With all the angst and disappointment growing within the Husky fanbase, the game Saturday night vs. the undefeated and #7 ranked Oregon State Beavers has the atmosphere of being a make-or-break game for the Dawgs in 2012. In reality, it's not - they could still win their final four to get to 7 wins and a mediocre bowl game and meet the pre-season expectations of all but the most optimistic of fans, but after last week's disaster in the desert, a win over the crew from Corvallis could go a long way towards restoring some faith by Husky fans in Coach Sark and the direction of the program.
Recapping our coverage this week:
When trying to predict games for your favorite team, it's nearly impossible to be totally objective. The temptation to give Washington the benefit of the doubt is very high, to emphasize possible areas of advantage and minimize areas of concern. But let's be clear - Oregon State is a really good team right now. There aren't a lot of cracks.
On defense, the Beavers are back to being tough, hard-hitting and sound - characteristics typical of a Mark Banker unit. Oregon State fans that were complaining about him over the last couple of years should be feeling properly chastened - when Banker has a few talented pieces to work with and a group that isn't decimated by injury, he's going to field a defense that is among the best in the conference.
The Beavers rank 5th in the country against the run, allowing just under 81 ypg on 2.9 ypc. Those numbers rise a bit to 101 ypg and 4.1 ypc when you factor out sacks, but this is still not an easy crew to run the ball against, boosted by the presence this year of massive DT Castro Masaniai. Versus the pass, they rank 23rd in the country in pass efficiency defense; they are allowing 57% completion pct and 11.6 ypc, but what really boosts their rating here is 12 picks vs. 249 pass attempts, and just 7 TD's allowed. Corners Jordan Poyer and Rashaad Reynolds are an outstanding duo. They rank 27th in the country with 2.7 sacks per game, led by DE Scott Crichton with 8. And courtesy of their interceptions, they are +10 in turnover margin to rank 10th in the country.
On offense, QB Sean Mannion has matured rapidly in his 2nd season as a starter, a trait he shares with most of his predecessors under Mike Riley (Ryan Katz seeming to be the lone exception). He's cut way back on the interceptions and appears more confident and decisive in the pocket. It helps that he has two excellent wideouts to throw to in Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks. The Beavers lean heavily on the passing game, ranking 14th in the country in passing yards and 35th in pass efficiency. Where the offense falls a bit short is in the running game. RS-Fr Storm Woods has been effective at times, but not a guy that's carried the offense. Woods and fellow RB Malcolm Agnew average 4.4 and 4.2 ypc this season, but the team as a whole averages just 108 ypg and 3.1 ypc this year (though that's brought down a bit by Mannion's sacks). The OL has been OK in pass-protection, allowing 11 sacks on 227 pass attempts. The Beavers have also been very careful with the ball, tossing just 4 interceptions and losing only 2 fumbles.
So in looking at those numbers, where can the Huskies find an edge?
I think the defense matches up better with Oregon State than they did Arizona. The strength of new DC Justin Wilcox so far has been against the pass, with Sr. CB Desmond Trufant having a banner year. If Trufant can lock up one side of the Beaver passing game and the rest of the secondary can keep the other side from going off, they could make Mannion's return from injury a tough one. The question is if they can do so without allowing the Beaver running game to suddenly bust out in a big way. The Husky defense has struggled against the run, with the notable exception of the Stanford game. They got away with playing a jumbo lineup and daring the Cardinal to pass; against Oregon State, I don't think that would be a wise strategy.
I do think we'll see a mix of the smaller and bigger lineups Wilcox has sent out, with a lot of Josh Shirley on the edge to try and get some pressure on Mannion, and a bigger group of LB's with Thomas Tutogi getting plenty of snaps in the middle to make sure Woods and Agnew don't do what Ka'Deem Carey did last week. So there's a chance the defense rebounds with a good peformence this week.
So what about the beleaguered Husky offense? Well, on paper there's not a lot of reason for hope. The Beavs feature a pretty good pass rush, and we all know how awful our pass-protection has been. They have also been really good against the run, which puts a damper on hopes that Sark can get a strong running game established with Bishop Sankey and Kendyl Taylor and take some pressure off the shoulders of Keith Price. One glimmer of hope is this - in road games, OSU has allowed 20, 35 and 24 points, compared to 7, 6 & 7 at Reser Stadium. Perhaps away from a home crowd the Beaver defense doesn't have as much bite?
There's also the likelihood that we see a bit of regression to the mean with regards to turnovers, for both teams. While forcing fumbles and interceptions is mostly skill, recovering fumbles carries a lot of luck with it, as does whether an errant or tipped pass falls to harmlessly to the ground or close enough for a defender to catch it. The Huskies will almost certainly need to win the turnover battle in this game, and definitely need to not lose it.
What I'm most interested to see however is how the Huskies look - do they come out strong? Do they play hard and physical and make John Canzano eat his words? Do they rally from last week's embarrassment and get the home crowd rocking and rolling and making Seahawks-level noise?
If I'm being optimistic, I see the Huskies coming out fired-up but disciplined and playing as physical - if not more so - than they did vs. Stanford, with the running game finding success, some creative play-calling by Sark allowing Price to get into a groove, a big-play or two by Kasen Williams and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins in the passing game, a return finally going the distance, a big game from Trufant and the secondary and Shirley rushing the passer to knock Mannion out of the game and a shaky Vaz taking over in a wildly loud C-Link with the Huskies winning 31-13.
If I'm being pessimistic, I see the Huskies continuing their pattern of slow starts, the offense being unable to run the ball consistently, Price getting tremendous pressure and being unable to do much in the passing game and turning the ball over multiple times, the defense getting burned on some long passes and allowing the Beaver running game to have their best game of the year and an angry crowd leaving early as the Huskies lose 35-10.
So what's my call? As I said at the start, I can't be totally objective when it comes to the Huskies. Call me a sucker, call me a believer, call me a homer - I think the team bounces back as they have multiple times in the past under Sark and plays with a real sense of urgency. It will be tough-sledding against the Beaver defense, but the Husky defense will be even tougher, picking off Mannion twice, generating a fumble and Wilcox getting his mojo back after his worst showing of the year. The offense will do just enough to take advantage of the job done by their defensive cohorts, and the Huskies send the crowd home happy, winning 20-17.