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Oregon State Offensive Preview

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OSU looks to rebound this week against Cal. Beware the OSU voodoo magic.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Oregon State
WR Isaiah Hodgins makes a catch against Stanford CB Paulson Adebo.
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The high-powered Oregon State offense looks to rebound after being completely shut down by the stout Utah defense. They face yet another stiff challenge this week against Cal.


Okay, I’m just going to come out and say it: Oregon State has voodoo magic. No matter how good or bad they were in particular year, they (along with USC) were one of the only teams that could beat Cal at home during the Tedford years. We saw that voodoo magic on display in 2007, a game too traumatizing to again recount here. They also upset Cal as recently as 2016 as 14-point underdogs (at the time of this writing, the line sits at Cal as an 11-point favorite). Oregon State has paid for the use of this black magic in recent years, as they’re basically football’s version of Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong will go wrong). They find themselves so close to getting over that hump, only for something to again go wrong. In individual games, it’ll be something like a missed field goal that decides the game (e.g. a 37-35 loss against Nevada in 2018), and they find themselves on the wrong end of close game after close game. In the season, it’ll be a critical injury to a key player like the quarterback— I believe it was 2016 when OSU once had to play a wide receiver (former high school QB) for a few snaps as all 3 quarterbacks were injured. This is the price you pay when you turn to the dark side.

More seriously, Oregon State has a very good offense, and their yearly struggles typically lie with the defense. OSU had a historically bad run defense last year, for instance, and a key focus of their team this year is to improve that. But Oregon State has shown that they have the ability to score on anyone— just last year, they put up 31 points on the Ohio State starters (although, Ohio State scored nearly every time they touched the ball, so this one wasn’t exactly close). They’re basically the inverse of Cal: they have a strong offense that just needs a semi-functional defense to compete (as you may remember last year when a bad Cal offense posted a season-high 49 points on OSU).

So let’s preview that offense.

Quarterback

Oregon State received a boost this season on the news that quarterback Jake Luton would be granted a 6th year of eligibility by the NCAA. Since I know this will be asked about in the comments:

The NCAA recently modified a rule in the sport of football that if a student-athlete redshirts in their first year of eligibility and misses a full year subsequently due to injury, they can be granted an extension. In Luton’s case, 2017 is considered a year missed due to playing in four games or less.

Jake Luton is a 6’7” quarterback that many forget has some mobility in the pocket, as he rarely has designed runs since that 2017 spinal injury. Since then, OSU would frequently bring in backup QB Jack Colletto to take the snap on plays where they’d like the quarterback to run the ball, such as on a 4th and 1. I can’t recall Colletto ever throwing the ball on these plays, so this is essentially their version of the wildcat— which they call “The Angry Beaver,” by the way. No, I’m not joking. ASU does something similar this year with their backup QB Ethan Long, but OSU did it first.

Luton is one of the better quarterbacks in the Pac-12, and it’s my opinion that his injuries definitely had a negative impact on OSU win totals in previous seasons. He’s one of the more accurate quarterbacks, particularly on intermediate-range throws:

QB Jake Luton makes a nice pass to WR Champ Flemings.
QB Jake Luton makes a nice pass to WR Champ Flemings.

This next clip also doubles as an Isaiah Hodgins highlight, but I liked the way Luton stood in the pocket to make a difficult throw as a free rusher was bearing down on him. As bad as Stanford is, CB Paulson Adebo is a great cover corner, and you rarely have much room to work with in terms of where you can put the ball where only your receiver can get it:

QB Jake Luton under pressure, great throw and catch to WR Isaiah Hodgins
QB Jake Luton under pressure, great throw and catch to WR Isaiah Hodgins

This is something Luton excels at: threading a throw through a tight window (typically for Hodgins):

QB Jake Luton throws it into a tight window for WR Isaiah Hodgins.
QB Jake Luton throws it into a tight window for WR Isaiah Hodgins.

You might think that someone willing to make these kinds of throws probably also has a lot of interceptions, but Luton actually nearly set the OSU record for most pass attempts without an interception until just last week, when he threw his first interception of the season against Utah. Although Luton does have a few nearly-intercepted passes, his interception against Utah was the work of DE Bradlee Anae tipping the ball up at the line of scrimmage and Utah catching the ball on the deflection. If there is one major drawback that Jake Luton has, it’s an overreliance on WR Isaiah Hodgins. OSU is still looking for a clear #2 receiver, but it’s also clear that there is no one that Luton would rather throw to than Hodgins. Utah knew this, and CB Jaylon Johnson did a pretty good job covering Hodgins all game (Hodgins finished with 8 catches for 77 yards on 17 targets, and it was his first game this year without a TD). Still, Luton kept trying to force the ball to Hodgins even when he wasn’t open. The Cal secondary has shown itself to be adept at taking away a team’s top receiving threat, and it so it’ll be interesting to see how (or if) Luton adjusts.

Lastly, since I mentioned the “Angry Beaver,” here it is:

QB Jack Colletto takes the wildcat snap.
QB Jack Colletto takes the wildcat snap.

It’s worth noting that Colletto has now played four games and there are rumors he will redshirt this season, so OSU finally used a running back (RB BJ Baylor) for this play last week against Utah.

Running back

A lot has been said on the emergence of Isaiah Hodgins, but OSU’s real strength is running the ball. They have three starter-caliber running backs in Jermar Jefferson, Artavis Pierce, and BJ Baylor, and this is probably their deepest skill position. Jermar Jefferson had a stellar freshman season last year, but he’s been struggling with injuries so far this season (he didn’t play against Cal Poly or Utah, and he had limited snaps against UCLA and Stanford). He’s currently questionable for the Cal game, but there’s two things that make his return seem doubtful: (1) he’s played in 4 games so far this season, so if his injury is serious, it might be wiser to redshirt him (or not, since he can leave for the NFL anyway), and (2) OSU has a bye next week, so taking this game off would give him an extra two weeks to recover.

Needless to say, a healthy Jermar Jefferson would make a big impact on this game. Jefferson is my favorite non-Cal RB in the Pac-12. A lot of times, I find myself classifying running backs as power/speedy/elusive, but Jefferson defies this sort of categorization, as he clearly fits all three categories. He could just as easily run someone over as he could juke and evade them.

RB Jermar Jefferson hurdles a defender.
RB Jermar Jefferson hurdles a defender.

While Eno Benjamin received most of the laurels last year, it’s my opinion that Jefferson was the best back in the conference. His main downside, however, is that he’s not very good in pass protection, and he has frequently failed to pick up blitzes and allowed defenders to get to the quarterback. So although he is an explosive, exciting player, he’s not perfect.

The starting running back in his absence is Artavis Pierce. Pierce is also a good blend of speed and power, and he’s shown to have good patience in following his blockers. It’s a bit early to say as this is his first season with significant exposure, but Pierce is at least on NFL radars.

A nice block by OL Gus Lavaka sets up a 43 yard RB Artavis Pierce touchdown.
A nice block by OL Gus Lavaka sets up a 43 yard RB Artavis Pierce touchdown.
Nice runs by RB Artavis Pierce.
Nice runs by RB Artavis Pierce.

Finally, OSU has a third 200+ pound running back in BJ Baylor. Baylor looked impressive in the OSU spring game and against Cal Poly, and we might see more of him to spell Pierce:

RB BJ Baylor breaks off a 74 yard run.
RB BJ Baylor breaks off a 74 yard run.

Although running the ball was their bread and butter in years past, the injury to Jefferson and the emergence of WR Isaiah Hodgins has meant that we’ll likely see a lot more passing from OSU.

Wide receiver

This could be effectively dubbed the Isaiah Hodgins section, as I definitely had to limit myself in terms of the number of Hodgins’ highlights I included here. Hodgins isn’t the biggest or the fastest wide receiver, but he has great hands, and he has a nice double move he frequently uses to get separation from defenders.

Let’s start with my favorite catch in Pac-12 play:

Fantastic catch by WR Isaiah Hodgins. Pass thrown behind him, but he tips it to himself for the touchdown.
Fantastic catch by WR Isaiah Hodgins. Pass thrown behind him, but he tips it to himself for the touchdown.

If you’re starting to notice Stanford on the wrong end of a lot of my highlights, I swear it wasn’t intentional. They’re just really bad, and players frequently embarrass them.

Hodgins has great body control when the ball is in flight, and he often makes nice catches in tight coverage:

WR Isaiah Hodgins makes a nice contested catch.
WR Isaiah Hodgins makes a nice contested catch.

Hodgins is hands-down the number one concern for the Cal defense this Saturday, and if Cal can shut him down the way Utah did (holding him to a season-low 77 yards), then OSU will be in for a long day.

While Hodgins is as reliable as it gets, OSU has still been searching for their #2 WR. It’s worth noting that Hodgins has more receiving yards than the next 4 OSU WRs combined. One option is the speedy 5’5” WR Champ Flemings, who has shown plenty of big-play ability despite his small size:

WR Champ Flemings rips an underthrown pass away from the DB for a touchdown.
WR Champ Flemings rips an underthrown pass away from the DB for a touchdown.

Another option is Nebraska transfer, WR Tyjon Lindsey:

WR Tyjon Lindsey gets behind the UCLA secondary.
WR Tyjon Lindsey gets behind the UCLA secondary. I don’t know if it still counts as a highlight when it’s against UCLA.

My apologies for using so many clips against FCS competition in this article. It makes it hard to determine how good someone like Tyjon Lindsey is: did he make a nice double move to get open, or is this FCS defender just very bad and totally blew his assignment? It’s hard to tell sometimes.

Another player that has shown promise is WR Jesiah Irish (a player I mentioned to keep an eye on in my spring game review), but unfortunately he’s been injured and is currently listed as questionable for the Cal game. I originally took this clip for the special teams section, but it’s the only highlight I had of Irish:

Big punt return by WR Jesiah Irish.
Big punt return by WR Jesiah Irish.

Special teams

So we’ve seen that OSU has a penchant for speedy but undersized receivers, which means they have some dangerous return men:

Big kickoff return for 67 yards by WR Champ Flemings.
Big kickoff return for 67 yards by WR Champ Flemings.

It’s almost like Flemings’ diminutive stature is an advantage here, as he’s harder to find behind defenders downfield.

Kicker Jordan Choukair has never made a kick from 50+, but OSU often tries anyway, and he sits at 0/7 from 50+ yards. Perhaps related, but OSU is absurdly aggressive on 4th downs— they attempted a Pac-12 high of 36 4th downs last year, and converted on 25 of them (69.4%, which was second best in the conference). This is perhaps because OSU has a wide variety of trick plays, some of which take advantage of quirky football rules, such as this onsides dropkick against UCLA:

An unusual onsides dropkick from OSU, which helped OSU start the game with a 3 touchdown lead.
An unusual onsides dropkick from OSU, which helped OSU start the game with a 3 touchdown lead.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe you’re allowed to let the ball bounce this high on a dropkick. The point being here that OSU puts the “special” in “special teams.”

Summary

Oregon State has a well-rounded offense. Jake Luton is a solid quarterback with one of the Pac-12’s best receivers in Isaiah Hodgins. They also have a solid run game, although it might be a little less solid if Jermar Jefferson is to miss the game. OSU is so desperate for a win that they’ll pull out all the stops, whether it means multiple trick plays in a single game (cf. their 2018 game against the #10 ranked Washington State Cougars), or treating the entire field as 4th down territory. OSU is deep at the skill positions, and their offense has been solid all year (aside from last week’s game against Utah), averaging 32.0 points per game this season. And let’s not forget, OSU still has their dark voodoo magic, so I would advise against getting too comfortable this game.