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Opponent Preview: Grinding Out Oregon State

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Playing Oregon State has been a big rush in 2016.

NCAA Football: Utah at Oregon State Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

Today we preview the Oregon State defense.

Football Outsiders’ S&P rankings for the Beaver defense are not terribly impressive; 127th in the pass and 62nd in the rush. Yet on an overall basis, they rank 57th in total defensive S&P.

And you wonder why people hate advanced stats. This is like hearing Geordi LaForge explain the quantum magic of deep space wormholes. Your brain tells you that this is a clear example of an actor (whose last gig was hosting the Reading Rainbow) spouting off lines scribed by a scruffy, live-at-home sci-fi writer adorned in a "Save Ferris" t-shirt—yet you can't help but believe it. Because, you know, science.

The truth is that those stats end up the way that they do for some very good reasons.

Reason 1: Oregon State's rush defense is bad. Really bad.

Reason 2: Oregon State tends to give up a lot of yardage on 1st down, a stat that skews their efficiency metrics.

Reason 3: Oregon State doesn't give up a ton of big chunk plays, a stat that normalizes the Pass and Rush S&P analyses.

So, let's dig into this.

Oregon State Rush Defense

The Beavers’ rushing defense has been up and down all season. When averaged out, they rank near the bottom of the PAC in yardage per attempt and rushes per game. However, there has been a wide variation in OSU’s rush defense from game to game, with three teams (Minnesota, Colorado, and Utah) all averaging less than 5 yards per carry in their matchups with OSU.

NCAA Football: Washington at Oregon State
Caleb Saulo tackles UW’s Lavon Coleman in a 2015 game.
Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

The inconsistency with the Beavers so far this year can be traced, in my opinion, to the OSU D-line. There are some big bodies available, but they are not overly deep or athletic along that front. The middle of the line is anchored by youngsters Elu Aydon (rFr) and Kalani Vakameilalo (Soph), both of whom are over 315 lbs; neither has really found much success, as they’ve taken their licks against more experienced teams. The two have generated just 23 tackles and 1 sack between them for the year.

The second level is a bit stronger as that is where ILB Caleb Saulo resides. Saulo is probably OSU’s best overall defender and leads the team in tackles with 52. If you are looking for a comparison, think Trenton Tuiasosopo. He’s a solid thumper who plays smart but can quickly get out of his comfort zone if he is forced to pursue a play laterally.

Oregon State Pass Defense

The Beavers have fared better in pass defense for the year, though with qualifications. The good news is that the secondary has played an effective brand of “bend-don’t-break” for the year. OSU is one of just two teams in the conference who have yet to surrender a 50-yard or greater pass completion. They’ve only had 10 passes completed against them for over 10 yards.

NCAA Football: Utah at Oregon State
LB Bright Ugwoegbu sacks Utah’s Troy Williams in last week’s game.
Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

Part of this is because opposing teams don’t really attempt to pass much against OSU. The 200 attempts against is the fourth fewest in the PAC. The lack of attempts against explains the low OSU sack volume; they’ve generated just nine sacks on the season (only WSU has fewer in the PAC).

Nonetheless, OSU has some weapons. CB Treston Decoud has had a good year with four pass defenses. Freshman Xavier Crawford, a bigger CB at 6-1, 190 lbs, has been a revelation. In addition, speedy OLB Bright Ugwoegbu has been effective in getting into the backfield, generating 3.5 sacks and 7.5 TFLs so far.

Conclusions

The Huskies can’t afford to take the Oregon State defense for granted. We know that it is Jonathan Smith’s preference to set up the run by first establishing his passing attack. However, the Beavers have played a disciplined form of pass defense for the year. By playing in deep zones and keeping an extra DB on the field most of the time, they will present a challenge to Jake Browning, a QB who really wants to push the ball down the field. The good news is that Jake ought to be working from a clean pocket early on. His ability to soften up that D by connecting on a few 10-20 yard completions early in the game will be a barometer for the rest of the offense.

If he can get that going, the opportunity really unfurls for the Huskies to establish the rushing attack. The Beavers simply do not match up against the Husky offensive line and will really struggle against the run if they can’t spare dropping a safety into the box. Depth is a challenge to begin with for OSU. The Huskies, who are averaging nearly seven yards a rush over the last four games, have plenty of it with running backs Myles Gaskin, Jomon Dotson and Lavon Coleman all having had their moments.

Obviously, the Huskies are a tough matchup for a defense that isn’t super strong up the middle and has depth challenges. I do expect the Beavers to provide a little more resistance in the first couple of quarters than what the typical Husky fan is expecting. I also think that the big plays we’ve come accustomed to might be a little harder to come by as Browning takes what is made available to him. But the Dawgs will eventually assert their advantages in depth and physicality on their way to what will almost certainly end up as another 30+ point game.