COMMENTARY: O-line holds the key

READ EVERY PREVIEW about Oregon State, from just about every publication, and the theme remains the same -- Oregon State would be one of the favored teams to win the Pac 10 if they had a veteran quarterback. Sorry, but they're all looking in the wrong place.

Where the question lies, is up front.


All the pieces are in place. The Rodgers Brothers and a deep and talented supporting cast at wide receiver and tight end complement a bright and talented first-year starter in Katz, who has all the physical talent one could ask for in a Pac-10 quarterback. It is the o-line, however, that will tell the tale.

IT'S AN O-LINE where 4/5 of the members started out their careers with Oregon State as walk-ons. And for any other school that ought to be downright frightening.

But this is Oregon State, where walk-ons become starters and get a shot at the NFL. How do they do that?

It's a witches' brew -- complete buy-in to the system of line coach Mike Cavanaugh, a hard-hat attitude, some spectacular talent evaluation - but most of all, Oregon State's coaching staff does a better job than just about anybody around at taking advantage of their strengths and minimizing their weakness.

Headed into the opener, traditionalists should like that it's a line populated with upper classmen. Senior Wilder McAndrews replaces Michael Philipp at left tackle, and center Alex Linnenkohl is a senior as well.

Linnenkohl, a pre-season honors candidate, is 6-2, 303 pounds, tenacious, has well above average athleticism and footspeed, plays with a low pad level and makes a pretty good case for being one of the top 20 centers in the country. He's the lynchpin, the quarterback of the line, the rock in the middle.

But Oregon State has also struggled to get enough of a push up front in fall camp, struggled to protect the quarterback at times and is now without the most physical member of the unit as Michael Philipp wrestles with the injury bug. And the offensive guards Grant Johnson and Burke Ellis are considered light in the tail, both listed at around 280 pounds.

The funny thing is that most fans see the issue as not just half-full or half-empty, but more as a black and white issue. Can the OL protect the quarterback or not? Can the OL open holes for Quizz or not?

The answers are somewhere in between.

The offensive line is technically sound. Most have spent four-plus years under Mike Cavanaugh's tutelage, and it shows. But what they don't have is a physical interior presence, and Linnenkohl can't do it all on his own.

A running game is established behind a nasty guard, who can change the game up front. Jeremy Perry could affect an entire defensive line with his game. Getting off and grading a road is one thing, but Perry was special in the way that he would get to the second block and finish plays. Defensive players couldn't just run downhill to the ball because they needed to have eyes in the back of their head, wondering where that nasty offensive lineman was. And the rest of the unit fed off of that attitude.

WHAT OREGON STATE will have to do is simply what they have done in the years past -- scheme and gameplan to minimize the weaknesses of the offensive line and maximize their strengths.

That would mean lots of 3-step drops and quick passes, hitches, slants, misdirection, and a heavy emphasis utilize zone running plays. To take advantage of the technical strengths of the OL, the gameplan will be to take away the ability of the defense to take away their ability to pin their ears back and come after it, force them to be disciplined and not allow the OSU line to get them out of position.

One of the concepts of the West Coast offense is to use the pass as a means of extending the running game. By getting the ball to the wide receiver in space on short passes and letting your playmakers get their yards after the catch, you create a running game when there isn't one. To a great degree Oregon State did this last season - witness Jacquizz Rodgers' 78 catches last season.

What this also likely means is that long runs will be tough to come by for Jacquizz Rodgers. The zone blocking scheme has three bread-and-butter plays -- inside zone, outside zone, and stretch. The running back makes a cut behind the line when he chooses his lane. The upside is that there is almost always a lane available, and Quizz is phenomenal at finding it. The downside is that the first cut is made behind the line of scrimmage instead of at the second level and the linebackers are already running downhill to the lane, where Rodgers has to make another move to get to the secondary.

With a stronger offensive line, more designed run plays means Quizz can make his first cut at the second level and with a head of steam. The zone scheme gives you more short 3-4-5 yard runs but less non-positive runs. The man scheme gives you more 5-6-7 yard runs, but also more runs that are non-positive when the DL is able to close the hole.

AT TCU, IT figures Oregon State's big plays are going to come largely on the backs of dynamic skill players. With a mobile quarterback, who has uncanny accuracy on the run like Katz does, you again take away the ability of the defense to come downhill.

The technical skill level and overall athleticism of the Beavs' o-line will also allow the Beavers to utilize "Pin and Pull" techniques, where the lineman steps opposite the playside to stuff his counterpart, clog the backside and the guard or center pulls to find a block at the second level on the edge, springing the running back for a big gain.

What the Beavers don't figure to have is the ability to drop back and throw the long ball. Double moves by the wide receiver, 7 step drops, tight end drag routes, play action – they're all slow developing plays. This offensive line simply doesn't have the ability to create those types of plays out of the box.

It will be a shorter pass game and a physical defensive line will give them trouble. Active, technical lines they will be more equipped to deal with -- but gameplanning will be of the utmost importance.

TCU will be a stern test for the o-line and will show just how full, or empty, the 2010 glass is for OSU.

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