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Opponent Defense Preview: Beavs

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If OSU will continue to take steps towards improving, it’s on the defense. So how’s that going one week into the 2020 season?

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

Well, this was supposed to be the second defensive preview. But here we are because 2020 is the worst and is cordially invited to suck it.

So without further ado (but mostly because I’m lazy and intros are stupid), I present UWDP’s Official First Defensive Preview of The Season: Oregon State Edition.

Personnel and What to Expect

Watching Oregon State’s game week one against the Cougs, the two things that stood out were A) the linebackers not being in the right spots soon enough and B) not being great at tackling. Which, ya know... not a great recipe for success. I assume the latter issue was exacerbated by COVID and how practice schedules were affected by that, but there were some ugly attempts to bring the ball carrier down last weekend.

As far as what to expect from their formations, they (obviously, given it’s 2020) play primarily in nickel. This is mostly 3-3-5 but also some 2-4-5, etc.

Like I mentioned previously, their defense wasn’t super great last week They were already relatively OSU’s weakness last season and last week most of that started in the front seven.

The Beavs gave up 8.2 yards per carry to WSU’s RB1 — and that was with Max Borghi not even playing. Sure, it could end up that his replacement, Deon McIntosh, is the single greatest college running back of all time, but... probably not, and 8.2 isn’t gonna win you a lot. Total, OSU gave up three rushing touchdowns and 229 yards on the ground, although about 40 of those came on quarterback scrambles.

Usually in these previews I like to informally break up the defenses by unit, but I feel like with how the Beavs play it’s hard to discuss the line and linebackers in isolation from the other. That’s because it’s not like OSU’s defensive scheme looks very different from most other teams in the Pac, but their struggles against the run last week was a good reminder of how intertwined these two groups are, especially in a modern college defense. To be honest, their issues against WSU in the run kind of reminded me of a lot of UW’s senior linebackers’ issues last year: poor instincts in diagnosing the play, and not quick enough to make up for it.

This was particularly apparent when they lined up in a 3-3-5 with the two ends lined up pretty wide — there were quite a few instances of one nose tackle and then the other two lined up at 5 technique or wider. Without the linebackers being very disciplined and quick at their job, it gave WSU’s running game a lot of room to work with. And, since, like I mentioned just above, the linebackers didn’t exactly flow to the right place with any sort of consistency... yeah. As the game went on, it felt like there was more 2-4-5 with the box more stacked too in an attempt to remedy that deficiency. (I don’t have a game chart or snap count or anything to confirm this, but just based on eye test and keeping super vague track of formations as time went on, this seemed to be the case.)

And in the pass, the front seven/six wasn’t too hot either. They only got one sack — and that wasn’t even by them but rather by safety Kitan Oladapo — but more importantly they didn’t seem to get close to a second very often at all. Simply put, there was a lot of room for the Cougs’ true freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura to go through his reads.

With that in mind, it’s worth noting that they are half-decent at disguising where pressure’s coming from given one of their fronts’ primary advantages is the versatility to only confirm two or three pass rushers and then send the other two or one from any number of the linebacking spots. If they’re gonna get pressure against the Dawgs’ new quarterback, it’ll almost certainly be by confusing one or many of their equally new offensive linemen. It’s not out of the question. Flashes of Colorado last year, anyone?

As far as names you’ll probably hear from those positions, Isaac Hodgins returns to DE after starting all but one game his college career, with Simon Sandberg The Swede stepping up to start opposite him after being a role-player in 2019. (Also, last week Sandberg was by far the highest graded of the linemen and linebackers per Pro Football Focus at 74.9 — not bad for someone from whatever the opposite of a football hotbed is, Scandinavia.) At nose tackle, the Beavs lose Officially Ginormous Human Elu Aydon to graduation and now have Alexander Skelton and Evan Bennett in his place.

Behind them, Hamilcar Rashed is the most dangerous player on the field for OSU’s defense and is a Preseason First Team All-American on multiple outlets. Last season he was either first or second-team All-American on any given list, and he’s on pretty much every preseason award watchlist that he’s eligible for. Rashed only had two tackles against WSU and didn’t grade out particularly well, but until proven otherwise I’ll assume this is an anomaly; call me nuts, but I feel like going from 14 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss a year ago to “sucking crap” (that’s an official measurement offered by PFF) isn’t likely.

Opposite him is former Oklahoma guy and four star recruit Addison Gumbs, although he didn’t play due to a hamstring injury. If that’s the case again this week, you’ll see Andrzej Hughes-Murray and John McCartan. Who knows exactly how much of an improvement Gumbs’ presence could make, but Hughes-Murray and McCartan were graded at 42.3 and 42.4 on PFF, so that matches up with how sieve-like the linebackers looked. If Gumbs plays, he almost certainly has to be an upgrade.

Then on the inside there’s Omar Speights and Nebraska transfer and former four star recruit Avery Roberts, who led the team with seven tackles against WSU. You’ll also see some of former QB Jack Colletto and Doug Taumoelau. For what it’s worth, Roberts and Taumoelau were the only two linebackers regardless of position who graded above 70.

In the secondary it’s kind of hard to try and evaluate their performance with such little help from the pass rush, but with flawed linebackers and an underwhelming-until-proven-otherwise line in front of them, I’d say they’re the most sound unit.

Safety Akili Arnold was second in tackles against WSU, while Kitan Oladapo — a backup who played 17 snaps — got the only sack of the day. Also, I should note that, just like Jimmy Lake’s defensive backs, any position assigned to one of these players should be taken with a grain of salt; Oregon State’s defensive backs are versatile and line up in a lot of different areas, so someone who I call a safety might line up at nickel, who might line up wide, and so on.

We could see Arnold at nickel, where Jaydon Grant — who had the lone interception off de Laura — usually plays, who in turn can line up at safety.

The two highest PFF-graded DBs last weekend were Grant at 77.4 and outside corner Alex Austin at 70.2. Overall, there appears to be the most amount of decent quality depth in the secondary, but until the guys up front can do their job better it’ll be really tough for them to do more than tread water on the back end.

Bottom Line

The main thing is that, until the linebackers improve their tackling and ability to read the play, this defense is destined to be below average. That being said, it’s not beyond possibility that the extent to how poor their tackling was was a result of how strange this year has been and its effect on practice, camp, etc. But even so, the secondary is being handicapped by the linebackers’ poor instincts, which need to be even better than normal to make up for the defensive line’s difficulty in getting push both in the run and pass.

I think this combines with the Washington’s offensive circumstances to make the Dawgs’ optimal approach clear: with a new quarterback to break in, a stable of good post-contact running backs, and an opponent who struggles with bringing those guys down? Run it. And considering the one place where the Beavs should have some hope is confusing the offensive line by disguising pressure against the pass? Run it some more, and be vigilant about pressures. Furthermore, given the linebackers’ diagnostic issues, establishing a handful of wrinkles early on could wreak havoc for the quarters to come.

Sean McGrew, Cam Davis, and especially Richard Newton could have a lot of fun, and whoever the quarterback is should have some breathing room without having the weight of the game on his shoulders.

That being said, when the Huskies do pass, it’s important that A) Luke Wattenberg slides into his new center duties seamlessly in order to identify pressure and B) whoever’s at quarterback is on the same page.

As always, any OSU fans feel free to chime in with your thoughts.

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