The return of WR James Rodgers will be both an emotional and a technical boost to the Oregon St. offense as the Beavers open Pac-12 play Saturday against UCLA, and TE Joe Halahuni will help too. After all, the pair of seniors have accounted for 26 touchdown catches in their careers.
But breaking down the tape of the Bruins' 49-20 loss to Texas last Saturday reveals that Jordan Bishop could be critical as well.
UCLA's defense has been run over roughshod in the early going, and a primary cause quickly became apparent against the Longhorns. The Bruin linebackers are a hesitant lot, taking rather deep drops on alignment, and then being slow to react. Which has left them lost in space, too deep to defend the run, yet too shallow to counter moderately deep crossing routes.
Despite the fact that the starters are a pair of seniors and a junior, Glenn Love, Patrick Larimore, and Sean Westgate had a combined 7 starts last season, and the lack of experience shows.
To attempt to shore up the rush defense, UCLA is regularly sending one safety forward, putting 8 in the box on most plays. Yet the Bruins still couldn't control the Texas ground game, as the Longhorns rolled up 284 rushing yards.
More importantly, the aggressive use of a safety to try to plug up a run defense the linebackers weren't handling left the Bruins with only a single defender deep. Essentially, UCLA was playing cover 2 defense with only one safety. Perfect for crossing routes to a receiver like Bishop, who can get to balls that might not be exactly on target. Which could happen with the Beavers sending out Sean Mannion, a red-shirt freshman, for his first start.
Rodgers probably won't be sent through the middle in his first game back after nearly a year of recovery and rehab for his knee injury, but Bishop will. Halahuni's stock in trade has been operations in the same moderately deep mid-field area.
But that should open up the corners of the field for Rodgers and Marcus Wheaton. That cover 2 with only 1 left the UCLA corners without help, and Texas' pair of newbie quarterbacks combined to burn the Bruins, completing 15 of 18 passes. The Longhorns even completed a wide receiver thrown touchdown pass.
How successful the Oregon St. offensive line, which was highly effective in run blocking against a suspect Sacramento St. defense, but far less so at opening running lanes against a superior Wisconsin defense, will be against a middle of the road UCLA defensive front is difficult to project. But If the Beavers can split the difference against a split the difference quality opponent, Oregon St. should be effective enough to keep the Bruin linebackers occupied, and that safety from dropping into deep coverage. Opening up a lot of opportunities for Mannion to get the ball to the strength of the team, the receivers, who just got a major re-injection of talent.
If the 5 most important players on the field for the Bruins might be their linebackers and safeties, so to might the same position players be big for Oregon St.
UCLA has averaged 215 yards per game rushing, 28th. best in the country. And that's despite falling behind and getting into a shootout against Houston, and also falling behind Texas early.
The key to controlling the effective, but not terribly elaborate Bruin ground game, and especially Johnathan Franklin, is gap control. The Beaver linebackers will each have responsibility for 2 gaps, and must correctly read the play, choosing the right gap to get into.
Complicating the issue is the fact that Richard Brehaut will get the start for UCLA Saturday. Unlike Kevin Prince, who can be counted on to serve up a turnover, or get injured, on a regular basis, the steady if unspectacular Brehaut hasn't thrown an interception yet this year.
And he's also mobile. In last year's 17-14 win over the Beavers, Brehaut not only completed 13 of 19 passes, including 8 that converted third downs, he was also the Bruins second leading rusher after Franklin's 100 yard effort, picking up 61 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
Oregon St. can't afford to let Brehaut and WR Nelson Rosario look like an All-Pac-12 combination. Which starts with the outside linebackers; Cameron Collins and Michael Doctor must maintain containment, something that has been a challenge in the last couple of years whenever the Beavers have encountered a quarterback that can move the pocket.
And the challenge continues with safeties Anthony Watkins and Lance MiItchell. At 6'5" and 6'3", UCLA WRs Rosario and Taylor Embree have a considerable height and leverage advantage over Oregon St.'s Jordan Poyer and Rashaad Reynolds, who are 6'0", and 5'10", respectively. As well as less experienced than the bigger targets they are up against. Watkins and Mitchell, who will be called upon at times for run support, must still manage to get to the edges, and help Poyer and Reynolds with bracket coverage, or Brehaut could torch the Beaver secondary, which is ranked 85th. in the nation in passing defense, as has happened in the opening two weeks.
Saturday, the team that gets the best performance out of their linebackers and safeties will have a good shot at also getting the win.