Oregon State visits Washington State today, in the 100th renewal of the Northwest Landgrant Rivalry. It's an under-appreciated rivalry, off most college football fans' radar, with this evening's Oregon-Washington side of the northwest state rivalries garnering much more attention.
But over the years, and especially lately, the series has produced something memorable, though not necessarily a pleasant memory for someone, seemingly every year. Record setting games (the Beavers' highest scoring game against a conference opponent ever came at the Cougars' expense in the 66-13 game in 2008), key injuries (it was 3 years ago that Sean Mannion directed a lower scoring than expected 19-6 Beaver win, but suffered the knee injury in the second quarter that would spawn all kinds of extra drama for months to come), and some memorable weather (some of the best and worst the northwest has to offer has been seen on game days between OSU & WSU).
And the famous or infamous phrase "Coug It" has never been more on display than the last couple of seasons. That's a term that our cousins in crimson don't much like, but its
The last time the Beaver ventured into the Palouse 2 years ago, the Cougars saw a touchdown lead late in the third quarter melt down in the face of a 35-0 run by the Beavers, fueled by 6 (!) Cougar turnovers on their last 6 possessions of the game, including the Beavers picking off Connor Halliday 3 times in the course of 5 plays that were run by the Cougars. By the time the 52-24 rout was over, there were more Beavers in Martin Stadium than Cougars.
Last year, it was the Beavers that "Couged It", as Luke Falk, then a freshman, made his first career collegiate start, and threw for 471 yards and 5 touchdowns, 2 in the 4th quarter, and for the third home game in a row, the Beavers came from behind to take a 4th quarter lead only to lose said lead in spectacular fashion.
This year, the 2-3 Beavers, who have lost 2 in a row, take on the 3-2 Cougars, who just won in double overtime at Oregon. What could possibly unfold this time?
After what happened last week in both Tucson and Eugene, I can't recall when I've been more unsure of what will happen this week. But I can't wait to find out.
Oregon State clearly has to play better on defense and special teams, and at least more consistent, and more intelligently, on offense. And in light of being called out by the coaches, and how poorly the Beavers played at Arizona, its hard to imagine they won't.
And its hard to believe the Washington State defense can't be run on.
The thing is, it remains to be seen if the Beavers can improve enough, and run for enough, to actually change the outcome, even if they play a more competitive game. And even against the Cougars, and the Pirate, neither of which have demonstrated any capacity for consistency.
If they don't, things could get real dicey during the second half of the season. Which is another reason I expect a better Beaver effort today.
But right now, Falk and the Cougars appear to be hitting their long anticipated stride. I can't imagine Oregon State Defensive Coordinator Kalani Sitake won't dial up a combination of blitzes and 4-2-5 coverage to try to disrupt Washington State's timing. This is an approach that's worked before against the "Air Raid", for the Beavers and others, whereas the bend until you break approach often does exactly that, bend and eventually break.
Watch for even more mixing and matching of Beavers on defense as well, as the Cougars' pace and the Beavers' recent miscues will lead to trying somethings different.
And Washington State has played 4 games progressively better in a row. Can that continue? History suggests otherwise. Oregon State must be ready to capitalize should there be any indication of impending "Couging it". This is not the time to be fully focused inward, when the circumstances at hand are apt to be totally unpredictable.
Beaver Believer Believes The Keys To The Game Will Be:
1. Do not make assignment mistakes. The air raid is going to spread out the Beavers, and they need to play with much better mental focus. They've been sloppy in the last couple of games and it has cost them. The secondary needs to hold down the fort and try to let the line get to Luke Falk. He is a solid player, and he played really tough against the Ducks last week taking some huge shots. If the secondary can hold up it might allow the linemen to get some much needed sacks, but they need to raise their level as well.
2. Run the ball effectively. Storm Barrs-Woods and company need to get the ball moving on the ground. It is of course more on the offensive line, as they have been getting poor push and with no room to run (except for some Seth Collins breakways, and a play here or there) the offense has flatlined. There needs to be some prolonged drives in order to give the defense a shot to keep up, especially with their current form. Oregon State needs their veterans to stand up and declare that their play has not been good enough. For the offense that starts with the big boys up front and the running backs. It's time to get it done.
3. Take some risks. I haven't been much of a proponent for being loose with the game plan, but it might be time to start. This team needs a spark, they need to feel that extra surge of energy that they had when they were flying around early on. It might be Andersen going for it on 4th in dangerous territory. Maybe some continued deep shots (preferably ones that won't get guys hurt), but this team needs some excitement. Time to let them loose and see if it helps.
With momentum the way it is, Wazzu is looking better than we had hoped at this point. The Beavers will need to bring up the offense if they really want to stay in this as the Cougars will get theirs. With a still developing qb, that chance seems slim though. 34-17 Cougars.
Full disclosure, I really did think the Beavs had a chance last week against Arizona. Or at the very least, they would make a game of it. Maybe I thought the Wildcats would pull away at the end due to miscues and fatigue on Oregon State's side of things. In the end I was not correct, and unfortunately not even close.
As such I really don't know if I have any specific keys to this game against a good Washington State team. It just feels too much like I am repeating obvious bits of analysis: Offensive balance in the passing and rushing game, controlling the clock against a dynamic passing team, defensive improvement in assignments, keep miscues down in terms of both penalties and turnovers, and keep a running Seth Collins from trying to take on linebackers.
In the end though, much of what I feel it comes down to is just getting back to basics. The coaching staff is now really hitting on this mantra in full strength, and are getting pretty upfront cranky about it all. Honestly I can't tell if this brutal honestly is refreshing or depressing. I know, I know different schemes and coaches working with young players, but there is a part of me also worried here that we still have some pretty good, and smart players on both sides of the ball. They are not playing good football though.
So in conclusion I will throw out some possible keys I will be looking for beyond those beating-the-dead-horse ones I already mentioned above:
1. Improvement and Glimpses of Promise Anywhere = I am not expecting a win out of this game. I can't just go there right now, but I can go to the point of there needs to be signs of life in this team. Something like the offensive performance we saw in the first half of the Stanford game, and/or even slight adjustments on defense such as allowing less missed coverages. In many ways this feels like a season opener game, or a game two. It is a game to build on.
2. WSU Letdown = Okay, for Oregon State to have any chance in this game, Washington State cannot be at the level of confidence and energy we have seen them at against Cal and Oregon. They looked good in both of those games, and sure they lost to Cal, and Oregon is not a Ducks team we have grown used to, but the Cougs played both those games at a level we have now seen slowing growing within the program under Mike Leach. I do not see how Oregon State can keep up unless WSU has a bit of a letdown, with now playing at home after a hard-fought win in Eugene. But maybe a little confidence that comes out of an opening due to flat WSU play can kick-start something for Oregon State that goes a longer ways than just a play here and there?
3. Something to hang our hats on = This is a bit redundant with #1 above, but this is a game that could become ugly with how both teams are currently playing.
It does not need to be. We have two programs at completely different crossroads, and for Oregon State this will be a tough challenge against an amped up Washington State program that is hanging around the Pac-12 North, making things interesting for Stanford and Cal. I do not think a win for the Beavs is completely and utterly out of the question, I still think there is enough skill to be found in this team. But at the same time, after being burned last week, I just am not ready to give a full benefit of the doubt this week. This is a program that needs to prove something for me to be more confident, but I know in the end it is not about me and even much more important is this team needs to prove something to themselves.