Special thanks to Travis Johannes of Building the Dam for discussing the Oregon State roster with me on the Quack 12 Podcast. You can find that episode HERE.
Without question the star of this team is #6 RB Jefferson, who has close to 2,800 career yards from scrimmage and in 2020 has rushed for 7.2 yards per carry with five touchdowns. Along with quality backup #4 RB Baylor, Oregon St’s running backs have given the Beavers the team’s best quadrant of play from scrimmage by far: 50 successful rushes vs 31 unsuccessful ones, given the down & distance each play, for a 62% success rate.
It’s a highly efficient rushing attack and their go-to option in short-yardage: they succeeded on 22 of 27 runs with under 5 yards to go, 81%, and only four of their designed rushes have gone backwards, each for only -1 yard.
However, it’s not particularly explosive, notwithstanding the memorable 75-yd touchdown run Jefferson opened last week’s game against Cal with. That was one of only two rushes for over 20 yards outside of garbage time, and just 12 of their 81 designed rushes, or 15%, went for 10+ yards. Jefferson is averaging 6.1 YPC if you take out his single biggest run, which gives a much better idea of OSU’s rushing profile: excellent efficiency to stay ahead of the chains and convert 2nd or 3rd & mediums, but it can be contained if the defense isn’t overly concerned with deep shots in the passing game. Some examples:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - The inside zone handoff, this one from an under-center QB out of 12-personnel, is the bread & butter of this offense, constituting almost a quarter of all their called plays. I don’t believe I ever saw a read option for the QB, even though they also like to run this out of the shotgun, with one or zero tight ends, or even on rare occasion the wildcat with a LB taking the snap.
- :09 - About 10% of their rushes are speed to the outside, like sweeps, a reverse, or this toss play. This is a control play since out of the same basic formation they also like to run a rollout pass to the right with the TE’s flooding across the formation, so here the linebackers and safeties hesitate to get to the edge as fast as they need to.
- :22 - In their third game the defense adjusted by bringing safeties into the box and run blitzes, triggering almost instantly even at the risk of play-action.
- :39 - The Beavs are about 2:1 inside/outside on their zone runs, and have pretty eager WRs and TEs on the perimeter.
What’s keeping the Beavs from cashing in on this rushing efficiency is being fairly limited in the passing game. Their best run performances were in their first two weeks (both of those opponents’ first games, and the second is pathologically averse to bringing safeties down or fielding talented ILBs), but as Travis and I discussed extensively on the podcast, last week the defense limited OSU to just a 38% success rate by selling out to stop the run.
That dared OSU to throw it over the top, and a few times they were able to, but for the most part it was a successful strategy - Cal’s repeated red zone turnovers and special teams catastrophes were much bigger factors in their loss than their defense.
#3 QB Gebbia simply hasn’t been very effective this year. His 113.8 passer rating is 100th in the country and last in the Pac-12 among QBs who’ve played more than once. He hasn’t been paying off the rushing game’s effect of pulling defenders into the box, as they’ve only attempted five deep shots of 20+ yards through the air; just two of those were caught and both because the DB fell down. (They have three other passing plays that went for over 20 yards, but these were shorter throws in which the defense got out of position).
Overall, the Beavs have 37 successful passing plays vs 50 failures, or 43% which is significantly below a typical Power-5 team. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - Blitzes like this one were very effective, as OSU was only successful on 6 of 17 passing plays in which the defense brought five or more (curiously, only their week 1 opponent really blitzed them much). Gebbia is not very accurate out of the pocket and I recorded zero successful scramble plays.
- :10 - Here the defense rushes both ILBs and drops the OLBs into coverage, which should open the middle of the field without real underneath coverage. But Gebbia throws behind the TE, or maybe he overruns his route, and either way he can’t bring it in - one of six throws I considered drops.
- :26 - OSU uses a lot of pre-snap motion to reveal the coverage (pretty obviously zone, nobody’s budging), and this is one of their favorite rollout pass patterns alluded to above. The ILBs bite hard on the run the other way, and Gebbia makes a pretty impressive throw on the hoof - the baffling thing about him is that two or three times a game he makes a completion like this that reminds you he was a 4-star recruit.
- :40 - The rare deep shot from this offense just hasn’t been effective the last two weeks, as they were playing some pretty good DBs who could run with their undersized WR corps in coverage, and Gebbia hasn’t consistently shown he can fit the ball into this small of a window.
The Beavs’ offensive line has played better than I was expecting them to, considering they lost three seniors from last year’s line to graduation and a fourth starter opted out. They got back from injury #64 C Eldridge, and returned both their starter #68 RT Kipper and #69 RG Keobounnam who played center most of last year when Eldridge went down. They’ve plugged in a redshirt freshman and highest rated recruit (.8602) on the left side, #67 LT Gray, and he actually grades out best on my tally sheet, and in something of a surprise #70 LG Levengood got the spot the opt-out left.
I’d give this line through three games a solid B+. Each of them has, I believe, played every snap and grade out between a 10 and 15% error rate on my tally sheet, which isn’t elite but is better than average for the Pac-12. About 16% of passing dropbacks end in a sack, scramble, or throwaway … again, a good but not great number, however better than I was expecting. Travis and I discussed the big danger here being depth - they haven’t shown any 6th man getting a single snap in this or previous years, and would probably have to rely on an FCS transfer from Portland St if someone were unavailable.
In my opinion the o-line is the key to the Beavs’ entire offense, and it’s where I’d attack were I the opposing DC. Some examples:
- :00 - This is OSU’s strategy in almost all short-yardage situations, and why they’re so good at them: just leaning on the d-line with combos and TE help for a couple yards and letting their talented backs — here, Baylor breaking through for even more after he’d gotten the line to gain — find the hole.
- :20 - When the line gets in trouble, it often looks like this - confusion on stunts, lunging forward instead of properly setting, and no real ability to recover once they’re even a little beat.
- :36 - Pressure with rushing just four in passing situations is certainly feasible, since I think the tackles aren’t elite athletes and can be gotten around the edge, while the QB hasn’t shown much of an ability to step up and out of danger to make a throw.
- :51 - What the line is good at in pass-pro is their technique, and I think their OL coach Michalczik is one of the best in the business at development. Here we can see a good redirect, a hand chop, communication between blockers, and great footwork.
Oregon St is a bit better defending the pass than the run, perfectly even at 52 successes and 52 failures, with eleven passes given up of 20+ yards. I think the pass rush has been a bigger part of the successes that they’ve had than the secondary, which isn’t playing with a lot of talent, although Travis and I discussed on the podcast the possibility of getting back their most talented player on paper, #24 DB Morris. Here’s a representative sample of their pass defenses:
- :00 - The Beavs generate sacks, scrambles, and throwaways on about 29% of opponent dropbacks, which is a great number. The problem is they allow more than 61% of scrambles to go for significant gains, as on this play which combines an anemic pass rush with slow-footed backup ILBs.
- :10 - Probably OSU’s best DB is #2 CB N. Wright, here shown putting his length to good use on this PBU.
- :34 - This is what I see on most pass defense failures: a really soft zone defense, which all three opposing QBs so far have picked apart with short and intermediate throws.
- :40 - When the Beavs succeed, this is usually what it looks like: adequate coverage for the first couple seconds until the blitz can get home, even as there are a couple of downfield options opening up against the DBs like the skinny post in the middle. Fortunately the QB panics and starts to run right into their very good #34 ILB Roberts.
The Beavs tend to blitz early and often, sending five or more on about a third of all opponent passing plays, which goes up to nearly 45% of the time on 3rd down passing plays (interestingly, they’re a bit shy to blitz on 2nd & long). The results are what you’d expect: their success rate on pass blitzes goes up to 56%, but if they don’t get home they surrender a 20+ yard play a third of the time.
I think the reason they’re reliant on blitzing is that their linebacker group is so much better than their defensive line at this point. I’ve got good grades on my tally sheet for Roberts, #36 ILB Speights, #9 OLB Rashed, and #49 OLB Hughes-Murray, and when the starters are in that’s a pretty stout group. However, there’s a steep dropoff in the quality of the backups and they’re reluctant to play them, leaving the ILBs in particular pretty tired by the end of games (although they may be getting a Juco they like back for this game, #10 ILB Fisher, for relief).
I’ve written a couple of times about the problems this defensive structure faces without their nose guard, #5 DT Whittley, who’s out on a medical issue and Travis tells us there’s no sign he’ll return soon, sadly. In his absence they’ve attempted to play a walk-on, a redshirt freshman, or forgo a nose altogether and go to a 2-4 front, and none of those solutions have been effective. Their other linemen, primarily #99 DE Hodgins and #96 DE Sandberg, haven’t been able to overcome that hole in the defense - Hodgins doesn’t have the right size and while Sandberg has some length, he’s relatively inexperienced.
The result is a rush defense that’s well underwater, 49 successes to 55 failures or 47% per-play effectiveness, with 17 of those giving up 10+ yards. It’s worse in short yardage, succeeding only 40% of the time with under 5 yards to go. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - Without a true nose tackle the Beavs were often caught in situations like this, short-handed at the second level even when they have numbers vs a spread offense. The tackling could use some work.
- :23 - The Beavs do a lot better against tight formations, when they can leverage the quality of their OLBs and let Roberts and Speights flow to the play fast.
- :31 - Sweeps, toss plays, and outside zone reads have been even more effective against OSU’s defense, since there’s not a lot of sideline-to-sideline speed and the secondary is more likely to miss tackles than the linebackers.
- :37 - Rashed doesn’t have a sack yet this year, but he hasn’t gone into hiding - you simply can’t leave him unblocked on the backside, he has several plays just like this where he chases the ballcarrier down from the backside.