Oregon St. is on the road again this week, wrapping up their non-conference games with a trip to San Diego. Qualcomm Stadium has been a desired destination for the Beavers for a long one, but an elusive one, in its role as site of the Holiday Bowl.
A regular season road trip to take on the defending Mt. West champions may have to do, especially of San Diego St. upsets Oregon St. And it would be an upset if the so far this season winless Aztecs could snap out of their early season difficulties that resulted in a pair of sizable losses.
FCS Eastern Illinois joined in the opening day run of upsets of FBS teams that Beaver fans would rather forget, pulling away with 3 unanswered touchdowns to down San Diego St. 40-19. If losing to the Panthers was a surprise, a second week loss in the Horseshoe to Ohio St. wasn't. But the Aztecs were hoping to at least give the then #3 Buckeyes a game, especially after Ohio St. quarterback Braxton Miller went down early in the game.
Instead, the Buckeyes rolled to a 42-0 lead, and the Aztecs only avoided a shutout with a touchdown with less than 2 minutes left.
So on the surface of it, it wouldn't seem like San Diego St. is well suited to slow down Oregon St.'s best in the country passing offense. The Beavers would also seem to be poised to rediscover their struggling ground game, against an Aztec defense that's 105th in the country against the run.
San Diego St.'s defensive struggles are something of a surprise, given they have 9 off 11 members of last year's defense that was a party to a 9 win season despite a mid-season quarterback change when former Oregon Stater Ryan Katz suffered a season ending injury.
Oregon St. will get something of a different look from San Diego St., which uses a 3-3-5 base alignment. Aztec head coach Rocky Long, who was Oregon St.'s defensive coordinator from 1991 thru 1995, during the Jerry Pettibone era, is an aggressively defensive minded skipper, and will throw a variety of blitz packages at the Beaver offense.
Any mistakes in blocking and pickup assignments, and there will be plenty off opportunities for some, could dramatically change things. Fortunately, for Oregon St., the Beavers' offensive line, which will be intact from the previous week for the first time this season, has protected Sean Mannion very well so far, allowing only 3 sacks.
The game also marks the return to Qualcomm stadium for Oregon St. head coach Mike Riley, who was the head coach of the San Diego Chargers of the NFL, who play in the same stadium, from 1999 thru 2001. Current Beaver assistants Bruce Read and Mark Banker were also with Riley then as well.
Interestingly, offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh was a chargers assistant as well, but in 1997 & 1998, and was a among those replaced when Riley came on board.
San Diego St.'s new quarterback apparently isn't a rushing threat, based on what he didn't do against Ohio St. Which means what Oregon St.'s defense does should work.
I see this game as a repeat of Hawaii, generally speaking, and it will appear more progress has been made than probably actually has with the defense.
What's more important is whether the Beavers can establish enough of a running game to put both questions about it and the Aztecs away. A 31-17 Oregon St. win with 150 rushing yards might actually be more meaningful than a 48-14 blowout with Mannion throwing for 5 touchdowns and over 425 yards.
Another factor working against a big-point blowout is the fact that both teams want to work on the run; the Aztecs because if healthy, Adam Muema is their best weapon, and the Beavers because Riley really wants better support for Mannion, if not better balance. It's the recipe for shortening the game, and reducing the number of times Mannion can hook up with Brandin Cooks.
Fortunately, flat performances on the road in September, once a Riley trademark, appear to finally be a thing of the past; just over a year ago, who would have dreamed of being 4-0 on the road in pre-October games. #notjinxingBeavs
BeaverBeliever's Keys To The Game:
1) Run the ball. San Diego State has been poor this year on defense, and this would be a good time for the Beavs to start to assert themselves in the run game. Terron Ward is not that large of a dropoff from Storm Woods, and will be just fine as the starting runningback. I am also excited to see Chris Brown hopefully get some playing time, as he was a very well regarded recruit, but has not seen the field since he plays at a position of good depth. The offensive line is still a mess, but this is the best opportunity to get the run game in sync before more conference opponents.
2) Create a pass rush. The Beavs have not done exceptionally well at rushing the passer this season. For the opening of the Utah game things looked promising, but then once they started using the aggressiveness of the Beavs against them with screen passes, and having Travis Wilson run the ball, OSU wasn't as successful. The Beavs need to pressure the quarterback with the coverage playing poorly so far. The defensive ends are good pieces for the pass rush, but the rest of the defense needs to help as well.
3) Create turnovers. Sometimes it looks like the only hope for the Beaver defense to get a stop is to cause a turnover, much like what happened in the second half of the Utah game. It would be positive for the defense to create some more splash plays like this, although causing some punts would be good as well. It should be noted that Steven Nelson has had three picks in the last two games, and hopefully that trend will continue.
The Beavs are facing an underachieving Aztec team who might give their best shot, but they are a mess so far. It is still hard to trust the Beaver defense though. 41-21 Beavs.
Before the season began, I thought this would be a tougher game than the one at Utah preceding it. Then San Diego State went out and lost by 21 to Eastern Illinois.
Oregon State should dominate this game, and for the second straight week I'm going to call it a "get right" game for the Beaver defense. Maybe I'll be right this time around. The only thing that worries me is the quarterback change for the Aztecs. There is hardly any film on Quinn Kaehler, and that can be tough to gameplan against. Of course, there will likely be the standard opening game jitters and it might take a series or two for the walk-on, so who knows, maybe things will even out.
The loss of Storm Woods does not concern me. I think Terron Ward steps up, rushing for at least 85. Even if the SDSU line holds our ground game down, Mannion can pick apart this soft pass defense. I think the Beavs go up a couple of touchdowns early, and that margin holds as we get conservative as the game wears on. San Diego State adds a late score to make the final a bit more respectable, but the Beavers emerge from So Cal with their third straight victory, 35-17.
Remember when this was expected to be one of the tougher matchups, not the easiest of the Beavers' first games?
Instead, this looks like it could be the most comfortable win of the season to this point, considering the potent Beaver passing game is matched up with the awful Aztec defense.
Of course there are STILL questions about the defense, and this will be the best running attack we've seen yet. If the Beavs do give up big chunks of yardage on the ground on early downs, it could turn ugly, as Quinn Kaehler can make the simple passes to convert first downs.
Maybe, just maybe, this is the week the Beavers can run, and Sean Mannion can have a little but of the load lifted off his right arm. But that probably won't happen with the current state of the O-Line, and we'll need another 400+ yards out of Mannion to continue the winning streak.
For this game to really be considered a success, the Beavers need to dominate the game, not just win it. This game SHOULD have been a tuneup before the conference opener, but instead this turns into a must-win in terms of momentum.
I'll also be looking for some kick returns, continued improvement from Scott Crichton, and a big game out of DJ Alexander. It's tough to imagine the Beavs losing this one, but at the same time it's easy to see. If Sean Harlow has to play, Mannion falters, and the defense continues to be themselves, SDSU could sneak away a W.
Between the "autumn" catching up with me with a head cold combined with a busy week, and along with what I see as not as mysterious game, I'm going to cut to the chase and streamline the burning questions for Saturday's game:
1. The possible true tune-up game for the Beavs? One has to wonder if this game actually is now a bit more of that opening game tune-up for a Beavers team with three games down now. Along these lines, that then brings up questions such as: Can the offensive keep their focus and pedal to the floor on the Aztecs? Can the defense also keep their focus and have a really good game? Will we see a full game from Mannion, which would not bode well, and if not, will Cody Vaz be as sharp as he was against Hawai'i? And I think maybe a very important component to this game is can OSU avoid key injuries and stay healthy for the Colorado game next week?
2. On-the-field leadership? I was incredibly impressed with Mannion's and Cooks's leadership against Utah. The defense at first did look like they were going to have a breakout game behind Scott Crichton's play, but then took steps backward, and seemed to lack on-the-field adjustments by a leader. It would be great if they were able to reestablish this against San Diego State.
3. San Diego State? Basically this comes down to a team struggling for sure, but has been pointed out on the ‘dam' here, they lost to what looks to be a good FCS team (and as noted we can't comment much on this without the pot-and-the-kettle syndrome rearing its head), and lost 42 to 7 to Ohio State in Columbus (the Aztecs actually outgained the Buckeyes through the air, but at the same time one has to wonder if this was to playing catch up the entire game). So maybe there is a bit of mystery with the Aztecs coming into this game, but one has to think (avoiding "assume" here) that if OSU plays at the level of the last two games, there will not be much of question here.
In conclusion, this game has the feel of a classic if only the Beavs can play their game and stay focused that they can take care of business and get back next week to Pac-12 play with another win. But it has been a strange season so far, and again no assumptions here. I do hope for a low-stress game though, so I actually relax a bit Saturday evening and ease into "autumn" a little better than I have so far this week!