Arizona State came into the season with most people lauding their defense and a solid dark horse candidate for the Pac-10 crown but I didn't agree. They were very unconvincing in their game against I-AA Northern Arizona. In the second game of the season, against an I-AA, it was a 21-20 game entering the fourth quarter. And then things changed. Big time.
Yes, ASU has lost the last two games. But they were right there with a Top 15 team, Wisconsin, and probably should have won. They were right there with a Top 5 team, Oregon, and probably should have won. ASU has changed my mind from a few weeks ago. What would be bad for Sun Devil fans is if the season ends up following these last two weeks a bit – losing some of those close games they could have won, that were right there for them.
Oregon State, there was hope some units would gel a bit earlier than they have in years past – the defensive line, the linebackers, the offensive line. But Oregon State hasn't yet found their stride. They've been close, but the non-conference schedule was brutal and it went about the way most predicted. That's what happens when you play two Top 5 teams on the road in your first three games. Oregon State is close to becoming a team to be reckoned with. But they do need to find it soon if they are to going to realize their goal this year of a Pac-10 title. Time is, most assuredly, a factor now that conference play starts this week for OSU.
What has TCU and Boise St done to be successful against the Beavers?
There are a lot of things you can point to. Defensively, TCU was able to run on Oregon State and mostly with their quarterback – The front seven of OSU did not effectively shed blocks in either game. With Boise State, the lack of an effective pass rush allowed Boise State to move the ball through the air. What was biggest, perhaps, was the Beavers' inability to close out both teams on third down.
Offensively, Oregon State's offensive line has not provided enough running lanes nor protection, Quizz hasn't been able to shake or break enough tackles – he's been a step away on a number of occasions, but a step away is the difference between a 3-yard gain and striking up the band. The bottom line? They've done it some of the time, just not enough of the time.
In recent memory OSU has been able to be a consistent player in the Pac10 race. What have been OSU's keys to attaining the year and year out production?
Recruiting is probably the biggest thing. Oregon State has done a top notch job of identifying and unearthing gems. The teams in recent years past have been built upon guys with 2 and 3 stars, guys not as heavily pursued as others and whose only Pac-10 offer (or who was listed as having maybe 1-2 others) was Oregon State. And then OSU has done a solid job of development.
DT Stephen Paea, an All-America candidate this season, is a good example – he came out of Snow College, one of the better known JUCOs, but his Scout page lists only one Pac-10 offer. He's thrived under OSU coaching and will play on Sundays. But everyone else in the Pac-10 missed on him when he was coming out, except Oregon State.
Which player has been the biggest surprise this year and which one has been the biggest disappointment?
It's hard to pick either since the season is still so young and several guys in a few weeks will, if past seasons are any indication, be playing at a completely different level. Ryan Katz is still learning but he is further along than your average first year starter. His potential, once some things start slowing down for him, is sky high and he looks like he's going to be an awfully good one.
Oregon State needs to do more to get other guys involved, like James Rodgers for example. But everything starts up front and OSU needs to do a better job in pass-pro and run blocking than they've done. Over on defense, the d-ends have not been much of a factor and in the bigger picture; Oregon State's biggest deficiency the past 1-plus years has been not being able to develop an effective pass rush. That's also made the secondary look worse. DE Taylor Henry was a force this offseason in spring ball and fall camp but that hasn't carried over to the first three games and he's a little dinged up.
The linebacker play has run hot and cold save for Dwight Roberson, and Roberson is out this week with injury. The secondary has been burned too often, and teams have looked to make cornerback Brandon Hardin a primary target. Hardin has all the speed in the world, but he's still getting plays made against him when he's running stride for stride. OSU has a lot of things to clean up. But they don't have to go that far to get those things tightened up – instead of three or four complete turns with the wrench, it's only about a quarter turn that's needed here.
What concerns you the most about ASU, offense or defense and which players in specific?
Everyone talks about the ASU defense and with good reason but we'll go with the offense, and specifically Steven Threet. Yes, he's going to make mistakes, as he did against Oregon. But he's also going to do what he did in the second quarter of that game – lift an entire team up and score some fast points along the way.
He has the chance to be scary-good, and at any given moment, and that's what scary about him. OSU is going to have to weather a storm or two with Threet, and they must limit the length of time he spends ‘in the zone.' Ideally, they would rattle him and get in his grill, but it's hard to see OSU doing that based on the first three games, unless they want to change things up considerably and blitz a lot more than they have been.
Dennis Erickson is always complimentary of Oregon State and how they stick to a proven system and always managed to bring in players to fit that system. Do you agree with that statement and why?
Consistency is one of the things fans probably don't assign enough credit to – it's one of the key reason why teams like OSU have been able to reload somewhat. Guys have come up in the system, they're familiar with it and they've drilled it over and over again. There are no, or few, changes on the coaching staff, and there's no learning a new system. Instead, the Beavs focus on perfecting and honing what they're already good at. There's a lot to be said for that.
How much of the OSU offense is tied up in the Rodgers brothers? Who else should ASU fans be looking out for on both sides of the ball?
When OSU is successful, those are the two main yardage gainers. Neither, however, has really broken out yet this season. Markus Wheaton is a guy to watch for, he has top-flight speed. Joe Halahuni is a tight end who is capable of a 100-yard game every time out – but OSU has to make more of a conscious effort to find him. They started too late in the game last week. Keep an eye on Halahuni.
Devin Unga is someone who may jump out this week. He'll be part of a by-committee replacement for Roberson at strong side linebacker. If he shines when he's out there, the OSU coaches might stick with him. And Katz. Will this be the game he breaks out? Might be a tall order against a defense like ASU's, but it's a battle that's going to be worth watching.
With Katz somewhat struggling as a starter and James Rodgers potentially being out or limited, how does Oregon State compose a balanced attack this week?
They need to execute better on the offensive line (as they do across the board but nowhere will it pay more dividends than up front). Katz has played better than his numbers have shown, and the OSU offense has yet to turn the ball over. The Beavs need to find the soft areas of the ASU defense, and that likely means the intermediate passes. Halahuni could be big there. Some misdirection involving Quizz could be the key to getting him in a groove. But the biggest thing that might help in finding the balance?
The take from here is adding more Wild Beaver. OSU has gone away from the fly sweep, as teams have better defended it, they run it only a time or two a game these days. What OSU might well consider is increasing their other wrinkle – the Wild Beaver. It will put the ball in Quizz' hands more and potentially allow a longer look at the running lanes. It might be just the thing to get the ground game going.
From an OSU perspective - What are the similarities and differences between Dennis Erickson's ASU vs. OSU teams?
I don't know if there are a lot of similarities on offense any more, ASU has a new system this year. There is the team speed factor, which is what he is always trying to put together and on both sides of the ball. On defense, in a general sense, there's solid linebacker play and a commitment to being aggressive, Erickson teams are usually about stopping the run and really getting after the QB. Erickson's teams also, unfortunately, are usually flagged a lot and are seen to play undisciplined at times, and his Oregon State teams were no exception.
With the strength of the conference, and current record, is there more pressure to get the win in this game?
For both teams, unquestionably. The team that loses, it's going to be that much greater of a hill to climb. The difference in the Pac-10 this year could easily come down to one game. And that game could come in the first week of October just as easily as it could the first week in December.