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Opponent Defensive Preview: Oregon State

For the first time since Mike Riley, it looks like the Beavs are actually figuring some stuff out.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 Oregon State at UCLA Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Do you need an intro about Oregon State?

Okay, well:

They’re in Corvallis, which is a place where I once almost ran out of gas. But then I didn’t. The end.

Personnel and What to Expect

It’s no secret that Oregon State’s been *checks notes* pretty bad the last few years. It’s also no secret that they’re clearly making strides this year. And the last non-secret would be: that’s, uh, mostly because their offense rules.

Their defense? Um...

In the last four games, they allowed 38 points to Arizona, 17 points to Garbers-less Cal (which, by the way, is the only team where allowing 17 points would be considered a lot), 52 points to Utah, and 31 points to UCLA. Considering the OSU of years past, that’s an improvement. It’s also still not good.

If there’s one place they’ve improved over the course of the season more than others, it would probably be the run, where the Beavers were previously all but a sieve for running backs to go through. For example, they were capable of holding JJ Taylor at 3.7 yards per rush against Arizona, although his counterpart, Gary Brightwell, was averaging 5.4. In that same game, however, they allowed almost 400 passing yards against an Arizona team that was splitting quarterback shares between Khalil Tate and Grant Gunnell — hardly a recipe for offensive rhythm to be found. Then, against Cal, the Beavs held Chris Brown to 3.3 yards per carry, although again, it’s pretty solid to key in on the run against the Devon Modster-led version of Cal.

Against the run in their UCLA game was interesting, as they stopped Joshua Kelley at only 3.5 yards per carry and held Demetric Felton to what would have been 3.6 yards per carry except for the fact that he was able to gash them on one huge run for 75 yards.

And then there was their Utah thwacking. Tyler Huntley completed all but three of his 17 passes for 247 yards and Zack Moss ran only five times for 121 yards and two touchdowns and no that’s not a typo. But, if you take away Moss’ long run of 91 yards, that’s a less drastic and still-respectable-on-a-low-sample-size-against-Moss 7.5 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Utah’s running game by committee approach ended up with three players with significant carry numbers, each averaging between 3.7 and 4.5 yards per carry.

So, considering where the Beavs have been the last while, the fact that they’ve managed to create even a somewhat strength on defense is a huge improvement.

Just like all Pac-12 schools, expect to see OSU in primarily a nickel defense — 3-3-5 is typical, along with some 2-4-5.

Their big man in the middle of the line would be Elu Aydon, with Alexander Skelton behind him on the two-deep. Aydon is — and no, I’m not making this number up — 6’3” and 377 lbs. Holy crud. Well, if you want to look for potential keys to their rush defense improving, I think we can maybe start with a look over there. Not only is Aydon gigantic, he’s also a redshirt senior with significant game experience the last three years, including one and a half tackles for loss in last year’s game against UW.

Flanking him are the ends Isaac Hodgins and JuCo transfer Simon Sandberg, with the former being a sophomore who started 11 games last year as a true freshman (and is also the brother of star receiver, Isaiah). The latter is the first player I’ve ever come across while writing these who’s Swedish. And not in the “fifth generation Swede from Ballard” style, I mean a bonafide born-and-raised-in-Sweden-style Swede.

Of the linebackers — and, in fact, of probably all the defense — Hamilcar Rashed is the one who seems to be the most disruptive. John McCartan is the other listed starter at OLB, with Matthew Tago and Riley Sharp behind them, but Rashed is the guy who pops out the most both in the pass rush and run. That being said, if he has one area of particular effectiveness, it would be rushing the passer, something which was on full display against Arizona and with his nine sacks on the year. In fact, in the last two games, he’s had three each. So, if there’s one player to neutralize for Jacob Eason’s sake, you’re looking at him here.

While those units’ improvement is visible in opponents’ rushing stats and via the eye test, they’ve had moments, especially against Utah (figures) of getting wrecked on certain power runs. Similarly, a massive run by Zack Moss was kicked off by a poor tackle attempt on the edge of the line of scrimmage.

Furthermore, other than Hamilcar Rashed, they don’t generate a consistent pass rush, which further puts stress on their own backfield.

The inside linebackers are Shemar Smith, a former OLB and veteran senior with 13 starts his junior and sophomore years, and Avery Roberts, while the freshman Omar Speights rotates in heavily. Roberts and Speights are typically at the top of the tackles list any given game, alongside the aforementioned Rashed.

Accompanying them in the high volume of tackles made would be safety David Morris and sometimes his counterpart, Jalen Moore, along with backup freshman safety,Akili Arnold. The outside corners are Nahshon Wright and Isaiah Dunn, with the nickelback listed starter as redshirt sophomore Jaydon Grant. It’s not like there’s one single weakness that stands out on this team considering they’re solidly in the middle of a rebuild but, just like for many teams, the easiest places to spot weaknesses are often against the pass for Oregon State. As their defense has improved everywhere by varying levels, it’s not like the secondary is a gaping liability, but I’ve noticed they’re not yet to a point where they’re consistently trustworthy if you’re an OSU fan. For what it’s worth, it stood out to me during the Beavs’ Utah game that they were often covering the Utes’ receivers actually quite well and were just beaten by good throws by Huntley who didn’t have to deal with a significant pass rush up front. But then, despite that improvement, they also don’t consistently take very good angles and shoot themselves in the foot because of that; take, for example, a Cedric Peterson touchdown of at least 35 yards where the pass was somewhere around 15 yards through the air and yet the play finished in the end zone when multiple defensive backs took poor angles to the play.

Overall, what’s most impressive about this defense compared to Oregon State defenses of years past is their ability to hold steady in tough situations. They held Arizona twice to field goals deep in the red zone, downed UCLA for a loss on 4th and one, and against held Arizona on a 3rd and two run. And those are just the ones that stood out the most off the top of my head. They’re still not the defense you’d want on a goal line stand, but relative to this team last year and before, they’re gonna give their offense a better chance. And just in general, they’re actually decent tacklers — despite having the occasional lapses in that area — where past Beav teams were, shall we diplomatically put it, “not.”

Bottom Line

In general, this defense’s level of play and the fact that they don’t have one overpowering unit and one terrible one means Washington can and should pretty much be able to play a balanced game in whatever style they so choose.

All things considered, the talent level and level of execution is still pretty heavily in Washington’s favor. Combine that with the pretty even level of OSU’s execution across all units of the defense, and it means there’s not really huge key players to the game on UW’s end where the offense’s performance would disproportionately rely on their ability to do their job. I suppose, if there were one, it would be the ability of the Jared Hilbers or Trey Adams to neutralize Hamilcar Rashed, or the ability of Jaxson Kirkland and Luke Wattenberg to establish leverage when pulling on runs.

Otherwise given OSU’s tendencies against the run, it’s not inconceivable that Salvon Ahmed has an unspectacular game but his yards per carry average still ends up respectable thanks to one or two big plays. Or that Terrell Bynum and Hunter Bryant get some decent yards after catch.

Overall, this feels like a game where Washington won’t dominate the way they have in the past, but should still be clearly the better team after four quarters.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.