen! Now that the sweeping WR has pulled a safety towards the top of the field, the RB Terron Ward has more room to run the screen.  Below Ward has one man to beat in order to spring a huge gain.  Fortunately he has a blocker there to pave the way.


In motion:

And some nifty footwork by Ward turns a simple screen into a 50-yard touchdown.


We have one final passing play that I want to illustrate, mostly for comedic value.

We're back to the 22-player personnel (2 tight ends, 2 running backs). Prior to the snap, a TE moves from the right side of the line to the left side and lines up as an H-back.  You may notice something a little odd about one of the routes below.

The WR and H-back on the strong side of the formation block a couple defenders in the end zone to clear room for a the fullback. The circled TE on the right... well, he has quite the journey in this play. Keep an eye on him.

This play is doomed to failure. First our focal TE stumbles off the line. Meanwhile the WR and left TE are about to run into each other.


Now our focal TE runs into the ref.


Amid this chaos, the defense loses our TE Caleb Smith, who is now wide open for a TD reception.


Mannion pump fakes to his first read (the FB) before seeing that the stumbling, bumbling tight end has fallen into a huge hole in the defense.


If Cal hopes to contain this offense, they must keep track of potential receivers on every single play. As we have seen, these tight ends are very easy to lose, especially when they initially look like they're staying in for pass protection. These are some BIG tight ends too. The Bears must be sound and physical with their tackles. Arm tackles will not get the job done. Further demanding discipline from the Cal D is the frequency of OSU's playaction. Several of these plays had fake handoffs to get the defense to bite on the run.


If all these tight ends and H-backs have you worried, I will put your mind at ease with the rest of this post (especially when we start talking about the running game).

Here's a fun fact (well, fun for us).  Sean Mannion averaged 358.6 yards per game last season.  He has not eclipsed 358 yards in any single game this season.  That should tell you all you need to know about how far this OSU passing game has fallen.

  • 255.0 yards per game (46th)
  • 6.9 yards per attempt (74th)
  • 123.09 efficiency rating (82nd)

This was the Pac-12's most productive passing game last season.  That it has regressed so far despite returning Mannion is quite depressing for Oregon State fans.  Speaking of regressing...

  • QB #4 Sean Mannion: 242.6 yards per game, 6.8 yards per attempt, 61.4% completions, 7 TDs, 5 interceptions, 123.99 QB efficiency rating
  • WR #6 Victor Bolden: 53.8 yards per game, 10.77 yards per reception, 1 TD
  • WR #7 Hunter Jarmon: 42.0 yards per game, 18.00 yards per reception, 0 TDs
  • TE #89 Connorr Hamlett: 34.7 yards per game, 11.05 yards per reception, 1 TD
  • WR #8 Richard Mullaney: 36.0 yards per game, 12.00 yards per reception, 1 TD [out for the season]

The 6'5", 227lb Sean Mannion is a prototypical pocket passer for the NFL.  He passed for 4,662 yards on 66.3% completions, 37 TDs, and 16 interceptions last year.  He has great vision and makes few mistakes.  Despite all this, Sean Mannion's stats are all worse than the stats he put up during his freshman year.  He is on pace to have career lows in all his major statistics.  Worse yet, he's averaging 198.75 yards per game in Pac-12 play.  That will surely change against the generous Cal defense.  In fact, he only needs 194 yards on Saturday to set the Pac-12 career passing yardage record.  While it's easy to point to the loss of Cooks as the reason for Mannion's decline, the reasons are deeper than that.  His O-line can't protect him long enough to get many deep passes, his receivers regularly drop his passes, and he has had bouts of inaccuracy this season.  After the last three years it's downright bizarre to see Sean Mannion missing his reads.  With as poorly as his supporting cast has played, Mannion cannot afford imperfection.

The team has struggled to replace Brandin Cooks' production.  This is the least productive group of Beaver receivers we have seen since 2010 (note: that team destroyed us 35-7).  The receivers are led by Victor Bolden, who fills in for Cooks at flanker (think of the flanker role as a deep threat who also runs an occasional fly sweep).  The 5'9" 175 lb receiver has good speed but can be disrupted by larger corners. He missed time earlier this season with a dislocated finger but should be fine for Saturday's game.

If any of the receivers would have given us trouble on Saturday, it's Richard Mullaney.  The 6'3", 197 lb receiver is Oregon State's big play threat.  Unfortunately he suffered an elbow injury and will miss the rest of the season.

Instead we'll see more of Hunter Jarmon, Jordan Villamen, Rahmel Dockery, and, well, that's the end of receivers who have caught passes for them this season.  The receivers have generally struggled with dropped passes this season.  And I don't mean dropped passes on 40-yard bombs downfield with DBs clinging to their backs.  I'm talking about dropped 10-yard passes when receivers are wide open.  It was downright ugly last week vs. the Lobsterbacks.

Oregon State had the conference's best tight end tandem going into this season.  Given that not many Pac-12 teams use tight ends, that's not as impressive of an accomplishment as it sounds.  The TEs are still dangerous in the passing game, as we saw in the schematic preview.  At 6'6, 269 lbs and 6'7", 266 lbs, respectively, Caleb Smith and Conner Hamlett are monstrous tight ends. Fortunately for us, they're only averaging a combined 65 yards per game this season and they only have two touchdowns between them.  Our good friend Jacob Wark is also on the team, but he has not registered any stats.

Oregon State returned two starters from last year's offensive line, C Isaac Seumalo (23 career starts) and RT Sean Harlow (9 career starts).  Of course, Seumalo was injured during fall camp and hasn't played so far this season.  The rest of Oregon State's offensive line has resembled a game of musical chairs, with tight ends converting to tackles to replace injured players.  Their offensive line has faced the same depth issues that our defensive backs have faced this season.  The patchwork line has struggled to protect Mannion, who has been sacked repeatedly each week.  .


Oregon State has not had much of a rushing attack since 2009, when Quizz Rodgers was the workhorse back and James Rodgers stretched the defense with fly sweeps.  Last year was the second year in the past three during which OSU averaged fewer than 100 rushing yards per game.  Nationwide, twenty five players (yes, single players) have more rushing yardage than the entire Oregon State team.  Oregon State has a couple decent running backs in Terron Ward and Storm Woods, but they're running behind a patchwork offensive line that seems to be shuffling on a regular basis.


We've had the luxury of facing some fun, exciting rushing attacks (depending on your perspective).  We've seen zone inside zone read, outside zone read, option, and more.  By comparison, Oregon State's rushing attack is a bit...boring.  Their rushing attack consists mostly of inside running.  The blocking is pretty simple too.  They don't even regularly do fun things like pull guards.  Instead, it's mostly straight-ahead blocking for the O-line and the running back simply follows his fullback through the hole (or, with OSU's line, into a wall of defenders).

Here's a typical OSU running play.  The Beavs line up with 21 personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE) in an I-formation.  The blockers will block towards the strong side/boundary side of the field (top of the screen).  The tight end, right guard, center, and left tackle block the defensive line while the right tackle and left guard block the two linebackers near the goal line.  The outside linebacker on the line of scrimmage is unblocked.

Storm Woods follows his fullback, who takes out a safety.  Despite being hit a yard past the line of scrimmage, Woods chugs ahead for a touchdown.

When scouting OSU, I noticed that they frequently leave the backside defender unblocked (the backside defender is on the opposite side from the direction the O-line blocks--towards the bottom half in the above gif).  This takes a defender out of the play, which helps give the offense one fewer player to account for and helps give OSU more blockers relative to the number of defenders.

This has a disadvantage, however.  Quick LBs can chase the RB down from behind and tackle him before he gets through his blockers.  Notice in the gif below how LB #20 comes about a yard short of tackling the RB Terron Ward for a loss.


Fortunately we have a stable of fast, healthy outside linebackers, right?  Ugh.

Below is a play Oregon State likes to run the end zone.  They fake a fullback dive and hand off to the running back who either follows his fullback our bounces outside.  In the play below Oregon State blocks towards the field side.  It's tough to illustrate all the blocks due to the low camera angle, so I've only illustrated the blockers at the point of attack.  Once again OSU leaves the backside defender unblocked.

Hawaii blows up the OSU O-line (take a moment and let that statement sink in), which forces Ward to bounce outside en route to a touchdown.

Have you noticed that two of these three plays featured poor blocking by the O-line which was redeemed by great plays from the RB?

Finally, we have a trademark of the OSU running game, the fly sweep.

You can usually see the fly sweep coming based on pre-snap motion from the flanker.  OSU brings a couple blockers to clean things up on the playside.  This generally works when OSU uses tight ends and/or tackles, but their undersized WRs are not the best blockers.  I illustrate the play below. (Gif credit goes to the great FishDuck.)

Oregon State will run this about 4 times per game.


Remember when I said the OSU running game isn't very productive...

  • 113.14 yards per game (112th)
  • 3.34 yards per carry (111th)

Oregon State has been running the ball more this season, which is the primary reason they're generating more rushing yardage this year.  They run on 48% of plays, up from 36% last year (34 carries, up from 27 in absolute terms).  Although OSU is rushing for more yardage, their yards per carry is actually worse this year.  The abysmal yards per carry number is heavily driven by the 191 yards the team has lost on sacks.  The primary running backs average a respectable 5.12 yards per carry.

The OSU run game is anchored by three players: two RBs and the flanker.

  • RB #24 Storm Woods: 64.67 yards per game, 5.71 yards per carry, 3 TDs
  • RB #28 Terron Ward: 63.71 yards per game, 4.69 yards per carry, 6 TDs
  • WR #6 Victor Bolden: 18.17 yards per game, 6.81 yards per carry, 0 TDs

The Beavs' leading rusher Storm Woods RB is a big back at 6' 0", 212 lbs.  He missed last week's game with a knee injury but Mike Riley expects Woods to don a knee brace and play against Cal.  Terron Ward is another bulky RB at 5' 7", 201 lbs.  Ward is more of an every-down back than Woods.  As we saw earlier, the RBs will be involved in the passing game with an occasional screen.  OSU's RBs receive 4-5 passes per game.

Finally, Victor Bolden will be the primary target on fly sweeps.


And now for some potpourri.

Total Offense

Oregon State has come a long way from the team that scored 111 points against us over the past two seasons.

  • 25.4 points per game (93rd)
  • 368.1 yards per game (98th)
  • 5.19 yards per play (97th)

Oregon State is at the bottom of the conference in all those statistics.  For reference, these are slightly better than Northwestern's stats.


As you would expect from a mostly one-dimensional offense, Oregon State is not particularly good in conversion situations.

  • 30.21% third down conversions (119th)
  • 48.39% red zone TD conversions (104th)


Negative Yardage

The struggles at offensive line are clearly apparent here.

  • 3.29 sacks allowed per game (119th)
  • 6.43 tackles for loss allowed per game (87th)
  • 80.3 penalty yards per game (122nd)
  • 9 turnovers (21st)

At least they don't turn the ball over very often...

Clock Management

Fortunately for us, we're playing one of the Pac-12's few remaining offenses that takes its time.

  • 32:26.86 average time of possession (25th)
  • 71 plays per game
  • 27.42 seconds per play (slooooow)

Our defensive depth should not be a big issue on Saturday.


This is the worst offense we'll face in the conference schedule.  Without Brandin Cooks or an offensive line, the Oregon State passing attack has taken a nosedive this season.  Mannion's accuracy and vision have both regressed this season, further exacerbating things.  With the receivers' inability to catch anything and the O-line's inability to block long enough to allow deep routes to develop, Oregon State is more reliant on passes to tight ends, H-backs, fullbacks, and running backs this season.  They are good at disguising tight ends as blockers before sending them out into open space.  Oregon State's running game has not improved much over last season.  They have a decent pair of RBs, but they cannot do much behind a beleaguered offensive line.  The running game is a pretty simple mix of inside running with an occasional fly sweep.  OSU's middling running game limits the effectiveness of their playaction fakes, which should help our defense a bit.

To be frank, there's no excuse for surrendering half a hundred points to Oregon State.  This is an offense that has struggled mightily this season and there is no quick fix for their problems.  Our defense is as depleted as their offense, so it should be a fairly balanced matchup.  We turned in a strong performance against a similarly bad Northwestern offense and should be able to replicate that performance (or 80% of it, given our injuries) against Oregon State.