Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Friday, October 3, 2014

2014 Oregon State Football Preview

I hope BuffNation heeds the call on Saturday afternoon.  This team has proven deserving of our attention and attendance, certainly against a potentially beatable opponent on a gorgeous early-Fall day.  If you're in the Boulder area, GET YOUR ASS TO THE STADIUM.


Kickoff from the always beautiful Folsom Field is set for 2pm MT.  Those without tickets can find coverage on Pac-12 Networks.  Since the Rockies are finally, mercifully done flailing at the rest of the National League, the radio call will most definitely be on 850 KOA.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Woof, was this one ugly.  While it took a while for Oregon State to get going, once they did, the Buffs were left, once again, looking up at a major gap on the scoreboard.  In a far too common tale of talent and execution inadequacy, the Buffs eventually fell under the apple cart, losing 44-17.
The OSU surge proved to be far too much.  From: the BDC
Despite only being down seven points into the final minute of the first half, CU would end up losing by 27 thanks to a piss-poor offensive performance, and an exhausted defense pushed over the edge. Against an OSU defense that was billed as one of the worst in the nation, Colorado only put up 106 yards through the first three quarters, expressing a level of futility that I didn't think was possible.  That's a clip of 2.2 yards per play, and the first sign that former QB Connor Wood wasn't the answer under-center.

With the offense faltering, the defense was left to wither on the vine against the powerful combo of Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks.  The pair would hook up nine times for 168 yards and two scores, with Cooks providing another one on the ground.  While Colorado's defense seemed to hold for most of the first half, they were exposed and exhausted by the time they hit the break, and could no longer keep up with Oregon State.  Given pause for adjustments, the fresher, more explosive OSU attack began to take effect in the second half.  In total, the Beavers would score 35 unanswered, and the game was put to rest by the end of the 3rd quarter.
Cooks was a big part of the difference.
There should not be a repeat of that effort on Saturday.  Not only is the game in Boulder, but the Buffs figure to be much better prepared for the kind of effort required to compete with a conference opponent. You'll remember that this matchup last season was the first game back from the flood-extended break, when Colorado was on the sidelines for 21 straight days.  The absence of game action showed; reaction times were a step slow, and everything just looked rusty. Bye weeks are great, but an extended vacation can throw off timing.  That will not be the case this weekend, as the team - offense in particular - is in rhythm. CU will score, probably in bunches, potentially making the outcome far more interesting than a year ago.

The Beavers in 2014 - 

The 3-1 Beavers rolled through non-conference play, before failing where so many OSU squads had failed before: in the Coliseum against USC.  The Trojans swarmed them, holding veteran QB Sean Mannion to probably his worst single performance as a college quarterback.  Oregon State only scored one touchdown (a kickoff return), and were held to only 181 yards of total offense; an abysmal showing.
USC was far too much for Oregon State last week
That offensive letdown does not necessarily seem to be an outlier.  After proving to be one of the nation's best attacks in 2013, they've taken a full leap backwards in '14.  The big setback for the offense was the professional exodus of Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks. Currently a member of the New Orleans Saints, the California native was a game-changing offensive weapon in Corvallis.  He would account for 1,947 yards and 18 touchdowns through the year, and was, by far, the best individual performer in orange and black. Without him, OSU has struggled to move the football.  They're down 0.7 yards per play from a year ago (almost a full yard per pass attempt) and over 87 total yards per game - a drop from 26th nationally in offense (3rd in passing) to 86th (51st).  Albeit only through a third of the season, with the same, veteran quarterback under-center, it's a direct product of their difficulty replacing Cooks.  Compare that with Colorado, who hasn't seemed to skip an offensive beat in replacing the great Paul Richardson.

Defensively, however, they're much better than they were.  Behind a deep, veteran defensive backfield they're about 130 yards better per game in 2014.  They even feature, legitimately, as one of the top-10 groups in terms of pass efficiency defense. Still, with the offense as suspect as they are, the team is susceptible to the same problems CU ran into last year in Corvallis.  When the offense sputters, the 'D' is left out to dry.  Case-in-point: last week's loss in Los Angeles.  By their own admission, the defense wore down. Unless the offense can move the ball, repeat performances are possible.
Without Cooks, the focus has switched to the defensive side.
It's weird, the makeup of this team has completely flipped.  Their wins this season have been more the product of their defense, rather than the prolific offensive attack of a year ago.  What a difference a year can make! For our purposes, the much-maligned Colorado defense has a chance to get healthy against a struggling offense. They'd better, as Oregon State poses the sternest test yet for the high-flying CU passing game.

Star Players - 

Even though he's not having the best of seasons, I have to start my roster features with QB Sean Mannion. The 6-5 senior from Pleasanton, CA is on the verge of setting every passing record there is to own in Corvallis, along with taking the top-spot on the Pac-12's all-time yardage list (no small feat, in this league). He is, undeniably, the star and focus of this roster, a four-year starter who has seen his name projected in lights throughout his entire career.
Mannion has enjoyed plenty of success in his collegiate career.
That said, it hasn't been easy for Mannion in 2014.  Despite this being his fourth year under-center in the same offense, he's struggled to find the traction that had him talked about as a future NFL prospect.  Sean has thrown for as many touchdowns as interceptions (four), and his adjusted QBR (according to ESPN) is 17 points lower than it was during his freshman year.  Last week against USC was probably the single-worst performance of his career (15-32, zero touchdowns, two interceptions), as the offense built around him crumbled under the weight of the Trojan 'D.'

He says he's moving on from last Saturday's forgettable effort in Los Angeles, and he'll have a good chance to prove it against CU.  Still, star wideout Victor Bolden may remain on the sidelines this weekend, leaving the quality of his receiving options in doubt.  6-3 junior Richard Mullaney and monster 6-7 tight end Connor Hamlett are certainly strong talents and deserving of this level, but are a noticeable step down from the dynamism of the departed Brandin Cooks or the injured Bolden.
It'll really hurt the Beavers if Bolden isn't on the field
The running game is, at best, inconsistent support.  Backs Storm Woods and Terron Ward form a nice 1-2 punch in the backfield, averaging a combined 128 yards per contest, but the offense isn't built around their production.  They'll have a good day tomorrow, but I don't see the Buffs losing because they get loose. What success the Beavers have on the scoreboard will be more of a result of Mannion, and his production will form the crux of the tale.  Without Bolden, that tale may be quite favorable for Colorado.

On defense, the resurgence and success enjoyed this year is due to a plethora of featured seniors.  Lead by linebackers Michael Doctor and DJ Alexander, the unit is leaps and bounds ahead of where they were last year, even though most of the faces are familiar.  For his part, Doctor is atop the stat sheet in tackles, while adding an interception and a few pass breakups thanks to his strong coverage skills.  He was granted a 5th year of eligibility from the NCAA for medical hardship, and the whole linebacking corps, now a prized treasure, is much better off for it.
Doctor is a dynamic presence.
The backfield is just as good, in my estimation.  Headlined by safety Tyrequek Zimmerman and corner Steven Nelson, they may be the first group really capable of disturbing the Nelson Spruce bandwagon.  The pair have combined for four interceptions and six pass breakups on the year,and no one CU has seen so far can claim to live up to their standards.

The margins in this game will come down to Mannion's rebound and Colorado's offense continuing their form.  If either factor tilts the way of the Black and Gold, the Buffs may finally be able to breakthrough into a statement win.

Coaching - 

Hey, it's still Mike Riley! *yawn* Not the sexiest name in the game, Riley is at least a Pacific Northwest institution.  He's been prowling the sideline in Corvallis for the better part of the last two decades, and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  So what if the Beavers severely clashed and burned over the stretch run last season, losing their final five conference games in 2013? I just don't get the feeling that anyone at OSU feels the need to look elsewhere.
Nothing new on the sideline in Corvallis
As the all-time program leader in wins, and the longest-tenured head coach in the league, Riley is an old-hat at this whole coaching thing.  In the collegiate world, that can either be a curse or a blessing.  Since he's 27-27 overall and three games under .500 in conference play since 2009, maybe it's more of the former than the latter.  Regardless of how they do tomorrow, I'm liking their chances in the Pac-12 this year less and less as the weeks go by.

Prediction - 

My record: 4-1. Against the spread: 2-3. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +3 pts/gm)
Line as of Wednesday @ 7pm - CU +7, O/U 57

It's important to understand that Mannion will be better this week.  Last week was a fluke, even if his overall trajectory in down from a year ago.  Don't expect CU to keep the Beavers off the scoreboard.

CU's chances this week will really come down to their ability to flat out-score Oregon State.  That tack wasn't successful in Berkeley, but I like it better at home.  The Beavers may slow Spruce, most likely holding him without a score due to a focus on his containment, but look for huge games from emerging freshmen Shay Fields and Bryce Bobo.  If Sefo Liufau can find them for a few scores, CU may stay within reach long enough to keep the crowd in the game.  IF Colorado gets to the 4th quarter with a mostly-full Folsom, I like their chances.

Give me CU to cover, certainly, but I'm torn on whether or not I can see them winning... the conservative side of my mind took over just now, so I'll say it's a close Colorado loss.

OSU 37 - CU 35