Oregon State Preview

Forget the rankings and the records, the UCLA/Oregon State game is a very evenly matched game, and if you expect anything but a shootout that might be decided by who has the ball last, you'd better just watch it on Tivo...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS:

-- Oregon State comes to the Rose Bowl to take on UCLA Saturday at 4:10 p.m.

-- The game will be televised nationally by TBS, with commentary provided by Ron Thulin and Charles Davis.

-- Oregon State is 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the Pac-10. They beat Portland State 41-14 and Boise State, 30-27, to start the season. They then got blown out by then-No.11 Louisville, 63-27, and lost then next week to then-No.18-ranked Arizona State, 42-24.  When it looked like their season could spiral, the Beavers got back on the horse with win over Washington State, 44-33, and then last week got some credibility by beating Cal in Berkeley, 23-20.

-- UCLA is ranked No. 8 by AP and USA Today/Coaches.  It's the highest ranking for the Bruins since the 2001 season when they were ranked No. 4 after starting the season 6-0.

-- UCLA leads the series with Oregon State, 36-13-4, which dates back to 1930. 

-- UCLA hasn't played Oregon State since 2002, when the Bruins beat the Beavers 43-35 in Corvallis.  Down 14-0, UCLA scored 29 consecutive points to eventually overcome OSU.

-- In their last meeting in the Rose Bowl in 2000, Oregon State exploded for 23 consecutive fourth-quarter points to beat the Bruins, 44-38. 

-- Oregon State is coached by Mike Riley, who is in his third year in Corvallis.  Since taking over the Beavers in 2003 he is 19-12 and has led them two bowl games, the first time a coach has done that in OSU history.  It's Riley's second stint as head coach of OSU, coaching in Corvallis in 1997 and 1998. When he posted a 5-6 record in 1998 it was OSU's best record in 27 years. Riley left OSU in 1999 to coach the San Diego Chargers, unsuccessfully.  In the winter of 2003, Riley was a finalist for the UCLA head coaching job.

-- Dorrell is, of course, in his third year as UCLA's head coach, with an overall record of 18-13.   He has never faced OSU as UCLA's head coach.

-- The last time UCLA started out the season 6-0 was in 2001, when they had national title aspirations. Ranked #4, they were upset at Stanford, then lost three more games in a row and finished the year 7-4.  That collapse in 2001 has been much discussed among the Bruin faithful, further cementing an onus that has followed UCLA in recent years of not being able to finish a season strongly. Going back to 1998, UCLA is 11-24 after its sixth game of the season and 6-18 in November.

-- UCLA has outscored its opponents in the fourth quarter, 88-17. Oregon State has out-scored its opponents in the fourth quarter, 73-10. It could make for a fourth-quarter with fireworks.

-- UCLA has had to mount come-from-behind wins in its three last games. Oregon State has had to come from behind in three of its four wins this year. OSU trailed Cal 14-6, Boise State 14-0 and Washington State 30-13.

-- Unless you've been living in a cave for the last several years, you know that Oregon State's starting quarterback, Matt Moore, is the former UCLA quarterback.  He came to UCLA the same year as Drew Olson and he and Olson competed for the starting job for two years, with each being named the starter over the other at different times.  Moore started five games at UCLA, throwing for a total of 967 yards and four touchdowns in his Bruin career. 

-- Oregon State will be playing its third road game of the season on Saturday, with all three coming against then-ranked top 25 teams. 

-- Beating Cal last week on the road was a watershed victory for OSU.  It broke an eight-game losing streak to nationally-ranked opponents, and also snapped a seven-game losing streak in road games to ranked foes that dated back to 2000, when it beat UCLA. Oregon State has never won two road games in one season against top 25 teams.

OREGON STATE'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

Before last week's game against Cal, you could have made the case that OSU's offense was a bit one dimensional.

In its first five games, OSU averaged just 92 yards per game on the ground, and a whopping 347 through the air.

Last week, though, OSU had its breakout game on the ground, rushing for 181 yards. It had a balanced attack for really the first time this season, throwing for 196.

It's hard to say that Oregon State now is a good running team, but they definitely have improved their running game as the season has progressed.  Early on they were getting shut down by the likes of Portland State and Boise State, both of whom held them to under 100 yards rushing. But in the last two weeks against Washington State and Cal (two wins, mind you), and against Arizona State they've averaged 144 yards per game on the ground.

They ran the ball last week against Cal's defense quite a bit better than UCLA did the previous week.

The development of OSU's running game can probably be attributed to a few things:  A good offensive line that is getting more comfortable with a couple of new starters, continuity, and a running back that seems to get better every week in sophomore Yvenson Bernard (5-9, 203).  Bernard had a career-best game last week against Cal, running for 185 yards while scoring the go-ahead touchdown, carrying the ball 40 times.  He's got good quickness and is elusive. 

OSU's offensive line has continued to improve due to some veterans, and then some youngsters stepping in solidly.  The line is led by junior right tackle Josh Linehan (6-5, 307), but also returned two other starters in junior left tackle Adam Koets (6-6, 297) and junior right guard Roy Schuering (6-4, 316). These three have really come into their own in their junior seasons. 

The line, and the offense for that matter, has benefitted greatly by excellent continuity, with no serious injuries suffered during the season.   Starting tight end Joe Newton was lost before the season, but since then OSU has had no injuries to its offense and has started the same 11 guys in all six games so far this season. 

OSU's Mike Hass.

Through the air, the Beavers have been good at times and sloppy at others. Junior quarterback Matt Moore (6-4, 195), the former UCLA quarterback, has thrown for 1,766 yards, seven touchdowns and 11 interceptions.   As he showed he could do at UCLA, Moore consistently throws an accurate ball, hitting receivers perfectly on the numbers. He still struggles in his decision-making, though, sometimes throwing balls he shouldn't, which has hurt OSU pretty dearly. Last week against Cal, he threw three costly interceptions that nearly cost the Beavers the game. 

It helps Moore considerably that he has arguably the best receiver in the conference at his disposal in senior Mike Hass (6-1, 208).  Hass leads the country in passing yards per game, averaging 141, while he's third in the nation, in receptions, averaging 8.5 per game. If you havent' seen him before, picture a bigger, stronger, faster Andrew Baumgartner.  He consistently gets open, catches everything close to him, and can advance the ball after the catch with some cagey moves.

On the other side of the field is no slouch either, senior flanker Josh Hawkins (6-1, 193), who is good for 4 to 5 catches a game, and has the athleticism to beat you when you're spending too much time trying to limit Hass.  OSU also uses what they call a slotback, which is sophomore Anthony Wheat-Brown (6-1, 216), who is a big, strong kid that makes reliable catches over the middle.

OSU's wide open, spread-type offense likes to throw to its receivers, so expect to see Bernard also catch at least a couple of passes out of the backfield. 

Senior tight end Dan Haines (6-5, 257) isn't Newton, but he's a good blocker and a reliable receiver, and OSU won't hesitate to go to him.

UCLA's rushing defense could be at another disadvantage due to injury this week since it might be without starting middle linebacker Justin London.  London tweaked the same chronically-injured ankle again, and by Wednesday was questionable for the game.  If he doesn't play, or plays in a limited fashion, expect true freshman John Hale to step into the middle linebacker spot for most of the snaps Saturday, with Wesley Walker getting most of the work at the outside linebacker position.  UCLA is trying to get its best linebackers on the field at this point and plugging in Hale at MLB does it. 

Even though London hasn't been healthy and his true self for most of the season, there still has to be some drop-off when you play a true freshman at such a critical position. 

UCLA's Dennis Keyes.

It's not good news for a UCLA defense whose weakness has been right up the middle against the run. UCLA is 114th in the nation in rushing defense, giving up 229 yards per game, and last in the Pac-10.  If Hale plays most of the game, that means there are true freshmen at middle linebacker and nose guard (Chase Moline), which makes it awfully difficult to mount a strong running defense. 

UCLA will have to do it again with smoke and mirrors, which means possibly more blitzing, particularly run blitzing, to keep OSU off-balance.  UCLA needs to rely on its veterans, like linebacker Spencer Havner and safety Jarrad Page.  Sophomore free safety Dennis Keyes has played well so far this season and has been critical in many games.  UCLA returns the pre-season projected starter at free safety, Chris Horton, to the field, after he sat out a long time with a foot injury and then a fractured wrist. He'll get time behind Keyes, and is a fierce hitter. 

Advantage: Oregon State.  Even if OSU's running game is a fluke, it's still bound to gain some decent yards against UCLA's rush defense. If it isn't a fluke, it very well could be another week of UCLA making an opposing running back look like an All-American.

A major reason why UCLA is prone to slow starts is the defense giving up huge running plays early. It's curious (and has been well analyzed), since they seem better able to shut down the run game of opposing offense's late in games.  If UCLA can somehow find the magic formula to just limit opponents' running game in the first half, they could be on to something. Whether that entails more blitzes early,  you'd like to see Defensive Coordinator make some moves early, rather than seemingly waiting to make adjustments in the second half.  Heck, if UCLA can keep a running back below 100 yards in the first half would be a major accomplishment, and probably give UCLA the opportunity to actually lead in the game.  

A key to UCLA's defensive game plan will be to pressure Moore, who can be pressured into mistakes. OSU's biggest weakness on offense is probably its pass blocking, having given up the most sacks by far in the conference (22).  OSU's big tackles are prone to smaller, quicker defensive end types, the kind UCLA has.  A player who could have a big game for UCLA is defensive end Bruce Davis, who is probably the best healthy pass rusher left on the squad and epitomizes the smaller but quicker defensive end OSU struggles containing.

It seems that so much points to blitzing, blitzing and more blitzing for UCLA. Blitz to fill gaps and contain the run, and blitz to take advantage of OSU's poor pass blocking and pressure Moore.  We'll see if UCLA comes out aggressively and blitzes, because if not it, and it sits back conservatively in the first half like it has, it could do that familiar thing in spotting its opponent a sizeable lead.  UCLA's defensive players also need to play with more urgency in the first half, particularly its veterans. 

UCLA's secondary, while being pretty solid so far this year, really hasn't been tested by a good passing team, and OSU is.  While most teams have been content with running against the Bruins, expect OSU to throw, since it's what they do.

UCLA's defense has been good at forcing turnovers, and OSU has been good at committing them, giving up 19 on the year. UCLA will probably have to get at least a couple if it's going to be competitive. 

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. OREGON STATE'S DEFENSE

Oregon State's defense has as much of a dual personality as its offense.  The Beavers' D is second to last in total defense in the conference, giving up 443 yards per game, and dead last in pass defense, allowing 331 yards per game through the air.

But last week against Cal, they were inspired. Or possessed.

They were aggressive, flying around the field pursuing the ball, tough against the run and disruptive against the pass, while forcing the Bears into six turnovers.

Was it a fluke, or is OSU's defense actually pretty good?

They do have some good personnel on defense, led by senior middle linebacker

OSU's Keith Ellison and Trent Bray.
Trent Bray (6-1, 237), who leads the conference in tackles with 65.  He is one of the best in the conference and is having a great senior season.  His partner has been senior "Sam" linebacker Keith Ellison (6-2, 227), who has been right there with Bray in effectiveness, especially against the run. Ellison is excellent at penetration, and leads the team with four sacks.

Up front, OSU has had one of the best defensive lines in the conference so far this season, headed by veteran, senior Sir Henry Anderson (6-3, 314), who is a run stuffer deluxe. OSU uses a very effective three-man rotation at DT, adding junior Ben Siegert (6-4, 275) and senior Alvin Smith (6-2, 322) for what amounts to perhaps the best interior defensive line play in the league.

OSU has also been happy with the play of its defensive ends, junior Joe Lemma (6-3, 257) who played really well against Cal, and sophomore Jeff Van Orsow (6-4, 262), even though the DL hasn't been very good in mounting a pass rush compared to its run defense. 

One reason why the OSU defense might have sputtered early but is playing better recently is how many newcomers have taken on starting roles this season. OSU has given eight players their first start ever on defense so far this season, including three players in the secondary. 

As a result, OSU's defensive weakness is its pass defense, allowing 331 yards per game through the air, the conference's worst.  Its best player in the secondary has been junior safety Sabby Piscitelli (6-3, 224), who has a penchant for the big play, Against WSU, he returned an interception for a touchdown to tie the game. Against Cal, he intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter to set up the winning score.

After Piscitelli, it gets sketchy, though - and young. Sophomore Lamar Herron (6-0, 210) started the first give games at free safety, but last week true freshman Al Afalava (6-0, 180) did. The corners - redshirt freshman Keenan Lewis (6-1, 190) and redshirt freshman Brandon Hughes (5-11, 175) - are young and learning, which has gotten them burned fairly often so far this season. As of right now, it's projected that OSU will start two redshirt freshmen and one true freshman in his secondary.

That has to have UCLA's quarterback Drew Olson, tight end Marcedes Lewis and receiver Marcus Everett drooling.   Olson should be able to pick apart OSU's young secondary, and UCLA will try to get Lewis matched up against defensive backs as much as possible to exploit the mismatch.  There can't be anything scarier for OSU than the thought of its young cornerbacks having to defense Lewis split out wide.

UCLA's Marcus Everett.

Everett has proven to be a difference-maker in UCLA's last three games. One concern for UCLA coming into the season was developing another receiving threat. Without one, it was believed that defenses would be able to bracket Lewis all day long and disregard UCLA's receivers. Everett, with his clutch performances this season, has now, at the very least, forced defenses to defend the whole field against the pass.  It not only has allowed Everett to have some very good games recently, but also opened up Lewis.

There will be much made about the showdown between Olson and OSU's Moore, once again competing, this time on different teams.  Olson, the way he's been playing, would be tough to compete against in terms of efficiency and success.  He's 11th in the country in passing efficiency, having thrown 15 touchdowns against only three interceptions. And there's every indication that Oregon State should be his best game, with a young, inexperience defensive secondary and perhaps the worst pass rush in the league.  The only thing holding back Olson has been a second-quarter slump in each of the last few games, where he goes on a streak of a few inaccurate throws.  If he can avoid that, he should have fun picking apart the OSU secondary.

Perhaps the most formidable matchup of the day is UCLA's running game against OSU's run defense.  OSU has been very good at stuffing the run, and hasn't been doing it by stacking the box, which it can't afford to do with its inexperienced secondary.  Maurice Drew and UCLA's offensive line will find it tough sledding against OSU's run stuffers.

Advantage: UCLA.  Perhaps the biggest mismatch in this game is UCLA's passing game against OSU's pass defense.  You can expect UCLA to throw the ball more often than it usually does against OSU, and early. Unless OSU comes out with some funky defensive scheme that UCLA hasn't seen before, there is no reason to believe that UCLA will have its way through the air.

UCLA's running game, which hasn't been dominant early, might be the complimentary element in the offensive game plan this week.  It might be just what the doctored ordered, too, taking the pressure off having to grind out yards in predictable running situations with, hopefully, the field being stretched because of UCLA's effective passing attack. Watch for UCLA's #1 weapon, Maurice Drew, to be utilized even more in the passing game, catching balls out of the backfield and lining up as a receiver.

When it plays UCLA, OSU will have faced five offenses in a row that average at least 38 points per game.  They put it together last week against Cal, and a huge factor in that was forcing Cal into turnovers.  Cal's quarterback, Joe Ayoob, reverted to form a bit, and made some bad decisions. It'd be surprising if OSU was able to do that against UCLA and Drew Olson. 

Special teams presents one of the best matchups in the game. OSU's excellent punter, Sam Paulescu, who is fourth in the nation, averaging 46 yards per punt, will face UCLA's punt returner, Maurice Drew, who is the #1 punt returner in the nation. OSU coaches have said they won't punt to Drew, but settle for the 30-yard squib out of bounds, but that's hard to believe. 

Prediction:

UCLA fans so want an easy victory somewhere along the way, just to give them a week of relief.

But this ain't the week.

If OSU is just close to the team it was against Cal last weekend, UCLA has a very tough game on its hands. OSU pretty much dominated the line of scrimmage against Cal  (even though Cal's OL and DL are not at full strength).

OSU's offense is just too good and has too many weapons.  If you had been looking ahead a few weeks ago, you might have thought this was the week the UCLA rushing defense got some relief, but now it looks like it's not the week for that either. 

It's actually a pretty evenly matched game, with UCLA's offense having just about the same edge over OSU's defense as OSU's offense has over UCLA's defense. 

In other words, no one should look at the rankings or the records and get a false sense about this game. In fact, if it were in Corvallis, it wouldn't be a stretch at all to predict OSU to win.

But this game is at the Rose Bowl. And it's the return of ex-UCLA quarterback Matt Moore, who is probably the most critical key as to the outcome of the game. If he's efficient and plays flawlessly, OSU has a very good chance of winning this game.  If UCLA can get Moore to make some mistakes, the scales tilt back over to UCLA.

With the way these two teams are, either could fall behind early - and then mount a big comeback in the end.  No matter who takes the lead early, it probably will be a shootout in the end.

UCLA 48
OSU  44


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