Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:
UWDP: Junior QB Chance Nolan is back at practice, but it’s unclear if he will be ready to go on Friday. Do you expect Nolan or freshman Ben Gulbranson to get the start? Tell us what Gulbranson brings to the Beaver offense versus Nolan.
Marcus Russell: All signs point to Ben Gulbranson getting his 4th straight start. Gulbranson has been the ultimate game manager as a starter, allowing the Beavers to focus on their running game. Most importantly he’s limited turnovers. Chance Nolan brings more athleticism to the table which helps him avoid sacks and pick up crucial first downs. All things being equal there’s a reason Chance Nolan was named the starter, but if Nolan has a higher ceiling Gulbranson has a higher floor.
In losses to USC & Utah the Beavers tanked their chances of earning a victory by throwing four interceptions in each contest. I think the coaching staff has been very conservative with Ben Gulbranson under center, but they’ll ask him to do a lot more on Friday to balance the offense against a good opponent. Ben is more of a prototypical QB and is more accurate than Chance in the intermediate passing game.
UWDP: How would you assess the offensive line play in both protection of the QBs and the running game? OSU has a three-pronged attack in the backfield with Damien Martinez, Deshaun Fenwick and Jam Griffin. Tell us about these three backs and how they are used in the Beaver offense.
Marcus: The offensive line has been solid this season, if not slightly underwhelming. They are experienced and were expected to be the strength of this team. They’ve done a good job at keeping their QB upright; but the running game hasn’t been quite as dominant as in years past. Deshaun Fenwick started the year getting the bulk of the carries, but true freshman Damien Martinez has been the hot hand as of late and will probably get most of the early down carries against Washington. Jam Griffin has been effective and has been playing the role of 3rd-down back with Trey Lowe out for an extended period of time due to injury. Fenwick didn’t play against Colorado, but I expect all three guys to get touches with Martinez leading the way.
UWDP: WR Tre’Shaun Harrison has been the primary target in the passing game. Do you see anyone else emerging as a go-to receiver? Is TE Luke Musgrave close to returning after getting hurt early in the season?
Marcus: Luke Musgrave probably will not play again this season. He’s a few weeks away from being healthy and does not want to risk a more serious knee injury. My hunch is that he’ll declare for the NFL Draft after the season. True freshman TE Jack Velling has done a nice job making a couple big plays in the passing game. Oregon State likes to really spread the ball around, but the main receivers to watch are Harrison, Anthony Gould and Silas Bolden.
UWDP: Oregon State’s defense is among the best in the conference, ranking in the top 3 in all the major categories. Has the defense passed the eye-test as well? Who are some players on defense that Husky fans should know about?
Marcus: It’s been a long time since Oregon State fans rooted for a team with an impressive defense, but this Beaver defense has definitely passed the eye-test. The front-seven has been able to slow down opposing rushing attacks and I truly believe their secondary is the best in the conference this year. Rejzohn Wright is a lockdown corner who opponents have generally shied away from. Jaydon Grant is a seven-year senior safety and key leader for this defense. Omar Speights is a tackling machine in the middle. Oregon State’s biggest weaknesses this year has been getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks though. Washington’s passing attack is better than any they’ve faced so far this season and if Michael Penix Jr. is too comfortable in the pocket he’ll still pick the Beavs secondary apart.
UWDP: Jonathan Smith clearly must be winning over the Beaver fan base. Are you surprised that he has the team playing so well, particularly on defense?
Marcus: Time flies when you’re having fun... Jonathan Smith is in his 5th season as Oregon State head coach. So far he’s always been a good offensive-minded coach and the team has made improvements each season.
The jump the defense has made this year is a bit surprising though. Jonathan Smith is an unassuming head coach and would rather deflect credit to his players and defensive coordinator Trent Bray. The praise might be warranted for Trent Bray the defense improved almost immediately when he took over for Tim Tibesar midseason last year. The players feed off his energy and he’s done an excellent job putting them in positions to succeed.
UWDP: What is your prediction for Friday?
Marcus: I so badly want to predict an Oregon State victory keeping their momentum and first AP Poll ranking since 2013 alive; but I think Washington gets the win. The Beavers got a taste of the Huskies offense when they played Jake Haener and Fresno State in week 2, but as Jonathan Smith remarked Washington has much better receivers. The Huskies have looked unbeatable at home and unless Oregon State dominates time of possession and has a huge rushing performance they will probably lose this game. I’ll say 31-27 Washington.
Thanks Marcus. For more on the Beavers, be sure to check out Building the Dam.