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Previewing the Oregon State defense

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Can Cal score on a Beaver defense that is heavy on upperclassmen but light on experience against up-tempo spread offenses?

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

And so we've reached the pivot point of the 2014 season. Beat Oregon State, and Cal stands at 5-4, needing just one win to gain bowl eligibility and another three weeks of practice. The season would almost certainly end as an unqualified success. Lose to Oregon State and bowl eligibility would look extremely doubtful, and Cal's best win would probably end up being the season opener over Northwestern. Skepticism would linger for many.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how good Oregon State's defense is, for a number of reasons. They start a ton of upperclassmen (11!), but they also have four first time starters. Their statistical performance has been mostly good, but the schedule might make that performance deceptive. They seem to excel against Cal's biggest strength, and have a fatal weakness that the Bears may not be able to exploit.

Sound confusing? It is, but it will make more sense once you get through the rest of the preview. Still: we're two thirds through the regular season and I still have trouble figuring out these teams and telling you what should happen on the field on Saturday. That's what happens when a team plays a meaningless non-conference slate and non-balanced conference schedules.

Starters

Left DE: Jr. Lavonte Barnett OR Sr. Obum Gwacham ; Left DT: Sr. Siale Hautau ; Right DT: Sr. Dylan Wynn ; Right DE: Jr. Jaswha James

The OSU line looks experienced, but all the seniors and juniors listed are deceptive. The depth chart lists 3 starters and a platoon at left DE - four of those players have a combined 12 starts, all coming this year. Dylan Wynn is the only returning starter on the line, and is really the only consistent threat anywhere on the line depth chart. 3rd round draft pick Scott Crichton is badly missed.

You'll see below that the OSU defense struggles to stop the run. The loss of Miami transfer Jason Grimble to injury probably didn't help, but the simple reality is that this defensive line just doesn't have a ton of talent. Of the eight players in the line rotation, seven are upperclassmen. When you have that type of experience, there should be more production. Injuries have been a problem (Hautau and James have both been dealing with nagging injuries that may impact their availability on Saturday) but half of the line are transfers that haven't really worked out well for OSU.

Gwacham is probably the most dangerous pass rusher with 4 sacks. To be quite honest, if Cal allows a sack to a 4 or 3 man rush, I will be severely disappointed. Cal's line is still growing, but this should be a win.

OLB: Sr. D.J. Alexander ; MLB: Jr. Jabral Johnson ; OLB: Sr. Michael Doctor

Seventy-nine returning starts for Oregon State's linebackers, and it shows. Doctor is probably the best player on OSU's defense and tends to be involved in anything good that happens, but Johnson and Alexander are hardly slouches.

It's worth noting that none of them have yet been effective this season on blitzes, with just one combined amongst the trio. However, they HAVE been good in pass coverage, a skill that is increasingly critical for Pac-12 linebackers. You might recall that Doctor picked off Kevin Hogan with a disguised coverage last week for what was basically the only OSU bright spot on the day. Goff and company will have to be aware of that type of threat from all three linebackers tomorrow.

CB: Sr. Steven Nelson ; SS: Sr. Ryan Murphy ; FS: Sr. Tyrequek Zimmerman ; CB: Jr. Larry Scott

Nelson, Murphy and Zimmerman are all returning starters - in fact, both safeties are in their 3rd year of starting. They make up the core of a secondary that has put up shockingly good stats against the pass so far this year - more on that below. None of them are exceptional ballhawks, although the lack of a consistent pass rush probably doesn't help them out much. None of the veteran trio stand out particular compared to the others, but they play like you would expect Mike Riley veterans to play - fundamentally sound and consistent.

The newest starter is junior Larry Scott, who will likely be targeted by Goff and Tony Franklin. Redshirt freshman Justin Strong is  listed as the nickel back and will likely be targeted as well. How good is strong? That's an open question, because quite frankly, OSU hasn't faced many teams that would really test their nickel defense on a consistent basis.

Season So Far

4.1 yards allowed/play in a 29-14 win over Portland St.
4.0 yards allowed/play in a 38-30 win over Hawaii
4.4 yards allowed/play in a 28-7 win over San Diego St.
5.7 yards allowed/play in a 35-10 loss to USC
5.6 yards allowed/play in a 36-31 win over Colorado
4.9 yards allowed/play in a 29-23 (2OT) loss to Utah
5.8 yards allowed/play in a 38-14 loss to Stanford

Look at the list of teams Oregon State has played, and then ask yourself this question: Which one of those teams has an offense remotely similar to the offense that Cal runs?

There isn't really a team there, right? The closest is Colorado, but the Buffs don't really match up at quarterback, wide receiver depth, or explosive ability. You might be encouraged anyway, considering that, adjusting for quality of opposition, Oregon State's defensive performance vs. Colorado was probably their weakest of the season.

Still, I would say Oregon State's defense has really been 'exposed' just once. That one game was against Stanford, when the Cardinal dominated in a first half that saw them score 4 touchdowns against only 1 punt. An early 3rd quarter punt return touchdown iced things and Shaw shut it down, which made the final stat line look superficially better than it was.

Other than that, the OSU defense has done OK. They have been really stingy allowing big plays, but then again, they haven't played many teams that excel at creating big plays. They have been great against the pass, but then again the 2nd best quarterback they have faced might be Kevin Hogan.

Against the pass

2013: 7.3 yards/attempt allowed, 75th in the country
2014: 5.7 yards/attempt allowed, 10th in the country

I'll admit, when I first sorted the national passing stats, I was shocked to see Oregon State sitting at 10th in the country. Then, like I noted above, I looked more closely at the schedule and saw a bunch of teams that really prefer to run to set up the pass (or, in the case of their non-conference opponents, simply can't pass the ball).

It's also really important to note that if you look ONLY at the stats against Pac-12 teams*, the number rises to a more mediocre 7.1 yards/attempt. Again, that's against just USC, Utah, Stanford and Colorado. I think it's fair to say that the Cal passing attack is the most dangerous attack OSU has faced, and by a pretty significant margin.

*I want to thank CFBstats.com for including the ability to show stats just vs. Power 5 teams. I want to castigate myself for not finding it until this week. Bloops!

Against the run

2013: 5.10 yards/attempt allowed, 107th in the country
2014: 4.50 yards/attempt allowed, 85th in the country

If you happened to watch Oregon St. vs. Utah a few weeks ago, you might have noticed that Utah won despite passing the ball for just 62 yards. The Utes passed the ball just 28% of the time that night, and by the end of the game Oregon State had 9 guys in the box on pretty much every play.

And Utah still managed to average 5.5 yards/run, despite basically telling Oregon State what they were going to do, with the entire Beaver defense stacking up along the line. Which is to say: OSU's run defense isn't very good. And I think that mostly falls on the defensive line. OSU's linebackers and safeties are all veterans who know how to tackle, and the Beavers don't give up a ton of long runs. Running backs don't get past the linebackers often. But when backs are consistently getting past the line and churning 4/5 yard run after 4/5 yard run, it starts to add up.

Cal, obviously, isn't nearly as strong a running team as Utah. On the bright side, Cal has a passing attack that will require significantly more attention than a team like Utah demands. Daniel Lasco should be able to get past OSU's D line frequently, and I like his chances to make linebackers miss given enough opportunities.

Advanced stats

2013 S&P: 74th in the country
2014 S&P: 75th in the country

2013 FEI: 40th in the country
2014 FEI: 62nd in the country

Oregon State has not allowed more than 35 points in any one game this year. Cal has allowed the opponent to put up 50+ on multiple occasions. And yet the advanced stats are spitting out crazy results like this:

F/+ combined rankings, defense:
Cal: 66th in the nation
Oregon State: 68th in the nation

In what world is Cal's defense better than Oregon State's defense? Well, a world that takes schedule strength into account. Here are the rankings of every FBS offense the Beavers have faced:

Hawaii: 118
San Diego St.: 93
USC: 13
Colorado: 55
Utah: 79
Stanford: 64

There are seven Pac-12 teams with top 40 offenses, and Oregon State has only played one of those teams. Cal has already played four of those offenses, and faces a fifth in practice every day. The difference in the qualities of the offenses both teams have faced is enormous. Comparing schedules so far this season you'd barely think that Oregon State plays in the same conference as Cal, with only one common opponent.

Does that actually mean that Cal's defense is just as good as Oregon State's? I think that's a bridge too far. But I think it's very important to restate that Oregon State hasn't faced an offense remotely like Cal's so far this year. That adds a significant level of uncertainty. It's possible that OSU is equipped to handle the Bear Raid. It's possible that they aren't, and will be overwhelmed upon encountering a quick-strike, explosive, up-tempo(ish) offense for the first time this year.

Turnovers

2013: 29 forced turnovers (19 interceptions, 10 fumbles), 17th in the country
2014: 14 forced turnovers (9 interceptions, 5 fumbles), 41st in the country

Only five of Oregon State's 14 turnovers have come against Pac-12 opponents. Two of them were Kevin Hogan interceptions. If Goff can read OSU's shifting coverage patterns and nobody randomly decides to drop the ball, then I'm pretty optimistic about avoiding turnovers. OSU just doesn't have the pass rush or dynamic athletes in the secondary to create turnovers - they rely more on deception and mistakes from their opponents. So let's not make mistakes!

Conclusion

Everything about Oregon State's schedule is incredibly deceptive. First, the Beavers played three non-conference opponents with offenses that ranged from bad to ghastly. They have since played four conference games. One game was against the worst team in the conference. The other three were against mostly pro-style teams that don't typically play quickly. To add to the illusion, Oregon State's offense is about as slow as they come.

Add it all up and you get a defense that has been mostly OK, but also very untested. Do you remember watching the Cal defense wilt in Arizona because they ended up having to face 100+ plays? That's something Oregon State simply hasn't had to deal with yet this year. This is a team that has been set up perfectly to record traditional stats that look somewhere between respectable and scary regardless. Luckily we have advanced stats to help see through the tempo illusion.

But of course saying that OSU is untested isn't the same as saying that they are incapable. When you have a veteran back seven you can reasonably expect to find success defending the pass, and Mike Riley and defensive coordinator Mike Banker have been working together and creating solid defenses out of lower level recruiting talent for years.

My take? Football always starts in the trenches. The single biggest advantage Cal should have in this game is between the Cal offensive line, healthy and coming off of a generally excellent performance vs. Oregon, and the OSU defensive line, beat up and coming off of a disastrous performance vs. Stanford.

If Cal's offensive line plays to its potential, and OSU's line plays like it did against Stanford, then Jared Goff shouldn't be sacked once and the Cal running game should be consistently productive. Those are potentially dangerous assumptions, but not wildly unrealistic either.

This is such an important game. If Cal loses to a team that has already been pantsed by USC and Stanford, optimism for the next two games (and a bowl) will wither. But with a struggling offense and a vulnerable defense, there's no reason to think that Cal can't go into Reser and get a 3rd road win of the season. If this team has come as far as we think it has, they win on Saturday.