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Pullman Epilogue; A Tactical Decision Gone Wrong

Oregon State couldn't come close to putting pressure on the Coug's Luke Falk.
Oregon State couldn't come close to putting pressure on the Coug's Luke Falk.
(Photo by Andy Wooldridge)

We've talked about mistakes by players in recent weeks, and the Oregon State staff even called out some, both specifically and generally, last week, after the disaster in the desert. And rightly so; there have been a number of mistakes that have exacerbated the Beavers' matchup, depth, and experience issues. And there were errors made by players Saturday in the Palouse too.

But the record setting first half debacle, and the overall outcome of this one sits squarely on the coaching staff.

Everything else became secondary when the Oregon State coaching staff made a tactical decision that did not work. Defensive Coordinator Kalani Sitake had said during the week that the Beavers would go with a 4-2-5 alignment extensively, and a 4 man front generally, instead of his preferred 3 man front, in an effort to get pressure on Washington State quarterback Luke Falk, and attempt to disrupt the Cougars' Air Raid offense.

It didn't work, and to an extent rarely seen by any tactical decision anyone has implemented around this conference in a long time.

Oregon State was unable to win virtually any battles on the line, and as a result, was unable to put any appreciable pressure on Falk all day. The Beavers recorded only 2 sacks, and both were coverage sacks. The one in the first quarter came after about 7 seconds. As a result, Falk completed 78% of his passes, for 407 yards, and 6 first half touchdowns.

When the Air Raid is working, its hard to get many sacks on whomever the quarterback is, because often the ball is gone in 2 or 3 seconds, 4 at the most. But on Saturday, many of Falk's throws came out after he was able to stand and survey the situation for 4 or 5 seconds, some times even more, and just as importantly, his receivers had 4, 5, 6, or even 7 seconds to work their routes into openings.

There were a number of plays that resulted in many of Falk's completions that would not have worked had the ball had to come out after 3 seconds, or the throw be made under pressure.

Generally, I've been a fan of coach Sitake, and also agreed with the dual principals of the defensive game plan implemented, to try to get pressure on Falk with more rushers, but also to not do it with more than occasional blitzes, which, if they don't get home, exposes the secondary to the Air Raid severely at the mid-level.

But it flat out did not work.

Further, there was no real adjustment until halftime, which was the real problem. Going to 2 linemen down and 2 rushing from an upright starting position was a change, but wasn't a change in terms of the distribution of the defenders.

The absence of still injured Jalen Grimble didn't help matters, but the obvious truth that there have been rumblings about for several weeks is that this team's defensive front is not capable of winning individual battles against a decent opponent on more than an incidental basis. They are not strong enough to overpower full sized offensive linemen like those at Stanford and Washington State, and they are not fast enough to out-quick anyone, and especially Arizona. Or even a Cougar line built for pocket protection.

The Beavers, and their coaches and fans, will need to accept that, and focus defensive efforts on protection. That's a scary prospect, given how badly their secondary play was against Arizona, but the proof was the second half on Saturday.

They will still need to throw an occasional 4 man front at an opponent, as well as some blitzes, just to see if there is a mismatch they can exploit, but generally, Oregon State needs to play a max-coverage approach, at least with this group, and revisit the issue after another recruiting class arrives.

Admittedly, Washington State took their foot off the throttle after the break, but it was also evident from the view of the defense from the end of the field, or at least the corner, that the addition of an 8th defender also made several significant differences.

There are gaps in all defenses, but they were all smaller with one more defender. And there were routes that were cut off instead of being open to run into the open by receivers, especially the crossing stuff, because there was someone to step into the path of the receiver, either slowing or redirecting him.

And all of the talk about poor tackling by the Beavers, which as Coach Gary Andersen noted, improved markedly in the second half, also overlooks the fact that the extra spacing puts defenders at greater distance, and makes arm tackles the only possibility, whereas the 8 man coverage schemes allowed for that improved tackling by putting defenders in slightly closer proximity to receivers instead of their having to defend a larger area, and without being able to count on support.

Had Oregon State switched back to a 3 man front about the time Victor Bolden had run a kickoff back 100 yards for the touchdown that made it a 2 score game with still over 11 1/2 minutes still to play in the second quarter, it might have slowed the Washington State scoring onslaught.

Unfortunately, that might have also made several other tactical errors all the more impactfull.

Coach Andersen had also foreshadowed things with announcing last week that the Beavers would have to take some chances, and again, I agree in principal with the ideal of aggressive play.

But you don't run a fake punt in your own red zone. Or claim it wasn't one later; you HAVE to have pre-gamed that situation, including field position considerations. Or give the Air Raid a short field to attack with an on-side kick prematurely. Or go for in on 4th and 10.

It was reminiscent of the days of "Reckless Riley." The fake punt turned into 3 points, and is possible a longer field and a defensive adjustment that didn't get made until halftime could have held and forced a field goal instead of a touchdown. Throw in a pair of available field goals that didn't get attempted, and instead of still being down 20 points when Jordan Villamin hauled in both a touchdown pass from Seth Collins and a 2 point conversion pass from Victor Bolden, it might actually have been a 1 score game. Remember, this was before Collins threw 2 interceptions, one a pick-6. There's no scheme or game plan that includes throwing 2 4th quarter interceptions and still winning the game. But you can't presume that will happen before it does.

Oregon State correctly continues to experiment, and the players will need to look closely at their own individual techniques on tape, but this one was squarely on the coaching staff, which needs to continue to step up their game as much as any of the players.