We finally did it. We beat Cal.
As a divisional rival, Cal’s familiarity with our program got to the point where they simply had our number. No matter the talent disparity, they always played a competitive game, and they’ve had the better of us for a while now. All of which makes this victory that much more satisfying. To a point.
Despite the win, I have a feeling that this is a victory that is somewhat muted by the fact that we couldn’t follow up our win over Arkansas State with a complete game against the Bears. We showed guts anchoring down at the end to secure the win, but we just didn’t show the edge to put away a competitive opponent when we were ahead early. I guess as fans we should be glad with the result, but there’s plenty to take away.
As I alluded to above, this game had the result we wanted, but the missed opportunities hurt. On offense, it was nice to finally have our WR corps back up to full-strength with Odunze’s return, but Otton’s absence hurt. Devin Culp stepped up to fill Otton’s safety valve role in the passing game, but we missed Otton’s presence in the run game where he was often the key blocker in our perimeter run schemes. Its tough to tell if he would’ve made a difference for our stagnant rushing attack, but with our passing game looking competent again, we might’ve had the balance in play calling to find our footing on the ground.
This isn’t to say that the passing game was firing on cylinders though. Yet again, missed opportunities plagued us. There were a handful of plays throughout the game where we had WRs open deep, but Morris either didn’t see them or didn’t feel comfortable enough to pull the trigger. Cal did a good job of bringing pressure from different angles to force an off-platform throw for Morris, but Morris’ off-script playmaking was one of his best traits last year. I wonder how the staff is trying to balance his playmaking and the rhythm of the offense. The offense was humming against Arkansas State because it looked like we got Morris into a rhythm early. Quick rhythm throws, RPOs, and deep shots kept things from getting overly complicated, but for whatever reason, Morris looked gun shy this week.
I’ve struggled with both over and under coaching before. One week I’d be putting too much on my QB and drowning him in options, then the next week I’d try to course correct by boxing him in with a more limited set of responsibilities and emphasizing that he should be playing within the offense, only to be left wondering why we weren’t seeing any big plays. I’d focused so much on keeping things simple and safe that I had coached the confidence out of my QB and made him risk-averse. There were opportunities for us to extend our lead and put Cal away, but we need to execute on the field. We’re going to need some of Morris’s gunslinger confidence to keep up with OSU’s offense next week.
On defense, the missed opportunities showed up a little differently. For once, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the pursuit and flow that we showed against Cal’s traditional run game. Holding their RBs to less than 100 yards on the ground when we all know that Cal wanted to run the ball is a positive development. However, we left a lot of plays on the field where our early down stops ended up getting converted for first downs. There were 3 or 4 times when we had players in the backfield who couldn’t get the ball carrier or Garbers on the ground. Garbers in particular caused us some issues, but he’s one of the craftier QBs that we’ll face all year, so our struggles didn’t surprise me. There was one play that we had flushed him out of the pocket and actually had one of his legs wrapped up, but he was able to make the throw downfield to secure the first down. On another play, we had a perfectly timed nickel blitz called right into a run play, but Bookie couldn’t quite keep his feet under him and he completely whiffed the tackle. The staff has mentioned the need to finish plays throughout the season, so it’s time we actually deliver.
Not to be a complete Johnny Raincloud, there were a bunch of exciting developments as well. Kyler Gordon reminded us why the staff has been so excited about his potential for all these years. With McDuffie out, I was unsure how Gordon would fare as the #1 CB, but to be honest, I couldn’t really tell that McDuffie wasn’t on the field. Not only did Gordon snag his first two picks, but he also flashed in run support and was an enforcer in the open field. As I mentioned earlier, Culp also stepped up in a big way during his first start. The athleticism was never the question for him. His hands were the problem, but he seemed looked like a reliable target all night for Morris. Hopefully he continues to show improved consistency because 12 personnel formations with 5 legitimate receiving threats is a potent look on offense.
Beavers Laying a Trap in Corvallis?
Looking ahead to next week, I’m very worried about our trip to visit Jonathan Smith’s Beaver squad. The national media will never give OSU the credit they deserve, but fans like us who closely follow the Pac-12 will know that Smith is building something down in Corvallis. After pasting the Trojans in their first win at the Coliseum in over 60 years, the Beavers have put the conference on notice that this program reboot might be further along than expected.
Since Oregon State is such a tough program to recruit to and build the traditional way, Smith has leaned into the transfer portal and the JUCO ranks to bolster his roster, and the results are already starting to pay off. Most will assume that OSU caught an imploding USC team and won with a magic game plan, but this is a roster with top end talent to match up with most on offense. WR transfers Tyjon Lindsey & Tre’Shaun Harrison, former UW RB Trey Lowe, and JUCO QB Chance Nolan have joined a Beaver offense that took a step forward despite losing All-Conference RB Jermar Jefferson to the NFL. Lindsey, Harrison, and Lowe were all 4-star recruits out of HS, and Nolan was the #1 JUCO QB in 2020, so its no surprise that the Beavers are leading the Pac-12 in team offense through the first third of the season. What is surprising is that they aren’t even leading their positions. BJ Baylor is having himself a breakout season at RB, 6th year senior WR Trevon Bradford is leading the receiver corps, and both are homegrown talents. With gems like these two paired with some fresh blood from the transfer portal, Smith has had a lot to work with, and their offense looks a lot closer to what we hoped ours would look like than what we got (ironic huh?).
Our defense will need to be ready for an offense that looks familiar to some of the older guys on the team. Outside zone, bootlegs, play action, and screens are staples of Smith’s offenses, but Nolan and former QB Jack Colletto have added some flair to the offense that will give us fits. Nolan, similar to Cal’s Garbers and Montana’s Humphry, is a sneaky athletic QB with wheels to pick up first downs on the ground and slippery enough that blitzing is a risky proposition. Colletto also poses a threat on the ground, but this QB-turned-LB-turned-Wildcat QB does almost all of his damage in short yardage situations. This season, Colletto has only carried the ball 11 times, but he’s gotten a first down or a TD on almost all of his carries. Garbers found success against our defense on option power plays, so we will undoubtedly see a similar package run against us this week.
On the other side of the ball, our already shaky rushing attack will have its hands full keeping LBs Avery Roberts and Omar Speights out of the backfield. The LB duo have been instrumental in a resurgent Beaver run defense that held USC to less than 100 yards on the ground, but while they’ve smothered a more talented offense, this is still a defense that hasn’t faced a run-focused team just yet. On the perimeter, Rejzohn Wright and Alex Austin form a lanky CB duo that should match up well physically with our WRs, but our full-strength WR corps has the type of deep speed that could give them fits.
At the end of the day, the game will be decided by the strength vs strength match up between our defense and their offense. As has been an on-going theme, our defense needs to stop the run. If we can hunker down with some of the 3-4 packages that looked promising against Cal’s traditional run game, then there’s some hope that we can slow down OSU’s rushing attack. Stopping the run and containing the QB is obviously easier said than done, but its absolutely essential. If USC’s high-flying offense couldn’t out duel OSU’s offense, then our offense almost certainly can’t either.