What's Wrong With The OSU Defense, and What's Right With The Passing Game?

The Oregon St. secondary has come up with some interceptions that have contributed to winning the last 2 games, but are 107th in the country in passing yards allowed, and the Beavers are 92nd in total defense. - Photo by Andy Wooldridge

Our friend and colleague Avinash Kunnath from Pacific Takes and California Golden Blogs dropped by, and of course he has the same questions everyone else does about the simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking ways of the Beavers.

Oregon St., tied for the lead in the Pac-12 North, and at 3-1 heading into this week's conference home opener at noon Saturday against unbeaten Colorado, is a couple of spectacular touchdowns away from being 1-3, yet also only a couple of plays away from being 4-0 and in the top 20. So the members of Beaver Nation aren't the only ones who have noticed the unexpected excitement that has generated ratings and sales of antacids in equal proportions.

Robert, Connor, and I tried to explain things as best we could.

AV: What are the main reasons this Beaver defense has been so bad?

RVM: Lots has been written about this all over the web, so I'm not sure what all I can add to it, but here are my thoughts right now. I think overall, it comes down to what Andy pointed out to me when I was complaining to him that they all look slow, especially sideline-to-sideline, and Andy pointed out that they are getting to the plays slower because they are getting burned as a result of being out of position by misreading the plays, and having to constantly play catch up (I think I may have RVM spun Andy's ideas a bit here, but overall that is the gist of it).

The defense seems more inexperienced about all of this than I expected coming in from last year, but the loss of players such as Jordan Poyer has had an effect on the on-the-field leadership. Then throw in losing people like OLB Michael Doctor to injury, and it is adding up. As such, the Beavs are just not there yet in getting that team identity and swagger.

There is an element of coaching here too, but of late I am not as certain as I was after that first Eastern Washington game to put the main "blame" on the coaches; it looks to be much more the on the field/clock is ticking game time player adjustments that are lacking.

To put even more of my spin on it, I think this is creating a possible spiral deal, where now we have certain areas of the defense and players trying too hard to make up for other players' mistakes as individuals, versus trying to bring the entire team up to standards. I have been worried that it is a lack of raw talent, but I think that the talent is fine and to be optimistic (and some will pooh-pooh this, I am sure) I think there is just enough, not a lot, but just enough, time to turn things around.

And probably not enough to take down a top ten type of team, but tough and smart enough to allow the offense to score enough points to take down other teams that many fear we have no chance against. Not making any promises for there does seem to be a lot of work to be done, and they ain't there yet, but they have some winnable games in a row coming up, along with an upcoming bye week, to hopefully get things worked out.

Andy: Robert recapped things well; there has been no one emerge as the "quarterback of the defense" that Poyer was. He was able to make the pre-snap reads and corrections that greatly reduced the problems with over-rotation, missing the existence of mis-matches that require certain adjustments and preclude others, and loss of lane responsibility.

It's not that this isn't happening at all; it is, and that's where 3 and outs and picks (Oregon St. has had a pick 6 in each of the last 2 games, and Steven Nelson co-leads the nation in interceptios) are coming from. But it is highly inconsistent, and its also taking longer to adjust when mistakes, which happens to all defenses, are made, and so there are too many plays that are turning into explosion plays.

A now total turnover in starting linebackers, for injury and other reasons, and a lot of trial and error on personnel groups in the secondary, has really slowed down the maturation process of the defense.

Connor: Would it be bad to say that I don't think the defense has been all that bad? Sure, the Eastern Washington game was awful in every sense of the word, but considering the amount of injuries and poor coaching, I haven't been that upset with the play since week one.

They only gave up seven points against Hawaii, and while Utah was very frustrating, let's be real, mobile quarterbacks hurting the Beavs wasn't exactly a surprise. And they did come up HUGE in overtime.

Last week was interesting. I think our troubles in the second quarter were magnified by the fact our offense couldn't get anything going for the first time all year, but they more than made up for it with the back-to-back interceptions to end the game.

I should probably answer the question. The main reason they've been so bad stems from a complete lack of preparation in Fall Camp. The speed and tackling issues are still there, and they are either misreading plays or over rotating, leaving receivers wide open. Like RVM and Andy said, they also need a Jordan Poyer, "quarterback of the defense" type to take leadership and point out adjustments that need to be made on the field.

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AV: Sean Mannion (above) has been pretty spectacular to start 2013. What are his greatest strengths? Where would you rank him among Pac-12 quarterbacks?

RVM: Maybe I have too much a bias, but feel Sean is easily one of the best Pac-12 QBs so far this season, if not the best pure QB. He has been fantastic with not only his numbers, but his overall presence on the field. I think maybe he has "panicked" twice out there, otherwise he has been hard to shake even when things are going to heck like against San Diego State.

This has paid off incredibly, as in the San Diego State game and having enough composure and confidence to get a crucial end of the game TD drive. He had some of this last season before his injury, but nothing like what we are seeing this season. Also he just has an incredible combination of field vision and the arm to make throws to the spots he needs to get the ball to. I mean watching him release the ball, you just have the feeling that ball is going to a spot where basically only his guy can get it. Even when he is off, he still has that confident vision and arm where you just know adjustments will be made at some time. I'll say this too, if this OSU team, as a team, on both sides of the ball can crank up their overall performance, Sean could well be getting a lot more national (award) attention as the season progresses.

Andy: Mannion's strength is his maturity, which led to both better mechanics and excellent decision making. He used to be an interception machine, and a sack magnet as well. As Robert notes, we were beginning to see what Sean is doing now last year at UCLA and Arizona, but before anyone else could notice, he got hurt. Even though he came back, he never really recovered, either physically or mentally.

In the off-season, he took his shortcomings seriously, and worked hard on them. He's back throwing to his potential, but its really his decision making that has nearly eliminated both interceptions (it appeared the ball slipped in the one against Hawaii) and sacks. His completion percentage is well documented, but while he has missed at times, the ball is rarely in a position where something bad can happen. Even most of his throw-aways are "good" throws that go where they are supposed to when they need to.

Mannion will never be in the same category as Marcus Mariota or Brett Hundley because he isn't mobile, or even Keith Price, though he's closer to Price than many think, because Price doesn't run by design nearly as much as by necessity, and when things are "right", he's going to throw from the pocket or near it. So because he lacks the mobility factor, Mannion is more 1 dimensional. But his accuracy and decision making are their equal (so far), if not better. And he is as good a fit for the Oregon St. system as the above mentioned 3 are in theirs, so while he would suffer more than they would if we were to swap them, that won't happen, and so he's about equal under the circumstances that apply.

Connor: Maturity, confidence, and pocket presence. Tough to think of anything that RVM and Andy haven't already said, but I love the way he always keeps calm, even in crucial or "sinking ship" type moments. The way he stands in the pocket is also great. The patchwork offensive line is doing a good job of giving him plenty of time, and he rarely panics when a sack is looming. I would rank him third among Pac-12 quarterbacks, behind Mariota and Hundley.

Av: Outside of Mannion, what has impressed you the most about the Beavers?

RVM: Oh wow, the entire passing game really. The receivers have looked fantastic.

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Brandin Cooks (above) leads the country in 4 passing categories. He had an off game against San Diego State but still had 141 yards receiving and tied the school record for catches in a game. Richard Mullaney looks to be a star in the making (I was disappointed they did not get him more involved in the San Diego State game, and even then, he had 86 yards on 7 catches).

Then we have some tight ends that complement the receivers well, especially Connor Hamlett. Might be a bit weaker here, for the other two guys behind Hamlett seem to be having some growing pains at times with their play, but Caleb Smith and Kellen Clute are young and making strides, so one has to think we may have three very dynamic go to guys here very soon. Even the running backs have contributed at times in impressive fashion to the passing game such as Storm Woods only being three yards off Cooks leading total in the game against Hawai'i (92 to 95 total yards) .

Andy: Obviously the passing game, but I have to add the pass protection that has helped make the passing game go, given the number of linemen that are out, the number of inexperienced ones playing, and the number of position changes that have happened.

If you said before the season that by now, 4 o-linemen that were supposed to play on the right side would be out, a true freshman would be playing, and the center would be playing tackle, except for when his backup has been hurt, I would have predicted the passing game would be struggling as much as the rushing game.

Connor: I've loved our special teams play. Keith Kostol has done as good a job as I remember a Beaver punter doing, and Trevor Romaine has been rock solid.

Av: Oregon State has been gifted their three most winnable games the next three weeks. How are you projecting the rest of the Beavers season will unfold?

RVM: Wow, not sure I want to go here to be honest. Not sure WSU is going to be a "gift" game, I think unlike Colorado with their new coaching situation that the Cougs have a season under their belt with their new staff, and the Beavs are traveling to Pullman for that game.

I think maybe only Colorado and Cal are the remaining games that are not going to be much more challenging than the last two wins for the Beavs. Colorado is a bit of a mystery game for sure I think. And very much after Cal, the challenge goes up another notch or two!

Honestly the Beavs seem to have three ways they can go (and yes these are pretty seemingly obvious scenarios, but the best I can do!):

1) Good = Basically shore things up on defense, keep the passing offense clicking, and get the offensive line healthy/experienced enough after the bye to get a semi-decent running game. All of this leading to being able to compete easily with any non-top five team (Stanford being the wild card here, and maybe the Beavs even giving the Cardinal a game of it, as they could match up well with them).

2) The Expected = Beavs never quite turn the corner with the defense and running game, but Mannion and the passing game makes some of the games winnable, and some other games semi-interesting, which gives us the .500 season with a lame Bowl invite.

3) Ugly = Things just get a lot worse, and even leading the passing game to going the wrong way, and the big time calling for heads hits the World Wide Web.

Right now personally I will go all gushing about it all, and say I'm still in the camp of #1 happening, but will be realistic too, and say there is much work to be done to get the team to that point. Still though, as we discussed above, there is a little window here these next four weeks.

Andy: I think the Colorado game could be a replay of the San Diego St. game; down to the wire in a wild shootout with ups and downs on both sides of the ball for both teams. I do think being at home will be a factor, making it more likely that Oregon St. pulls it out than not.

The bye the next week is going to be pivotal, allowing both time to get people healthy and time to work on defensive and o-line adjustments. Oregon St. head coach Mike Riley has a decent track record of making good use of mid-season byes, and I expect him to make good use of this one.

The trips to Pullman and Berkeley are trips, so it will be tough, but also near must-win games for Oregon St. A split is a possibility, but would be a disappointing one.

The much more difficult last 5 games are going to be a gauntlet, but 3 of them are at home, and Oregon St. matches up well with both Stanford and USC, scheme wise. There is another bye before going to Arizona St., which makes that game more manageable, and we may find the Sun Devil defense is vulnerable. It seems unlikely anyone beats Mannion with 24 points or less.

Washington is looking very good, but the Huskies have to come to Corvallis, and like the Trojans, they don't do so well in Reser.

There's a reasonable shot at winning each of these 7 games, so 4 wins and a winable minor bowl game (Robert, where exactly is the "Lame Bowl" played; I think I'll need to get hotel reservations made) seems attainable.

At Oregon = forget about it, and enjoy the colorful show.

Connor: I think we beat Colorado in a tight game. The Buffaloes will of course be playing their first game in three weeks, and while that may present some challenges in the scouting department, it will even out in the early rust CU shows. I have no feeling for the Washington State and California games. The Golden Bears scare me more than they do others, but I think we come out with at least a split. However, with this team's ability to pull out games in the oddest of ways, a sweep wouldn't surprise me at all.

The Beavers match up well with Stanford, but it would be foolish to pick an upset at this point with the way our defense is playing. I do think USC comes in and gets blasted in front of a post Halloween, ESPN audience. As Andy said, a week to prepare for Arizona State helps. I'll still give ASU the nod, but once again, we keep it close. I'm still not completely sold on the Huskies and I think the Beaver defense turns in its best performance of the year on Senior Day. That brings the win total to seven, and the hashtag #AvoidedAlbuquerque trends in Corvallis. The good feelings from the week before are washed away in a Civil War blowout, but two days later an invitation for an Emerald Bowl return trip cheers up Beaver Nation.

Thanks, Av, for dropping by; I'm sure we will want to hook up again next month with you or "Twist" before the trip to Berkely.

Andy_Wooldridge@yahoo.com

(Photos by Andy Wooldridge)

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