Know Your Foe: Oregon State Beavers

Jim Phillips, columnist for gave five answers to questions about the Beavers as the 118th Civil War approaches this Saturday. The Civil War is scheduled for a 5:00 p.m. kickoff and the game will be carried live on ABC.

eDuck: We know Brandon Cooks is now off to the NFL and there have been several receivers who had strived to replace him. Who in your estimation is the most likely go-to guy like Cooks was?

Flanker Victor Bolden, with rookie split end Jordan Villamin coming up fast. Bolden is just a second-year sophomore but he has a chance to be a lot like Cooks because he has the same elite burst Cooks has after the catch. His numbers aren’t eye-popping (in today’s college football) at 68 reception for 785 yards but he’s done a whole lot of that without anyone else to take a defense’s focus off him. Losing SE Richard Mullaney for the year, and him being less than 100 percent when he did play, hurt the Beavers in more ways than one – best hands on the team, best third-down receiver, made it so teams couldn’t bracket and key on Cooks. The good news for Beaver Fans is that Villamin, a redshirt sophomore, looks like he’s going to be special. He’s a big, physical, 6-4, 240-pounder who can break the press, (and once the ball is in hands, tackles.) He’s got surprising speed for his size. Right now, you’ll still see him make the hard plays, and then drop the easy pass – Pac-12 rookies do that sometimes. But OSU coaches described him as a freak of nature last year when he was redshirting and they’re looking downright prescient now.

This year the Beavers have had their share of disappointments and part of it stems to the lack of production of the running game (except of course with the notable exception of the Arizona State game). What do you attribute to as the reason Coach Riley seems to not stay with the running attack? (if that perception is at all realistic)

Your perception is realistic, dead on actually. Riley has said the strength of the Beaver offense is in its fifth-year senior quarterback and so you don’t want to get too far away from that. Critics have said that quarterback needs better protection and the real threat of play-action to make the offense work, and the latter won’t happen if teams don’t have to respect the run more than are. Terron Ward and Storm Woods are at their most effective after they can get through the line and operate in space. The problem has been far too many times when they can’t get to that point. Ward was injured against ASU and is done for the year. Woods was day-to-day to start the week. Chris Brown, just starting to earn the coaches’ trust and get turns, was lost for the year last week. So where does that leave OSU? The answer in Question No. 4. But first …

Riley and first-year offensive coordinator John Garrett do have some challenges that lead them to be pass-heavy, the biggest one an offensive line that has dealt with lots of injuries and it wasn’t deep to begin with. The biggest loss has been Isaac Seumalo, who has been out since the bowl game, unable to practice, from a slow-to-heal broken foot. Seumalo before his injury was the OSU center but he could play guard, tackle, and win those battles. He was a sure-fire NFL draft pick who had never redshirted. Not having him available for spring ball, fall camp and the season itself was big. And OSU was never going to be a great running team this year even with Seumalo. But they should have been at least serviceable, which would only in turn help the passing game. Now, all that said, there have been times where OSU not only went away from the run, they didn’t even try to run. They went away from it in the meeting rooms during the week, long before they got to the field on game day. It hasn’t been every game, but enough to raise eyebrows. And that’s what has been so perplexing for some Beaver fans.

Sean Mannion is one of the best pocket passers in the country but his numbers are a bit down this year from last. (37 TDs, 358.6 ypg in 2013 to 14 TDs, 272.9 ypg in 2014). What are the reasons for the drop off?

Two main reasons. The first is the pass protection isn’t what it has been. The line, due to injury and a lack of experienced depth, has struggled at times this year, particularly the USC and Stanford games. The Beaver passing attack does not have a particular emphasis on getting the ball out quickly on many throws, and they needed more of that wrinkle this year. Secondly, when Mannion has a solid pocket around him, he is as good as any quarterback in college football. But when teams do get heat on him, he can become average at best. He’s not particularly mobile but the big thing that’s hurt is he tends to go side-to-side rather than step up, and stepping up in the pocket gives you that extra beat you need to complete the pass, or in some cases to throw it away. As teams have gotten heat on him in games, Mannion’s eyes have come down. And when that happens it’s over because you’re no longer looking to where you can throw the ball. It’s hard to blame him too much on that last one, though, because he’s gotten hit a lot and had a lot of pressure put on him. Against ASU, the Beavs gave him a good pocket for the most part and there were more plays designed to get the ball away quicker. That we didn’t see the same thing, at least the second thing, was puzzling given UW’s pass rush. If Oregon State can give Mannion a good pocket against Oregon, things could get interesting.

Can you pick a player for offense, defense and special teams that you feel could have a major impact in the Civil War (aside from Sean Mannion).

On offense, as compelling as Bolden and Villamin are (mentioned earlier) it’s running back Damien Haskins. He’s a load at 5-9, 232-pounds but he’s got moves to go with that power. Riley takes a while to trust a running back and in general he’s slow to make a change in his starter unit until he absolutely has to. Haskins was one of the best things about the spring game, solely in terms of running the ball. But Ward and Woods were entrenched, and Brown about mid-yard came into favor after injuries gave him some reps. Not saying Haskins should have been starting over either of those two, he’s not as complete a back as a redshirt freshman and he needs to work on his blocking and pass protection skills. But it would have been interesting to see the redshirt-freshman get a handful of carries in early games – just see if he can provide a spark, or maybe even break one. Whether Woods is ready to go or not, Haskins should get his opportunity to make good on this Saturday.

On defense, I’ll go with safety Ryan Murphy. He likely has an NFL future and in this game, Oregon State may look to increase his role in run support and perhaps even as a guy who will need to key on Mariota when he takes off. Murphy will need to have a good game against the Ducks’ run-based offense for the Beavs to keep the score close and pull off the upset. Mariota doesn’t throw many picks at all, but if OSU is to force a couple of momentum-changing turnovers by the secondary in the Civil War on Saturday, Murphy (or CB Steven Nelson) are the most likely candidates.

On special teams, kicker Garrett Owens has capably filled in this year when Trevor Romaine was benched for violating team rules. Romaine was booted off the team last week, so Owens is now the guy. It’s been repeated so many times it’s become a cliché: that you can’t kick field goals against the Ducks, you have to score touchdowns. And while there’s truth to that, OSU has not been a great fourth down team this year (6-14). It’s better to get three points than no points and trust your defense to stop them. If their offense beats your defense, then you tip your hat to them at the end. But Owens kicking field goals and the Beaver D getting enough stops over the course of the game isn’t a bad strategy – especially when you’re facing fourth-and-five or more.

There seems to be a lot of talk around the state about Beaver fans being unhappy with Mike Riley. Obviously this has been a tough year, but is Mike seriously on the hot seat?

I don’t believe so, no. Some fans and media have been louder this year but they’re not the ones making the decision. What some people don’t know is that Mike Riley has one of the more lengthy rollover clauses around. Every year Riley takes Oregon State to a blow, another year gets added to the back end. Right now, Riley has another seven years on his deal, though 2021. How many other coaches have a 7-year deal. Oregon State would have a hard time buying him out. I think it’s more likely Riley coaches at Oregon State until he’s ready to retire than to see him get fired. He’s a young 61-years old and in better shape than a lot of 31-year olds walking around, he could coach for a long, long time yet. The other thing is that Riley really seems to do his best work right as the alumni gets louder with their criticism. Back in 2006, OSU was coming off a 5-6 season and started 2-3. The call then to fire Riley was louder than now in the media, among the boosters, everyone. Oregon State turned that 2-3 in 10-4 and a Top 25 ranking. We’ll see what happens Saturday, and next year. But I wouldn't bet against Riley.

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