Know Your Foe: Oregon State

It has been a rough season for the Oregon State Beavers, wining just one Pac-12 contest to date. But does Mike Riley’s squad have what it takes to pull the upset at home and beat Arizona State? BeaverFootball.com Publisher Barry Bolton answers questions from Sparky’s Huddle members on ASU’s next opponent.

Sitting at 4-5, 1-5 in Pac-12 play, Oregon State has naturally disappointed. What are the main reasons that have contributed to this record?

There are plenty of things you can point to but the primary ones are injuries and depth. Oregon State is thin enough that they simply cannot afford some of the injuries to starters that have taken place -- on the O-line, D-line, linebackers, wide receiver corps, running backs and more -- and still come away with wins against Pac-12 level competition.

They just don’t have the experienced depth behind the front-line guys. A sliver of good news for Beaver fans is that DT Jalen Grimble, out since the USC game with a knee injury, is likely to come back Saturday as is running back Storm Woods.

Sean Mannion entered the 2014 season as one the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12. Do you feel his struggles are strictly due to lack of talent around him or has he regressed himself?

When Mannion gets a good pocket, he remains as good as anyone in the game of college football. When things break down, he’s not one of the better QBs out there in terms of escapability – not talking about being a running quarterback but just on buying those few extra beats before letting it go or throwing it away. To be clear, the main reasons he has struggled this year are protection-based.

But he could do better in stepping up in the pocket against the rush. In games where the rush has been consistent in getting heat on him, his eyes have come down. And when that happens, it’s all over because the QB can no longer throw to any of his targets when he’s focused on the guys coming at him.

Despite his struggles the passing game is the more dominant aspect of this offense. Is it that just due to the lack of talent at running back or just the flow of the games where the Beavers fall behind early?

It’s primarily due to Mike Riley wanting to do the thing they’re best at, and that involves his fifth-year senior quarterback who will be an NFL draft pick next spring throwing the ball. The receivers are young and losing Brandin Cooks to the NFL has hurt, but the biggest blow was losing Richard Mullaney to a broken elbow earlier this season.

Mullaney was the go-to guy who had an uncanny ability to move the chains on third down -- he has the best hands on the team but dealt with injuries all season, and his last, the broken elbow, ended his 2014 campaign. RB Terron Ward is better than people think and Storm Woods is capable when healthy. But OSU has used the run game as a complementary piece to Mannion this season, and not the focus.

Do you feel that Oregon’s State offensive line would fare well against a blitzing ASU defense?

They haven’t shown they can handle a strong pass rush all season. OSU ranks 111th in sacks allowed out of 125 teams, surrendering 28 of ‘em this season through nine games (3.11 per game). There have been many more hurries.

Washington State redshirt freshman quarterback Luke Falk was very successful last Saturday passing for 471 yards and five touchdowns. What exactly did he do to expose the Oregon State defense?

He had time to go through his reads and despite OSU coming in with the second-ranked pass defense in the Pac-12, the WSU receivers are a good group who found all the soft spots in the coverage. His offensive line did a very solid job and Falk was ultra-accurate. No, the OSU defense and particularly the secondary didn’t play anywhere near their capability but at the same time, sometimes you also just have to tip your cap the other guy.

What strengths of the Oregon State defense could be a concern for the ASU offense?

The strength of the defense is in its veteran linebacker group – D.J. Alexander, Michael Doctor and Jabral Johnson are all seniors, but the key may be Grimble’s return. He doesn’t need to put up numbers nor play every snap, he just needs to make an impact when he’s out there to where the linebackers and others will get the numbers. Grimble returning should also mean Dylan Wynn can move back to his natural position, defensive end, rather than trying to hold the fort inside at DT. If so, Wynn will be counted upon along with sack specialist Obum Gwacham to have a big game holding the edge against the run and making things more uncomfortable for Taylor Kelly at quarterback.

The OSU secondary is far better than what they showed against WSU. They should be a ticked off unit wanting to prove themselves against ASU. Ryan Murphy is a heckuva safety and Steven Nelson is a very good corner.

Any key players going to be out this week and what impact will their absence have?

The Beavs will likely be about as healthy as they’re going to get the rest of this season and the players lost earlier, such as Mullaney, DT Noke Tago, OL Roman Sapolu and others, they’re gone and not coming back this season. LB Jabral Johnson didn’t practice on Tuesday but it’s unclear is he was just getting some rest or if he’s injured.

What areas of the game have you seen the most improvement from on this year's squad? What are the expectations heading into the last part of the season and what is the plan to improve heading into the off-season?

I’m not sure if there has been much improvement over the course of the season. The defense played better earlier in the year and the offense has had their problems from the get-go. Special teams have been mostly solid. The big takeaway through nine games is that the Beavers have not played a complete game all season, not in all three phases. They’re capable of it, there have been flashes. But those spurts have been followed by some head-scratching series.

The expectation has to be winning at least two of the remaining three. The media has already concluded that’s highly unlikely and OSU will not go bowling this season. It reminds of last year’s Civil War, where Oregon State was given zero chance in Eugene against the Ducks and came with an eyelash of winning that game – you can make the strong argument they outplayed the Ducks in that one but came up shy. OSU needs to finish with a strong finishing kick and rewrite the theme of this season. A win over No. 7 ASU would be a great place to start.

How long of a leash does Mike Riley have after making Oregon State relevant but now trending the other way? Does the fan base appear to be patient with him or not?

There’s always a vocal segment, and with any fan base, that wants the head coach fired, the starting QB replaced, etc. after a loss, losing streak or a season that hasn’t matched expectations. Riley and his staff have not done their best job of coaching this season. Clock management continues to confound even the most supportive Beaver fans. The play last week where the defense didn’t get the signal from the sideline before the snap, and so just kinda stood around up front while WSU completed a TD pass, was jaw dropping.

But as to his job stability? It would be absolutely stunning if anything other than this scenario occurs: Riley will leave at a time of his choosing, years and years down the road. For starters, he has seven years left on his contract and it rolls over another year every time he goes bowling. There’s been no indication Riley is on the hot seat from the AD or anyone else at OSU, indirectly or otherwise. And things can change quickly back to the positive. After all, it wasn’t that long ago Riley was reportedly turning down the USC job and being feted in the media and by the fan base.

What are your keys to the game and final score prediction?

There has been a strange lack of assignment discipline from the D as a whole during the four-game losing streak and that culminated against WSU. Or did it. If Oregon State comes out flat or regresses during the game on defense, things could get out of hand. Offensively, OSU may be well served to run more and work short, precision passes with the idea that long, effective drives will pay dividends in keeping ASU off the field. OSU simply has to do better on third downs and one way to do that would be run more on first and second down and thereby give themselves shorter yardage to gain on third.

A prediction? How about Oregon State plays better than anyone expects and ASU falls in and out of rhythm on a cold, wet night in what turns out to be a classic, high-drama thriller that comes down to the final play. Oregon State 31, ASU 28.

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