COMMENTARY: On OSU playcalling and run game

CORVALLIS – I sat up in the press box last Saturday for the Hawaii game with a pair of binoculars trained on the sidelines. I had an assignment – keep an eye on Mike Riley in between snaps and note whether or not it looks like he is still calling the offensive plays as he did last year. Here's what I found…

First, I should mention I asked Danny Langsdorf before the game about it.

"No, Mike's been doing that - I have (as well), but we share the game planning and Mike has final say."

Assistant coaches almost always defer, especially to give credit, to the head coach when answering questions. And Langsdorf answered the question about gameday playcalling by talking about game planning, two very different things.

It became pretty clear last year when Mike Riley floated the idea he might take over the playcalling duties that he didn't much enjoy how the topic turned into a big story that went on for weeks. So perhaps it's not surprising Langsdorf didn't want to get into that angle and also that Riley hasn't proactively brought up the subject this year.

But all the evidence points toward Langsdorf back to calling the plays, with Riley perhaps a few times a game subbing in a different play, which is how the vast majority of schools operate -- the offensive coordinator is in the booth, calls the plays and the head coach will, a handful of times, make his own call.

Last season, Riley took over the playcalling and given the success the Beavs enjoyed -- an unexpected, out-of-nowhere 9-4 run in 2012 -- most assumed Riley would hang on to those duties. But during the Eastern Washington game, Riley was not carrying around a chart.

And then last Saturday against Hawaii, he had a slim piece of laminated plastic that spent half of the game in his hand, and the other half resting in his back pocket. He would occasionally glance at it, but rarely did he seem to verbally call a play in from his headset.

Unless Riley has mastered telekinesis, it seems clear Langsdorf is back playcalling after a one-year break spent in study of Riley. And the most interesting thing about that is Riley, when he took over last year, was expected to run the ball a whole lot more. And he did do more running, but the pass-to-run ratio that seemed the impetus for the switch in the first place didn't change as much as many expected.

Oregon State running backs in 2012 ran the ball 336 times for 1,637 yards. They passed the ball 504 times.

Riley is nonchalant, stoic even, on the sidelines – always has been. I didn't see him hurrying up and down the sideline calling harried plays into a microphone before the snap. On one drive, I trained my binoculars on Riley three straight plays and didn't see him utter a single syllable. So does that indicate Riley and Langsdorf are in lock-step, that while they'd like to run more the in-game situations demand exactly what it's been so far – a whole lot of passing?

Oregon State running backs in 2013 have run the ball 44 times, (OSU has 57 total running plays). There have been 94 aerial attempts.

Their rushing game has been largely unsuccessful, with a 2.8 ypc average and 162 total ground yards through two games. Storm Woods and Terron Ward have accounted for 41 of those carries, and are responsible for 139 rushing yards.

If this rate were to continue – averaging 20.5 runs and 69.5 yards per game between Woods and Ward, OSU running backs are on a pace to run the ball 246 times for 903.5 hashes.

Those are slim figures, and a mixed bag of Jovan Stevenson and Chris Brown will likely not add heavily to these figures, at least not to the tune of 600 plus yards.

Through two games, me and other critics have said Oregon State's offense has looked predictable as the game goes along. Last year, Oregon State needed to run more in order to increase the success of the play action and short passing games. And they need to run more now, but they aren't.

Sure, Sean Mannion has been brilliant so far and Brandin Cooks is going to put up some crooked numbers in the box score this season. But I think a good portion of the passing success has also had to do with the two teams OSU has faced – they were not particularly strong in pass defense, nor in getting heat on the QB.

Based on everything he's said over the years, this just is Riley's style of football. Last year, all the passing at least made more sense to me because Markus Wheaton and a budding Brandin Cooks looked like more handsome options compared to a true freshman in Woods and a relatively inexperienced sophomore in Ward. Yet the run game looked decent enough too, and it was underused in my opinion.

Where does OSU go from here? The pass-first offense doesn't mean that the running back is of no utility, it simply means that Woods/Ward become more of a receiving threat than they do a running threat. Play action will be used despite an inadequate run game, and clock management becomes integral to holding the lead.

So much should be learned about the offense through this week's tilt with Utah. And especially with two starting o-linemen out.

What we see on Saturday might not be exciting for purists, but it can be steady and effective, though that does not always equate to a tally in the win column. OSU is going to the pass more than many would like, but if they get the W on the road against a Pac-12 team that's feeling their oats, it's hard to imagine there will be too many complaints.

The flip side of the coin of course would be a loss, and that might set the tone for the rest of the season – even though OSU has gone pass-happy, it still might end up the Beavs in 2013 will be a tortoise amongst a conference of hares.

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