Oregon State defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and head coach Gary Andersen both made statements about going back to basics and focusing on fundamentals during the Beavers' bye week, especially on defense, after Stanford beat them fairly soundly, taking a 42-24 win last Friday night.
The use of terms like "fundamentals" might initially lead some to visions of blocking sleds and form tackling drills, and there's certainly been some of that, but there's more to it than that. Sitake also spoke of scheme, and that illustrates that fundamentals can also refer to coverage assignments and angles.
It's also an interesting, and informative, subject to dive deeper into.
The Beavers had not allowed a pass play of over 30 yards entering Friday's game, when they allowed three, including a 2 deep touchdown passes when the score was either tied, or separated by less than a touchdown. The Cardinal also broke off the longest rushing game of the season the Beavers have given up when Barry Sanders took off for a 65 yard score 1 play after Oregon State had gotten back into the game early in the fourth quarter.
Both of the touchdowns passes and the long run directly involved junior first year starter at safety Cyril Noland-Lewis. These 3 plays also serve as excellent discussion points to delve into what happened, why it happened, and what's involved in doing something about it.
Note also that this exercise is not meant to single out or beat up Noland-Lewis; there were certainly others who weren't in the right place at the right time, or weren't successful in their attempt at making a play. It's just that Noland-Lewis' plays were the most spectacular, and had the most significant outcomes. That comes with the territory when you play safety, the position title being informative, as safeties are the last line of defense, whose' responsibility is to provide a level of defensive safety against big plays.
"It exposed some guys on their deficiencies and stuff that we can work on," Sitake said. "If anything, it allowed us to see what we need to work on to get better this week and sharpen up our stuff so we can be ready for the Pac-12. When I saw 'exposed,' it's more about them not doing things that we ask them to, and we can work on that."
The first one came in the first quarter, and shortly after Oregon State had answered Stanford's first scoring drive with one of their own to tie the score at 7 apiece.
Cardinal tight end Austin Hooper broke to the post, above, and Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan found him for a 42 yard touchdown. Television, and most still photos, show CB Larry Scott trailing, too far behind to be able to break up the pass, or even stop Hooper. Which doubtless raised questions in the minds of some of what Scott was doing chasing a receiver on a route to the middle of the field, where one would expect to see Noland-Lewis in coverage. And where was Noland-Lewis at?
What happened was Stanford ran a crossing route with the 2 receivers the Cardinal had split out right. Scott as one would expect started with the widest receiver and Noland-Lewis on the receiver in the slot.
When the Stanford receivers crossed, the Oregon State DBs didn't switch, and so Noland-Lewis was towards the sideline and corner, still covering the slot receiver. The break to the post and traffic created separation from Scott for Hooper.
"Overall, we need more individuals to buy into what we're teaching," Sitake said. "It's different than what they've done in the past. What happens when things get tough, you're trying to get them to get out of what they've learned for the last three years. If you don't work the technique we're teaching within our scheme, it's really not going to work well."
Oregon State has rarely switched coverages in such situations in the past, and of course, Noland-Lewis has spent 3 years, and Scott, a red-shirt senior, 4 years, in the system of the previous coaching staff.
In fairness, not many college defenses do switch much, and few dbs did much of it in high school either. It's an "advanced" technique, one that requires quick on-field communication, and even quicker recognition. For that reason, it too can fail if not only not executed correctly, if not executed quickly. It's a risk-reward decision to switch or not, and why many defensive backfield coaches and defensive coordinators are cautious about using the tactic.
We have seen that Sitake is a believer in aggressive and advanced defensive schemes as a philosophy, and generally, its what's put the young Oregon State defense ahead of schedule so far, 4 games into the season. It's also the approach many in Beaver Nation have clamored for in response to a system former Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker had developed (and at times, been rather successful with) at a time when offensive football at the college level had a different look than it does today.
And Noland-Lewis' play has been a strong point at times over the course of season.
"I would love to just stand there and match pieces, and play that game of chess, and be able to put the right guys on the right people every time," Sitake said. "But what you do is you sacrifice technique and fundamentals when you're trying to do all this scheming. I would love to scheme a lot more, but we are not good enough with our fundamentals and technique. So we have to find a balance there ... as soon as we can have a good foundation to build on, then we'll work on adding more scheme."
In this instance, Sitake isn't talking about just footwork and handwork fundamentals, he's talking about coverage responsibilities and situational assignments.
The next big play in the touchdown trio was Michael Rector's third quarter catch and (comparatively) stroll in for a 49 yard touchdown, which again featured Noland-Lewis and Scott, and re-extended what was a 4 point Stanford lead to a multiscore margin.
Noland-Lewis and most fans in Reser Stadium thought Hogan had thrown an interception, but the ball found its way between Noland-Lewis' arms to Rector. At the same time, Scott got turned around, and as a result had no chance to get behind Rector to at least prevent the score.
It was a surprising outcome for a play that had Rector dealing with double coverage, but whenever a receiver gets behind everyone, a touchdown is a possibility. Had Noland-Lewis not tried for the interception, opting to take an angle behind Rector, a touchdown probably would not have resulted, but its also unlikely a turnover would have either.
Andersen has emphasized that players have to make plays for Oregon State to succeed, and as a double digit underdog, it was unlikely that the Beavers would compete with, never mind defeat, Stanford without getting some turnovers.
Safety Justin Strong explained that part of the game plan was to make Stanford go deep.
"There's a lot of little stuff we can do to, make them go deeper," Strong said. "Whenever we can force them to go deep, we try to take advantage of that, and try to make a play on the ball."
So Noland-Lewis wasn't being reckless, or playing for a personal highlight; the play, at least generally, was in line with what the coaches were looking for. Stanford just out-executed Oregon State, as Hogan made a "thread the needle" throw.
"We're not going to shy away from it and protect the DBs. They have to cover," Sitake said. "Our main concern is stopping the run and making sure we take care of the run first. And if teams want to throw the ball on us, Larry (Scott) and the rest of his crew are going to have to handle the business in the deep end."
The final score of the game, and the knockout punch, came when Sanders broke outside the left "C-gap", and broke a tackle attempt by Noland-Lewis, on his way to breaking away.
Tackling technique didn't look that bad, but obviously could have been more effective. But it would have also helped had more Beavers gotten a hand on Sanders; at least Noland-Lewis got to him.
But then Oregon State had clearly compressed their defense, which not only used a 4 man front more than the 3-man front that is their base, and even up to 6 d-linemen, in an attempt to deal with 7 linemen plus a tight end, and even up to 9 down linemen that Stanford deployed. And wrapping up, or even pursuing to a runner, gets progressively harder as the pounding piles up against a physical team like Stanford. It was no accident that this run broke in the 4th quarter of a game in which Stanford had the ball more than 9 minutes more than Oregon State did.
Andersen said "We've been able to go back and focus on some fundamentals and understand that. And continually tell these kids that it's not the scheme that wins the games. It's their ability to be in the right spot at the right time, and play 11-man defense."
It's easier said than done, but the Oregon State coaching staff is endeavoring to address it at a nuts and bolts level.
"I'm actually pleased that it happened this early," Sitake summarized, "where we can find some things to get better at, and work on."
(Images by Andy Wooldridge)