Q&A: Cleaving the Beavers

Columnist Jim Phillips of BeaverFootball.com joins us for an in-depth Q&A, covering scheme, personnel and more as Cal gets ready to face Oregon State on Saturday.

BeaverFootball.com columnist Jim Phillips joined us this week for an in-depth Q&A on this weekend's opponent: Oregon State.

BEARTERRITORY: Let's start with the most recent news that Connor Hamlett is out for this week, and Caleb Smith may also be questionable. With the tight ends being such a big part of Oregon State's offense, how do you think they make up for the loss of 392 receiving yards and six touchdowns from those two?

JP: Hamlett is definitely out barring a miracle but Smith practiced on Wednesday, and Riley said he will start. That said, not sure he'll be back at 100 percent. Whether Smith is involved in the pattern significantly on Saturday, that's probably dependent on how healthy he is and how he does in practice. Smith has been slowly improving his receiving skills since the season began but his greatest talent is still found in blocking.

While it's possible OSU will also plug in guys like Kellen Clute and Tyler Perry, and Riley said they plan to, not sure if Oregon State will look to those guys out in the pattern as much as they would if it were a healthy Hamlett complemented by Smith. You might see OSU look to go more towards the wide receiver corps to make up those yards, you could see more screens to running backs or you could see OSU try to run against Cal's defensive front more. All of those things are potentially in play.

BT: Sean Mannion has had an up-and-down career in Corvallis, but this year, he's exploded for 2,511 passing yards (8.69 yards per attempt) with 25 touchdowns and just three picks in six games. What's allowed him to not only beat out Cody Vaz, but flourish as the nation's leading passer?

JP: If you knew the answer to that you could bottle it and make a fortune. I believe it's a combination of things, the biggest of which is he's found his confidence.

Mannion no longer hangs his head when things go wrong (although granted, there haven't been many mistakes on his part this season.) His medium and long -range accuracy has improved by leaps and bounds, he no longer is trying to force throws into tight windows. His offensive line might not have been all that great in opening running lanes but they have done a superlative job to this point in pass protection.

And then receivers Richard Mullaney, with his sticky hands, and Brandin Cooks, who has excelled in just about every facet and particularly against double teams, have also made Mannion look good. But Mannion himself has clearly had that corner-turning thing happen his junior year, the kind of thing all fans hope happens with their quarterback. Sometimes it happens to a large degree, most times it doesn't. But the light bulb has surely turned on in a big way for Mannion, so much so it seems ridiculous now to remember that Mike Riley had not made the announcement whether it was Mannion or Cody Vaz who would start at QB until a week or so before the season opener.

BT: In Berkeley, we've seen freshman quarterback Jared Goff put up insane numbers because of the lack of an effective running game, which seems to have been the case with the Beavers, as well. Last year, Storm Woods had a breakout season as a redshirt freshman, but after being slowed by a concussion last month, he hasn't been his old self. How close is he to being full strength again, and how can that change the Oregon State attack?

JP: Woods wasn't making a lot of hay when he was healthy either. He's back to full health now and played last week. But the Beavs just aren't running the ball that much. They've found little success -- sometimes the o-line doesn't open the lanes, sometimes they do open the lanes but the running backs don't find them.

Some believe Woods back at full strength means the OSU offense will go more to the run and become even better. I disagree. Mannion, Cooks, Mullaney, Hamlett (when healthy) and Kevin Cummings are shredding defenses right now even when they know the pass is coming. As long as Mannion keeps getting that good pocket from the o-line, he's going to continue to find success, although it will get harder with what's left on the schedule in the second half of the season.

BT: Brandin Cooks is already on the verge of a 1,000-yard receiving season just halfway through the year with his 63 catches, but without Hamlett, only one other Beaver has more than 25 receptions. Where else could we see Mannion go when he's not looking for Cooks?

JP: Mullaney. He has some really great hands. And Cummings is an underrated receiver. He's not the fastest or most athletic but he's that lunchbox kind of guy who outworks his opponents. Cumming, I believe, is going to have a breakout game at some point when a good, solid defense really tries to take away Cooks and/or some of the other more visible options.

The other thing that could happen is you would see an increase in the running back screens -- OSU may try to effectively "run" the ball more that way the rest of the way.

BT:What's been the rationale behind simplifying the defense recently, and how has that helped Oregon State turn up the heat on the turnover game?

JP: The biggest change has been the increased implementation of both the nickel and dime packages. OSU started work on these last season and now in 2013 they're going to them more and more in an attempt to try and negate the proliferation of the varying spread offenses in the Pac-12.

The secondary played their best games the past two weeks and might be hitting their stride after an uneven start to the season. Against SDSU, where OSU grabbed two picks in the final minutes, they had played below average for the first 55 minutes. Against WSU last week, they did not have a good first half all things considered, but then they looked like world beaters in the second and especially in the fourth quarter.

How they've flipped the switch at times this year has been both puzzling and remarkable.

BT: No Beaver is in the top 20 in the conference in sacks, but the Beavers are averaging 2.17 per game (sixth in the Pac-12) and defensive lineman Scott Crichton is tied for third in the league in tackles for loss. How much of a role does the experienced secondary (Oregon State is first in the league with 12 picks) play in the front seven being able to apply pressure without worrying about getting burned?

JP: I don't know that it does, as OSU's secondary has played below expectations much of the first half of the season. They may be rounding into form, the form that was expected at the start, and that might give defensive coordinator Mark Banker more confidence in turning his guys loose more from here on out.

But there have been times Banker has blitzed this season regardless and the Beavs haven't gotten there and/or the secondary hasn't been able to cover guys. What's really made the difference here through the first half is the secondary has turned it up in crunch time, rendering moot a lot of bad that came before.

Crichton hasn't been quite as visible as last year. Fellow d-end Dylan Wynn has been emerging a little bit more each week but it would be nice for Beaver fans to see both of those guys have a consistent, high-production game. The two d-tackles, Mana Rosa and John Braun, haven't drawn a lot of attention from media or fans but they've quietly done some good work that has allowed others to grab the limelight.

The other thing to remember about Banker and d-line coach Joe Seumalo is they love to rotate up front. The depth behind those four has evolved to the point they're more comfortable rotating guys in and mostly on the interior. No one on the second string is ready to seriously challenge a starter but they're making some progress.

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