Oregon St. is embarking on their second extended break of football season, heading into a second bye week the quirks of the calendar afford this season. And the Beavers are in need of both a break, and the opportunity to fix some things, after consecutive losses, first to Stanford, and then Friday night, to USC. In both games, they were out-muscled, out-played, and out-coached.
Waiting in the wings are an Arizona St. team that's playing their best ball in a long time, a Washington squad that's desperate to take a step up in the Pac-12 they know they can only achieve by being Trojan-like and breaking their losing streak in Corvallis, and an Oregon team that could be stalking a National Championship come Civil War time if the Duck can overcome the Cardinal Thursday night.
But what can Coach Mike Riley realistically fix between now and the middle of November, and what will we have to wait for later for?
Before anyone begins the "Fire Riley/Baner/Cavanaugh/DeCarolis/[insert your object of frustration here]" banter, whether anyone likes it or not, and whether its in the best interests of Oregon St. or not, Coach Riley isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Other than probably to Albuquerque for the New Mexico Bowl, which will in fact extend his contract another year. Consequently, its unlikely defensive coordinator Mark Banker or offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh, or many others on the staff will be staying around too, so its most productive to analyze what can be done and when, rather than engage in conversation about what could happen if things that aren't going to happen were to happen.
What Happened To The Offense?
Oregon St.'s defense played well enough to upset now #5 Stanford, but the previously high powered offense let them down. To a degree, that was to be expected, given the quality of the Cardinal defense. But the USC secondary was supposedly susceptible if the Trojan rush could be kept somewhat under control, and the Beaver blockers were somewhat successful at that, as Sean Mannion was only sacked twice.
But for the second week in a row, Mannion, who still leads the country in passing yards and touchdowns despite back to back [relatively] bad weeks, only threw for 1 touchdown. And Brandin Cooks, who still leads the country in receiving yards and touchdowns, had lower than average catches and yards, and only caught those single touchdowns per game.
Many point to the continued lack of a rushing game, and there's no doubt that's both a part of the problem and will need to be a part of the solution.
The offensive line is going to have a hard time turning out a rushing game like what Oregon St. fans saw several times in Riley's tenure, both now and in the future. The zone blocking style Cavanaugh favors undeniably can and has worked, and can and has produced NFL linemen. But it gong to become harder to do so due to the proliferation of the plethora of zone read systems.
It's easier to dominate the line of scrimmage whenever you have NFL grade guys, but while those have always been hard to come by, the prototype for Cavanaugh's system are actually becoming fewer and further between, which contributes to the issue of Oregon St. being unsuccessful in recruiting them.
Even when its working well, watching the Beavers run the ball is like watching footage of vintage Michigan teams from a decade or two ago. It's about power, not mobility, and a skill set not being taught in very many places any more.
Watching a pair of good, as in nationally ranked, Division III games this weekend was a good reminder of where the game is going, as the read option run behind mobile linemen who concentrate on footwork, and in many cases, couldn't drive block a tacking dummy, was prevalent. And the reality is more "good" high school linemen, at both the "football powers" as well as the small programs that only send a player or two to any of the several next levels every few years, are headed to the mid-level programs, be they non BCS-AQ, FCS, or Division II/III. So coaches are running systems that give their proteges the greatest chance of success regardless of how high their talent is likely to carry them.
It's a relatively new system, with a different skill set, aimed at a different result than what Oregon St. is looking for. The next Jeff Van Orsow, Andy Levitre, or Mike Remmers simply aren't out there in even the quantity they used to be, and Oregon St. has never been the place most likely to land the best prospects.
But could something still be done about it with what Oregon St. has to work with?
USC interim coach Ed Orgeron, himself working with limited manpower (USC had only 48 scholarship players, and even with 20 walkons, the Trojans were still well under the Pac-12 limit of players traveling to conference road games), got effective production by using multiple backs to their individual strengths, and both Silas Redd and Javarius Allen went well over 100 yards doing it differently.
Might coach Riley realize better results by using Terron Ward, who led the Beavers in rushing both of the last 2 weeks, more often, and focus on getting Storm Woods the ball on more pass routes? Oregon St. has alternated series for the two backs, but seems to run essentially the same plays for both of them, even though its surely apparent to everyone that they are different backs. It seems an extra week could allow for time to tweak the game plan to interchange Ward and Woods as down and distance dictate, not series by series.
And why did we only see Cooks on 2 fly sweeps, both very effective, against USC? This after the post-mortum on the Stanford game was that more sweeps were in order?
Given that opposing defenses are predictably focusing on limiting Cooks' ability to operate down field, its especially important to get the ball in the hands of Oregon St.'s best playmaker as often as possible.
The loss for the rest of the regular season of WR Kevin Cummings proved to be an even bigger problem than many might have expected. Malik Gilmore had 3 catches against USC, but otherwise was mostly unsuccessful in being a concern for the Trojans. That also allowed a greater focus on either slowing down or bumping Richard Mullaney off his routes, which made life difficult for Mannion.
Yet for whatever reason, Oregon St. never adjusted their personnel package offensively; neither Micah Hatfield nor Mitch Singler showed up on the game participation report, and Victor Bolden had only 1 catch, which came after the game was effectively over.
With TE Connor Hamlett still not back up to speed, or even on the same page as Mannion (which led to the Hamlett running 1 route while Mannion was throwing to another, and the first of a pair of USC interceptions in the vicinity of the end zone), and Caleb Smith out, the ball distribution that was a cornerstone of Mannion's success earlier in the season wasn't nearly as effective.
The result was a disparity on 3rd down efficiency, 2 of 11, 18%, versus 7 of 14, 50% by USC. Than translated to a 5 minute time of possession edge in the first half that grew to over 12 minutes by the end of the game. That reduced Mannion's opportunities and put the defense under increased pressure.
The 2 weeks should allow time for Hamlett to bet twice as much practice in as he has in the last month, and Smith to get healthy, but Cummings won't be back until at least a bowl game, if even then.
Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf can take the time afforded to get back to a more diverse offensive package, even if it doesn't rely on Gilmore, who wasn't ready for prime time.
And can we please see more of Chris Brown's speed on special teams?
Defensive Progress Derailed?
After the defense had seemed to be making slow but steady progress after being essentially missing in action at the beginning of the season, 31 points by USC was more than many expected Friday night.
And now, after a series of games against quarterbacks that weren't looking to run, the Beavers must prepare for the Sun Devils' Taylor Kelly, who only accounted for 7 touchdowns directly at the expense of the hapless Cougs Thursday night in Pullman.
A variety of issues with the defense are directly related to the fact that all 3 LBs that started on opening day are out. As a result, a less experienced crew across the board is limiting the options for pressuring quarterbacks, and compounding the primary problem in the secondary as well.
While Banker has never been one to rely heavily on blitzing, to his credit, he has dialed up some at key moments this season, though more of them have involved the secondary than the linebackers this season. Something that Oregon St.'s nickel and dime defense lends itself too; there are just more DBs than LBs to work with.
Against USC, a defensive line that was being only minimally successful could have used some creative help, and save for one Ryan Murphy sack, they didn't get much.
But turning around the defense probably ultimately has to wait until some some defensive recruiting. Jabral Johnson has made some good progress this season, and the jury is still out on Cyril Noland-Lewis, a converted DB, and Darrell Songy. But when I watch practice, I don't see a Butkus Award Watchlist nominee anywhere.
The defensive line suffered from the loss of John Braun, and he too should be back for the stretch run. But its going to take some creativity to overcome a strategy opponents have repeatedly been using successfully against Oregon St.
Dylan Wynn has a high motor, but is under-sized, and while opponents know Wynn will blow up several plays on them, they also know they will get away with "singling" him more times than not. That's allowed a lot of double teams on Scott Crichton, something USC did well, particularly by using a tight end.
These issues have had something to do with the single biggest bugaboo that the Oregon St. defense has struggled with all season; breakdowns by the safeties.
This is something that has to get fixed. USC's huge pass plays that set the tone for both halves had one thing in common; neither Murphy nor Ty Zimmerman were even in the same zip code as the Trojan receiver that had no trouble beating single coverage when there was no one over the top.
(Try and find the center deep help that Rashaad Reynolds needed.)
There's a natural tendency that's completely understandable, and actually necessary, to commit heavily to run support given the current state of affairs with the linebackers and the defensive line. But a common thread in a huge number of the big plays that have and continue to haunt the Oregon St. defense has been a huge hole caused by over-rotation, over-pursuit, or over-commitment. Without knowing the fine details of what secondary coach Rod Perry and Banker are calling, or how much latitude Murphy and Zimmerman are given, its hard to pinpoint blame for a lot of these breakdowns.
But regardless of system and assignment, safeties HAVE TO WORK TOGETHER. There has to be communication when one of them takes an aggressive read, so the other one doesn't, and there has to be good situational awareness, to recognize early when a safety OR linebacker isn't going to be in position to make a play regardless of the reason. Above all else, its on Zim and Murph to between them make sure one of them cleans up whatever gets by the rest of the defense.
Oregon St. going to a better bowl or not, and being a factor in the Pac-12 and national picture, or this being another mearly another good, but not top tier, season, probably hinges on not seeing both Murphy and Zimmerman chasing the same play from hopelessly too far behind, like on USC's first score:
Coach Riley can only fix some of Oregon St.'s problems with recruiting (which is also happening during these 2 weeks), but can capitalize on the opportunity extra time affords to address some of them. It should be a very busy fortnight.
Fight On! Err, Go Beavs!
(Photos by Andy Wooldridge)