The Gekko File: P12 North #5 - Oregon State

You are going to have to carry us in 2013, Brandin - Otto Greule Jr

On again, off again; the plight of the Oregon State Beavers on a year to year basis is more rocky than a Grey's Anatomy romance.

I admit it. I like stuff.

While not exactly a pack rat, I do enjoy the act of acquiring and stockpiling things on the off chance that I might need one or two of those things if certain situations arise. You know, situations like tornadoes, train derailings, wild hog invasions and visits by in-laws. The truly worst-case scenarios.

Since I am a fan of stockpiling, you would think that I would be in love with the Oregon State Beavers. They are the epitome of a collection of stuff. Two starting QBs. CHECK. A variety of gap-filling JC transfers. CHECK. A collection of recruiting cast-offs and under-appreciated talent. CHECK. A coaching staff with tenure that predates my children and, possibly, the Korean War (I'm fact-checking that as we speak). CHECK. A stadium named after a potato salad. CHECK.

You see, stuff! And good stuff. But is it good enough to compete for a Pac 12 North title in 2013? Only the Gekko knows.

The Gekko File Accountability: What I said in 2012

Did I review the Beavs in 2012? I don't remember.

Look, I like Mike Riley and, in all, I tend to root for the Beavs. But I've got a bad feeling about this season. The OL is in worse shape than just about any other in the conference...

The fact that the Beavers bring back a bunch of healthy players this year is a positive,...

All in all, this looks and feels like a four win season for the Beavs.

Yeah, I muffed that one like a Korey Durkee punt. To his credit, fellow blogger Andy Panda over at Building the Dam, chimed in shortly after I posted this Gekko File and noted that he was much more optimistic about his offensive line than I was. Next year, I'm deferring to him.

2012 Recap

I admit it. I totally misread and misforecasted the Beavers in 2012. It wasn't so much that I underestimated Mike Riley as much as I failed to account for two things: the importance in the return to health of full Beaver roster and the bouncing back of that maligned offensive line. Those two things, in addition to the alignment of several other stars, contributed to the foundation of one of the better seasons in OSU history and one of the greatest flubs in annals of the Gekko File.

2012 started out in awkward fashion for the Beavs. Sean Mannion was entering the season as the clear cut QB after having unseated previous incumbent, Ryan Katz, and banishing him to San Diego State University. However, the team was coming off a horrible 2011 campaign that included the greatest of all indignities, a loss to Sacramento State, and expectations were low. Mike Riley, in a highly unusual move for him, had decided to take over the playcalling duties in order to assert more control over his 2012 program. Beaver fans are glad he did.

From the opening of the season, you could tell something good was brewing in Corvallis. A hurricane kept the Beavers idle in week one - essentially providing for a week of extra practice before they were to host their first Big 10 visitor in 41 years. Wisconsin arrived in Corvallis on the coattails of a streak of 33 straight out of conference wins - a streak that was only bettered by LSU. OSU ended all of that.

Demonstrating a smothering defense that would become the hallmark of the team as they catapulted into the top 10 of the nation, the Beavers demonstrated their grit in shutting down Heisman candidate Montee Ball and his Badgers by a score of 10-7 in a game that caught national attention. The Beavs followed up that impressive win by going on the road to both Westwood (to visit a top 20 UCLA team) and Arizona and demonstrating that this was not last year's Beaver team. After two hard fought wins in that mini-gauntlet, the Beavs would go on to win three more against the likes of Utah, BYU and WSU. Heading into the second half of the season, they were ranked #8 in the nation and looked like a serious contender for the Pac 12 North title.

Of course, it didn't work out that well in the end. The Beavers hiccuped against the Huskies in Seattle and went on to lose four of their final seven, including an Alamo defeat at the hands of the Texas Longhorns. OSU finished with a 9-4 record overall and their appearance in the Alamo Bowl was the most prestigious bowl they had been in since the 2001 Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame.

Looking back, it is hard to exactly diagnose the single reason for such a dramatic year to year turnaround. Certainly, the defense was the defining factor. Scott Crichton, a terror at DE, and Jordan Poyer (7 INTs) were big playmakers who seemed to make the most timely of plays when the Beavers were on their heels. Offensively, the Beavers were anything but stable at QB with both Mannion and backup Cody Vaz getting significant snaps. Still, RFr. RB Storm Woods was more effective than his predecessor in the rushing attack and the emergence of Brandin Cooks outside of star WR Markus Wheaton was a huge factor. The offensive line, anchored by multi-year starter Michael Phillipp at LT, was certainly better than expected. And, yes, there was a little luck. The Beavers enjoyed the benefit of being amongst the least penalized teams in the conference in 2012 and generated the highest turnover margin (+8) that they had accomplished as a team in nearly ten years. And, despite having a pretty lackluster 3rd down conversion rate (~35%), they had an exceptional Red Zone TD conversion rate of 71% (second only to Oregon) while leading the conference ... yes, LEADING the P12 ... in Red Zone Scoring % at 92%.

Lots of things broke in favor for the Beavs in 2012, despite the loss in their Bowl game. The emergence of roster depth, the big victories on the road and the continued steady hand of Mike Riley as he led the team to a big bounce back from a season that many viewed as the beginning of the end of the Riley era left the fanbase feeling pretty good about their prospects for a stellar 2013.

2013 Rewind: OSU at UW

As noted earlier, OSU came into Seattle with a 6-0 record and a top 10 ranking. They were taking on a UW team that had already taken some lumps to start the season but had also already notched a gritty victory over another physical top 10 team in Stanford on the very field that OSU was visiting. Still, Oregon State was favored coming into it and expected to leave Seattle with a victory. The Huskies, still smarting over their 2011 loss to the Beavers - the Nick Montana game - had different ideas.

The game started out as a slog just as many other Husky games last year did. Both teams traded punts to start the first quarter before the Huskies got onto the scoreboard with Travis Coons field goal. It was in the ensuing Oregon State drive that the first key play of the game occurred. Driving the field, Sean Mannion, who had just returned from a minor knee procedure, and Storm Woods were pounding the Husky D into submission, getting the ball into the red zone. After a 1 yard run on first down, Riley dialed up a pass play that Mannion ended up throwing off of his back foot and right into the arms of Sean Parker for a touchback. This would be the first of four interceptions for Mannion on the day and, importantly, just one of five red zone trips that the Beavers would fail to score on all season.

Later in that second quarter, came another play that was not only critical to the game, but the most pivotal play for the Husky Defense all season. The Huskies had just punted the ball back to the Beavers following the Parker interception. On a first and ten from the Husky 43, Mannion dropped back and threw behind his primary target, Markus Wheaton. Turning to pluck the pass, Wheaton got hit from the side by Parker and the ball popped high and into the arms of Justin Glenn. The devastating hit, in which Parker clearly led with this shoulder but resulted in helmet to helmet contact, left Wheaton concussed on the field and Beaver fans screaming for a penalty. For the Huskies, it was a defining moment for a defense that had been getting smacked around by the likes of Oregon, Arizona and USC in the weeks before. It was also a moment where Parker cemented his status as one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the league.

The Huskies would go on to build up a 10 point lead that they would give back in the 3rd quarter. After trading scores in the fourth, the Huskies would put together a game-winning drive resulting in another Coons field goal and their second victory over a top 10 P12 team in 2012.

2013 Forecast: Oregon State

Believe me, I'm not eager to make the same mistake twice by falling asleep on Oregon State. The Beavers proved me wrong on a variety of dimensions in 2012. Their play on the field was tough, consistent and well conceived. What else should we expect from a Mike Riley coached team? There isn't a higher quality coach anywhere in our conference and the man, time and again, demonstrates an unbelievable knack at squeezing every drop of competitiveness from his normally undermanned roster.

But, this isn't 2012. We have to look at this team as a new entity worthy of a fresh look. Let's start with the offense.

The big concession that I have to make is that I was totally wrong about the Beaver O-Line in 2012. I undersold Phillipp as a LT and I failed to recognize the contributions that stud freshman Isaac Seumalo could make as a true frosh Center. The O-Line wasn't all-world by any stretch, but it was good enough. Still, there is room for improvement. The Beavers were actually one of the lower performing rushing offenses in 2012 and, believe it or not, this line surrendered just five fewer sacks given up than the Husky O-Line surrendered (keep in mind that the Huskies had LSU and the blitzing San Diego State on their schedule) over the course of the season. The good news is that the Beavs return just about everybody and have a pretty decent amount of depth in terms of big bodies. Who stands behind that line is still a question in the minds of some Beaver fans. Mannion is the incumbent and, given his 6'4" frame, is considered the more physically talented of the two combatants. However, Cody Vaz, the more mobile of the two, is healthy again and considered by many to be the better leader and less turnover prone of the two. It will be an interesting battle, but one that Mannion seems sure to win. However, the fact that he hasn't already should be viewed as a red flag.

The skill positions are in various states of transition. Woods returns as the clear starter at TB. Now a redshirt sophomore, the fanbase is eager to see him break out and become an "upper tier" P12 back. Backing him up is JR Terron Ward, a quicker, shorter "one-cut" style back. Whomever is back there, you can expect to see them integrated more into the passing game as Mike Riley has to now compensate for the graduation of Markus Wheaton. Fortunately, Brandin Cooks does return and is considered along with Kasen Williams as one of the next two or three best receivers in the P12 after Marqise Lee. Cooks is a big-play threat who also is heavily involved in special teams. It remains to be seen how many hits Cooks can take as the main man. Behind him, the depth at WR gets pretty thin pretty quickly. The rehabbing Richard Mullaney, a tall receiver who had 12 catches a year ago, is expected to offset a lot of what was lost with Wheaton. Another name to watch is the speedy freshman Hunter Jarmon. Since I called him out a year ago, I'll also mention that the physically-gifted but heretofore under-whelming JR WR Obum Gwacham remains a true x-factor on the OSU offense. At TE, Connor Hamlett is a big body that is effective as an H-Back type of player while the young Caleb Smith, a one-time Husky recruit, figures to get a clear shot at playing time in the year ahead as he battles Tyler Perry at TE. In all, this is an offense with questions marks. How reliable will the QB play be? How stout will the O-Line play? Where will the receiving depth come from? Can they match their ridiculous red zone performance from a year ago? Can they improve their pedestrian 3rd down conversion performance from a year ago. Can Cooks avoid injury? Lots of questions, few answers.

The Defensive side is a little easier to forecast. This is a tough, disciplined group of defenders who are being built around the star power of their tackling machine WLB Michael Doctor and stud DE Scott Crichton. Crichton is the key. He had a huge year in 2012 with 9 sacks and 18 TFLs. He's a motor guy that opposing tackles can never seem to get their hands on. Opposite him is another JR DE, Dylan Wynn, who is a handful in his own right. In between them is where the questions start to occur. The Beavers graduated their two best bigs in the middle of that Defensive Line and will be relying on a stable of JC recruits to plug the gap. I can't comment on these guys as I really don't know them (and a few haven't yet qualified)... but this is a striking area of concern. Defensive line depth beyond Crichton and Wynn also is a concern as the top backups from a year ago are all gone.

The good news is that the linebacking corps looks a little better. Doctor is one of the best LBs in the P12 and will be looking to make more plays behind the LOS in 2013. Interestingly, Doctor had zero sacks in 2012 which, for a highly rated outside backer, is a little odd. He will have a new MLB partner next to him this year. This job is presumably going to be claimed by the young Joel Skotte, a smallish sophomore who had just five tackles a year ago. The secondary also has some questions, in particular who will replace superstar CB Jordan Poyer and his 7 INTs. The Beavers do return Rashaad Reynolds at one corner. Reynolds was, in my opinion, a better cover corner than Poyer and actually had more pass breakups on the season than did Poyer. There is depth and experience in this secondary. Ryan Murphy is an experienced safety who played a lot a year ago and Sean Martin, the presumed heir apparent at CB, is a senior. This unit did have the third best pass defense in the P12 in 2012, so there is potential. How much of that pass D was attributable to the D-Line remains to be seen.

Dots

  • How good was Oregon State last season? Take away the Oregon game, the Beavers did not lose any of their other games by more than 4 points. Their average margin of victory not counting their 74 point win over Nicholls state was 14.5 points.

  • I may be underselling the Beavers passing offense in 2013. After all, their total passing yardage of 3,992 yards led the P12. Does this correlate to wins? Hard to say. Number two was WSU. Number three was Arizona.

  • Big plays were a huge part of the Oregon State offense in 2012. Only USC had more passing plays over 50 yards (9 to 6) and the Beavs led the P12 in passes over 20 yards with 56. Incidentally, UW had zero passes over 50 yards.

  • Two of the three best players on OSU from a year ago (including Scott Crichton) were taken in the 2012 NFL Draft. WR Markus Wheaton went in the third round to Pittsburgh (perfect fit?) while CB Jordan Poyer went in last round to Chip Kelly's Eagles.

  • Desptie a strong +8 turnover margin, their 16 INTs last year ranked OSU as the fourth worst in the P12 in 2012. However, their fumbles lost - just 7 - was the best in the conference and another "good break" in a season of good fortune for OSU.

  • Oregon State is an up and down program. Since 2000, they've had five seasons with nine or more wins. They've also had four seasons where they have failed to qualify for the post-season.
  • Between Wheaton (91 catches, 1,244 yards, 11 TDs) and Cooks (67/1,151/5), the Beavs had two 1,000 yard receivers in 2012.
  • I mentioned my concerns about the OSU defense. The key losses from a year ago were DTs Andrew Seumalo, Castro Masaniai and MLB Feti Taumoepeau. I'll need Andy Panda to help me pronounce any of those names.
  • There are at least three JC transfers, Kyle Peko, Charlie Tuaau and Lyndon Tulimasealii, who are expected to compete for the two open DT spots in the middle of the Beaver lineup should they be cleared to play in 2013.
  • Oregon State's returning starter count in 2013 is 17 - tied for third most in the P12. Washington returns a conference leading 20.
  • 2013 Forecast - Oregon State

    Like Stanford, it is very tempting to forecast OSU with a strong bias towards what happened in 2012. But to do so would be a mistake as this team is not that team. Gone are their two best players from a year ago. The direct middle of the defense (two DTs and a MLB) is being overhauled. A ridiculous number of JCs are being counted on to not only play, but to start. The QB situation still isn't resolved. The presence of offensive playmakers outside of Brandin Cooks remains to be seen. The secondary is notably small relative to other P12 squads.

    In short, there is a lot to wonder about here.

    If there were a coach that deserves consideration in such circumstances, one could well argue that Mike Riley is that guy. He's made a career of turning lemons into lemonade while in Corvallis. In that way, even the most pessimistic of fans would hesitate to characterize this as a team of "lemons", so there is a chance that the Riley magic could well be seen again this season. Still, I don't like how all of this is coming together in a season where so many other teams seem to be taking steps forward. I'm also wary of the OSU schedule that features five conference road games AND tough home games versus Stanford, USC, and Washington. This feels like a 3-win type of conference schedule for OSU and a surprise return to the bottom third of the P12 North standings.

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