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The Burning Question: Oregon State Preview with

We learn a little bit more about the Beavers by chatting with Andy and Robert for our Pac-12 SB Nation brother site,

The Utah defense will be especially wary of Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion, who last season torched the Utes for 443 yards passing and five touchdowns.
The Utah defense will be especially wary of Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion, who last season torched the Utes for 443 yards passing and five touchdowns.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Block U: Brandin Cooks torched Utah last season. Has someone stepped in to fill those big shoes?

Andy: Not really. Victor Bolden is Cooks' direct replacement, and he was making strides, but he dislocated a finger in the first half against San Diego St. He missed the rest of that game and the USC trip, and didn't really hit his stride again until the second half at Colorado.

Richard Mullaney has made some big plays (and Utah fans will remember him having seven catches against them last year), but Mullaney is really a complimentary-type receiver, at his best, opposite a top level wide receiver.

Rahmel Dockery was also emerging, but had a setback due to a pulled hamstring.

The expectation never was that some one individual would, though, the idea has been to replace Cooks' production with several receivers, including the tight ends, all helping pick up the slack.

Robert: Andy has covered the receivers well, and, yes, no one has really come close to filling Cooks' shoes yet. Bolden seems to have the most potential for sure, but also missed some play with the hand injury so we shall see how he works that out this week. I would add that another area that seems on the verge of possibly stepping up is the tight end position, and both Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith seem to have potential to be huge keys to the passing game for the Beavs. Both are big guys of course, but also both show some glimpses of pretty athletic play, especially, I would say, Smith, with his ability to climb the ladder to catch balls.

Block U: Sean Mannion is a big, prototypical, NFL-style QB, with a strong arm. Talk for a second about his season up to now, and if you were to attack him, how would you?

Andy: Mannion's statistics have been down, but he has stepped up his leadership and his game management. He's still the same Sean Utah fans will remember from the last three seasons, a big, tall guy with an accurate arm, but not real mobile. He has done a better job of distributing the ball and can still deliver the big play and, more importantly, the big drive (see the 10-play, 85-yard drive that took over five and a half minutes, and delivered the game winning touchdown).

Robert: I'd say get at him through dynamic rushes that throws the offensive line off, and you will make him move around much more than he wants to. As Andy notes his leadership is strong as ever, but he also has struggled a bit this season and to me that seems to be a chicken/egg deal with at times seems like it is Sean's struggling that causes the team to struggle and at other times it is the team (especially the line) struggling that gets Sean out of his game. But he still sees the field exceptionally well and has a laser cannon of an arm when needed.

Block U: Last year OSU chucked it all over the yard, this year Oregon State head coach Mike Riley said before the season they're going to get back to running the football with Storm Woods, but the Beavers find themselves 11th in the conference in rushing, only ahead of WSU who doesn't run the ball. Is there a reason for this?

Andy: The Beavers actually have run the ball more, and effectively at times. The numbers are skewed by the USC game, where they essentially panicked after the successful "Hail-Mary" touchdown pass the Trojans pulled off right before halftime, and abandoned the run game and went pass and incompletion happy against USC in the second half. But the expectation was never, and never should have been, to run the ball as much as the Beavers throw it, as that would be taking the ball out of Mannion's hands too often and not maximizing their use of their best player.

Robert: I assume the Beavs will run it more this time around, unless they feel they get too far down (they even tried to run it more than I thought they would in the second half against SC). I would love to see both Woods and Ward both get a huge game, this would go a long ways to opening up Mannion's game and controlling the clock better. But I think it will be tough against Utah's defense, so looking towards how the Beavs can stretch the field with short passes and the backs coming out of the backfield for catches, which I have noted before is, in many ways, just an extension of the run game (an overlooked one in that it does not show up in the rush yards of course when the backs are catching balls). All in all, I think the Beavs have better running backs than the stats show so far, and sooner or later, I think they will make up some ground there.

Block U: Overall, OSU ranks 10th in the conference in offense, right behind Utah. Where have the Beavers struggled offensively?

Andy: The wide receiver group, between inexperience and injuries, has not been a consistent force, and especially when Bolden has been out, there has been no deep middle passing threat. Opposing defenses have been able to over-play the short and crossing stuff, and play to the sidelines But the offensive line has also had some struggles, though with four new starters, that should have been expected.

San Diego State head coach Rocky Long said, "I never saw a blitz I won't run in my next game." Long threw everything imaginable at the relatively inexperienced Oregon State offensive line, and to compensate, the Beavers had to keep in their tight ends to help with blocking a lot, which kept Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith occupied with something other than catching passes.

USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox saw that on tape, and again was able to challenge the Oregon State offensive line with a variety of looks and blitzes, and again Hamlett and Smith had to spend a lot of time blocking instead of catching passes. With the inexperience at wide receiver, Mannion needs to get multiple catches from his tight ends, and when that doesn't happen, the OSU offense sputters.

Robert: Yes, totally agree with Andy here, and the stretching the field potential is greatly lacking so far this season. Yes, the offensive line has struggled with the replacements, and, yes, the opposing defenses have been able to exploit this at times (SC especially so) and been able to bottle up the line of scrimmage and commit players to blitzes. To be optimistic, I do have the feeling that, like with the run game, that this will sooner or later turnaround and opposing teams are going to get burned here. Totally has the feel of the pieces just needing to come together, and they may not be too far off in this coming together. When and will it happen? Don't know for it could go the other way too and never fall into place, but I do feel the potential is there.

Block U: Talk about OSU's O-line. Will they be able to stand up to Utah's pass rush?

Andy: That, in my opinion, is going to be the key to the game. Can the Beavers' O-line slow down the Utes, who are leading the country in sacks, without having to get too much help from the tight ends.

Toward that end, Coach Mike Riley is considering flipping the tackles from side to side this week, putting Sean Harlow on the left side, and moving Gavin Andrews, who is not as quick, and suffered a twisted ankle against Colorado, to the right side.

Robert: Totally the key of the game! Calling this the "marquee" match up is not fully the right way to describe it, for that might be more Mannion vs. the Utah defense, but I think it does somewhat describe the "drama" of this game to me.

Block U: It seems that Riley is almost untouchable up in Corvallis. OSU hasn't had a bad team in a few years, but it seems they have a hard time reaching the next level. Are the locals OK with that with Oregon being as successful as they have been?

Andy: There's division of opinion on coach Riley, and the divide is becoming larger. Everyone likes Mike, and many of those that endured much if not all of the dark ages, and a non-trivial group of apologists, are happy with middle of the pack results. But there is a growing number of people who are expecting more from their investment, and some do point down the road to the success the Ducks have achieved, after coming from a similarly dark era.

The emergence of teams like the Mississippis is adding fuel to the fire, because they are disproving the theory that what Oregon has done is an anomaly, and can't be approximated elsewhere.

However, the Athletic Director and the University President couldn't be more squarely in Riley's corner, and they are the ones that make the decisions. Until there is a customer rebellion like basketball coach Craig Robinson experienced that made it a big dollar sign deal, there's nothing that will force a change.

Robert: Yeah, I don't know. I have my own opinions.

Block U: Oregon State struggles with lesser competition, such as FCS teams, why is that?

Andy: That's been one of the big questions that has bothered everyone for much of Riley's career. Reality is, there have been a variety of reasons, but a frequent problem has been that "lesser competition" and lower division teams are frequently ones that have employed mobile quarterbacks in recent years, and especially until recently, any mobile quarterback has caused major problems for defensive coordinator Mark Banker's defenses, which uses a philosophy developed to control the pocket passers, and doesn't account well for containing a mobile quarterback the likes of which you never used to see.

And there have been inexplicable episodes where the team has been mis-prepared for some opponents, with defensive schemes not designed for what the opponent did, and offensive game plans that also didn't take into account what the opponent was going to most likely do. Couple that with having a big bulls-eye on their backs as a great chance for a "lesser" program to get a big upset win, and an offensive style not designed to score points in bunches quickly, and you can get into real trouble real quickly.

Robert: Yeah, I don't know. I actually on this one don't have my own opinions.

Block U: OSU seems to have a solid defense. Being No. 2 in total defense and No. 5 in scoring defense, which QB would OSU prefer to see, the strong armed, big Travis Wilson, or the mobile, scrambling Kendal Thompson?

Andy: As discussed above, any mobile quarterback is likely to cause major problems for a defense designed for dealing with big strong armed quarterbacks. So despite how good he can be, the Beavers are better off seeing Wilson than Thompson, at least, if coach Whittingham chooses to turn Thompson loose.

Robert: As always, with coach Banker's schemes the mobile guy is going to cause much more issue, but you know I like this defense this year. The LBs are solid and fast, the safeties are solid in both covering the pass and rush parts of the game, the corners can cover one-on-one very well, and the line is solid (if maybe the underachieving part of the defense so far). I think if their game is on mentally and the offense is controlling the clock better than we have seen at times, I think the defense has a good chance to control either QB. Now if Utah decides to throw both at them at different times? That could be a pretty interesting deal, no idea if Utah would go there though, let me know in the comments!

Block U: Speaking of OSU's defense, what kind of defense are they? Aggressive, or "bend but don't break?"

Andy: Definitely aggressive, and more so even than in recent years. Seven or eight starting seniors (depending on what rotation of the D-line the OSU coaches choose to go with) makes that possible. That said, the Utes probably won't see a lot of blitzes, something Banker does only selectively and will see a lot of nickel secondaries if Utah throws very much. The Utes will see a lot of safeties coming up in run support, and in cornerback Steven Nelson, some fast and aggressive man coverage. Of note, the Oregon State secondary seriously throttled Colorado's Nelson Spruce, who came into the last game in Boulder as the leading receiver in the country, but no longer was by the end of the day.

Robert: Yes, aggressive, and, as I noted above, and agree with Andy this defense has been one of the more dynamic and aggressive ones we have seen in a few years. I really think the depth and experience of the linebackers (Doctor and Alexander especially) has spearheaded this defense this year.

Block U: You asked about Utah's special teams, how are Oregon State's special teams, and will they kick to Kaelin Clay?

Andy: Trevor Romaine can consistently put the ball deep into the end zone, and punter Keith Kostol is pretty good at dropping punts inside the opponents' 20 yard line and, generally, with Beavers waiting for the ball to come down so they can down it. In those cases, Clay probably won't see a lot of opportunities to do anything.

Where Clay will be a problem for Oregon St. will be if the Beavers have to punt backed up in their own end. Kostol has shanked a few.

On the other side of things, Oregon St. has a terrible time with clock and game management, and Utah may get a chance to get a field goal attempt up, whereas the Beavers may not.

Robert: Solid but not imposing? I guess in many ways the special teams being a bit "quiet" is a good sign for the kick-off and punting side of things. Wish we had a bit of a more dynamic return game though.

Block U: Ultimately, what concerns you going into this matchup, both offensively and defensively against the Utes?

Andy: Offensively, for Oregon State, its the Utah pass rush that doesn't seem to have to give up that much to the run either, and, as we discussed, whether the OSU O-line can handle the Utes defensive front without tying up the tight ends too much.

Defensively, there isn't too much that I, or most Beaver fans, are terribly concerned about, because this is a very good unit. Beyond a couple of key injuries (and OSU is without defensive tackle Jalen Grimble, among others), a mobile quarterback who is willing to run smartly, and a deceptive passing scheme that gets the OSU safeties to over-commit, and get out of position. The Beavers have a track record of having trouble in these areas.

Robert: Overall, I have to say Utah is my "dark horse" candidate for sneaking a Pac-12 Championship invite and being the sneaky good team. I feel they are playing good as a team and have a solid as heck defense. This matches up tough for a bit of a struggling offense for Oregon State. As previously noted, I feel the Beavs have some potential this season to turn a corner, but of late, the offense is very much in a holding pattern with this. This is going to be another tough match up for the offensive line, and it is going to revolve around them for sure in allowing Mannion to open things up and to get the rush game established.

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