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Opponent Defensive Preview: Oregon State Beavers

Figuring out how to break the Beaver dam

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

As has been the case for the last few years, the Oregon State Beavers will pose one of the toughest challenges our Huskies will face this year. With such an all-around well-coached team that punches well above their weight, there really aren’t any glaring weaknesses for opposing offenses to exploit. UW’s offense is clearly the more talented group on paper, but as we saw last year, inclement weather could be an equalizer in what should be a close match up.

The Scheme & Personnel

NCAA Football: Utah at Oregon State Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon State DC Trent Bray has put together another solid unit this season. The former Beaver linebacker knows how to scheme up impact plays, and he’s done a masterful job in putting his players in a position to get opposing offenses off balance. As I wrote last season, their schemes and game plans are predicated on forcing opposing offenses to be one-dimensional:

It all starts with eliminating the run game for this defense. Up front, OSU runs a hybrid 4-man front with 3-4 personnel. Its different from the 4-man fronts that we’re accustomed to seeing because it often plays 3 big bodies up front that are true run stuffers (one of whom lines up at DE). This is is in contrast to UW’s style of 4-man fronts with hybrid EDGE plays or even conventional 4-3 defenses with true DEs. Even with all that size, OSU doesn’t just leave it to them to control the run game. The Beavers also make it a point to maintain a +1 advantage in the box at all times. They will keep both ILBs in the box or as an overhang defender, and they will regularly call plays with post-snap movement of the DBs to scheme up free hitters. This aggressive style of run defense can be susceptible to teams with home run hitters at RB that can make them pay on mistimed or poorly executed run blitzes (RBs like Travis Dye or Jordan Mims had big plays against OSU), but it can be an equalizer against bigger or more physical teams that don’t have that RB available (like in their game against Utah).

Once the defense can force the opposing offense into a one dimensional situation, that’s where the game changing plays start to get racked up. As with many defenses that rely on team defense over pure talent, Oregon State leans on zone defense and a grab bag of pressure schemes that both manipulate opposing protection schemes and keep the QBs guessing as to where the pressure is coming from and where to go with the football. Against pass-heavy teams like Colorado, OSU has gone with a pressure-oriented game plan with a heavy mix of MUG looks and zone blitzes. This team approach to generating pressure has led to the Beavers having 8 different players with multiple sacks and 16 with at least a partial sack. The player to watch out for though is OLB Andrew Chatfield who currently leads the team with 9 sacks on the season.

On the back end, Oregon State’s strength is in their safety tandem of Kitan Oladapo and Akili Arnold. Both are near the top of the conference in PFF safety grades, passes defended, and both have multiple interceptions. Despite the turnover at CB from last season’s excellent Beaver secondary, Oladapo and Arnold have remained as stabilizing forces. That being said, there will definitely be opportunities to pick on individual match ups against OSU’s DBs and LBs underneath. Without coverage support from the safeties or immediate pressure from the defensive front, OSU’s coverage unit can be rather porous. And to be clear, that’s all before the catch. Tackling is a separate issue that can be an issue for the Beavers as well.

Keys to the Game

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Heading into this game, it’s reassuring that our offense has found its footing on the ground over the last few weeks. While our offensive line has largely done well in protection this season, the last thing we want to do against Oregon State is to become one dimensional. Last season when we played the Beavers in Seattle, we really weren’t able to establish a credible run game. That’s why despite a windstorm, we still asked Penix to throw 52 times. When we got that one dimensional, OSU leaned on their zone blitzes with at least two zone defenders in the underneath middle of the field in most passing situations. With the easy access throws taken off the table, Penix was forced to rifle tight timing routes to the perimeter down after down. In the end, it was purely because Penix has an NFL caliber arm and can make those passes to outbreaking routes on the far side of the field that won us the game.

We still have Penix behind center, but I suspect that we’ll see a heavier dose of the run game and screen game than we saw last year. Gap runs like our bread-and-butter Counter run scheme can not only keep us ahead of the sticks and force OSU into their base defensive looks (as opposed to their pressure MUG looks) but can also be highly effective against those MUG looks. The key to stopping Counter is to match the pulling blockers with the second level flowing to the point of attack. That’s incredibly difficult if the LBs are already on the LOS. The quick screen game on the other hand could be a good supplement to the run game and capitalize on OSU’s shakier than usual tackling. Guys like Germie Bernard who are monsters in the open field could pose problems for the defense. With poor weather again in the forecast for this weekend, we might not be able to rely on Penix’s arm to bail us out again against the Beavers, so opening up the rushing play book and leaning on the quick passing game could be the recipe for success in Corvallis.