Oregon State Football Defensive Preview
I made you nervous with the Offensive Preview, didn't I? Not to worry, OSU's defense is just 6th in the Pac-12 in points allowed, an entire 1.1 points/game behind #5... (checks notes) ... Us.
[Author’s note: I know I’ve been complaining recently about my corrupted hard drive on which I store all of my football stuff, but this is the first article that’s really been affected by it. I was lucky enough that the portion of the drive with the Colorado clips was salvageable, but unfortunately I did lose a number of OSU defensive highlights, most of which were of the OSU linebackers. My apologies, for this article probably won’t be as meaty as typical article. Luckily, next week’s article is fine, because Arizona doesn’t have any highlights in the first place.]
Yesterday I blasted out a very long Oregon State Offensive Preview (which didn’t even contain all of the OSU offensive highlights I have!), and it was a breeze to do so simply because of how many positive OSU offensive plays there are to showcase. This article is a bit more tricky. Although Oregon State has the best offense in the Pac-12, their defensive is (literally) middle of the pack. They have a fairly nondescript defensive line, good defensive ends/outside linebackers, a fantastic linebacker corps, and a decent secondary. I would probably use similar adjectives to describe the Cal defensive groups—not in that same order—but that shouldn’t be too surprising considering that Oregon State is just behind Cal in points allowed per game. Just because Oregon State has the #1 offense and the #6 defense doesn’t mean that Cal is doomed; Washington State managed to squeak by Oregon State despite having both a lower ranked offense and defense. Heck, maybe 5-2 OSU even overlooks measly 2-5 Cal. Probably not, but please don’t interrupt me while I try to pump sunshine for all the Cal fans out there.
But because you’re probably a Cal fan that hates sunshine, let me give you a brief aside. If you would like to remain blindly optimistic because past performance is no guarantee of future results, please skip this demarcated section. I was prompted recently to come up with some interesting stats regarding the Cal-OSU game. I don’t really pay that much attention to stats (I’m obviously a much bigger believer in the eye test), so I turned to the one source of stats and data I do keep: betting lines. I have betting lines stretching back to 2007, the year of the #2 Cal/Riley fiasco. Here are all the betting lines, the outcome, and who won against the spread. For example, in 2007, the Cal was favored by 14 points (Cal -14), the outcome was 31-28 OSU (OSU won by 3), and thus OSU did 17 points better than expected (OSU +17).
Line: Cal -14 (OSU by 3) : OSU + 17
Line: OSU -3.5 (OSU by 13) : OSU + 9.5
Line: Cal -6.5 (OSU by 17) : OSU + 23.5
Line: OSU -2.5 (OSU by 28) : OSU + 25.5
Line: Cal -8 (Cal by 17) : Cal + 9
Line: OSU -16 (OSU by 48) : OSU + 32
Line: OSU -11.5 (OSU by 32) : OSU + 20.5
Line: OSU -4 (Cal by 14) : Cal + 18
Line: Cal -21 (Cal by 30) : Cal + 9
Line: Cal -13.5 (OSU by 3) : OSU + 16.5
Line: Cal -7 (Cal by 14) : Cal + 7
Line: Cal -9 (Cal by 42) : Cal + 31
Line: Cal -10.5 (OSU by 4) : OSU + 14.5
Line: Cal -1 (OSU by 4) : OSU + 5
Line: OSU -1.5 (???)
So what can we glean from this? Well, here’s a couple of quick observations:
Overall winner: OSU 9-5
ATS (Against the spread) winner: OSU 9-5
Average victory ATS: 16.9 points
OSU favored: 4 OSU wins, 1 Cal win
Cal favored: 5 OSU wins, 4 Cal wins
Number of times underdog won: 6 (5 OSU, 1 Cal)
Number of times favorite won: 8 (4-4 tie)
Number of times favored team won and beat the spread: 8/8
Number of times favored team won but didn't beat the spread: 0/8
When OSU is small (<1 TD) favorite: 2-1
Last time OSU was favored in Berkeley: 2013 (OSU -11.5; 49-17 OSU)
Jonathan Smith is 2-1 versus Justin Wilcox, even though OSU has never been favored before
The craziest thing to me is that the average margin of victory over the spread is about 17 points. That basically means that whatever Vegas set the line at was not even close. If we apply that logic to this year (OSU -1.5), we are looking at either a 37-18 OSU or 35-20 Cal game.
Some more weird facts: OSU is 8-3 against Cal when Tedford is present. Cal is 0-4 with Tedford at Memorial Stadium (Cal beat OSU in 2011, but that was at AT&T Park).
After discussing this with the other writers, we determined that Cal has been cursed since 2007. What we did to Oregon State to deserve this curse, I have no idea, so please let me know in the comments.
Now back to our regularly scheduled programming…
Oregon State is the definition of a bend-don’t-break defense. Oregon State’s offense scores a ton of points, so they need their defense to do just enough to give their offense the edge. Most teams easily drive down the field against OSU, but OSU manages to make the game hinge on just a few crucial plays for the opposing offense, usually near the redzone or late in the game. Sure, you just drove 80 yards down the field, but if OSU can stop you on this critical third down in the red zone and force you to settle for a field goal, the OSU offense can respond with a touchdown. Even though teams drive down the field against OSU with ease, they tend to have difficulty scoring against OSU, and this makes me a bit nervous after what we’ve seen from Cal’s red zone offense. Only Washington State and Arizona are worse at scoring in the red zone than Cal, and OSU’s defense seems built to force opponents to bet their scoring chances on just a handful of plays. That is to say, I have no doubt that Cal will keep driving down the field against Oregon State, but I am nowhere near confident that they can turn those drives into touchdowns instead of field goals.
Their best defensive lineman for the past couple years was probably Isaac Hodgins, but he hasn’t played this season after foot surgery over the summer. Oregon State usually plays with three down linemen, but they rotate snaps pretty frequently amongst them. Defensive end Simon Sandberg has the most snaps of anyone on the defensive line, but according to PFF, he’s only playing roughly 55% of snaps. Honestly, I haven’t seen enough of DT Thomas Sio, DT Alexander Skelton, DL Keonte Schad, DL Cody Anderson, or DL James Rawls to tell you any real insights of them (and honestly, it’s pretty notable to me that absolutely none of these defensive linemen have stood out or distinguished themselves in any way). There are only two defensive linemen that have stood out to me. The first is defensive end Simon Sandberg (a Swedish native!), who has shown some decent pass rush ability:
The only other player that has stood out to me on the OSU defensive line is the freshman defensive end, Sione Lolohea. Even though he’s played just a quarter of OSU’s defensive snaps, I have noticed him more than anyone else on the defensive line. The fact that he’s a disruptive force as a freshman means he’s only getting started. Here, Sione Lolohea stuffs the Washington run, which gives NB Jaydon Grant the opportunity to strip the ball, with the fumble recovered by CB Rejzohn Wright:
Here Sione Lolohea lines up with the interior of the defense to bring pressure on the opposing quarterback, resulting in a bad pass intercepted by LB Avery Roberts:
That’s all I have for the defensive line, and it’s mainly because it’s usually the outside linebackers generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks and the inside linebackers stuffing the run.
Like Chance Nolan in yesterday’s article, I think the OSU linebackers are greatly underappreciated because of the lack of national coverage on Oregon State. Let’s start with the outside linebackers, Riley Sharp and Andrzej (pronounced “AHN zhay”) Hughes-Murray. Riley Sharp made an immediate impact at linebacker his freshman year, and was instrumental in OSU’s victory over Cal that year, racking up 3 sacks and 3 tackles for loss in that 2019 game. He was a tight end in high school and had great ball skills, so he is a legitimate coverage threat with one interception so far this season (lost the clip, sorry, but it was a boneheaded play by the Hawaii QB). Sharp also has the size and speed of a lighter defensive end, and he’s a great edge rusher, although he’s had a bit of a quiet season so far. Part of that may be due to the emergence of Andrzej Hughes-Murray. I ran this by our resident Polish expert, Piotr, and he confirmed that “Andrzej” is Polish for “Warrior,” and that’s exactly the kind of season he’s been having (Hughes-Murray, not Piotr, but if Piotr wants to get on the field and crush some quarterbacks too then I’m all for it).
Hughes-Murray already eclipsed his previous season-high sack total just halfway into the season. In the following play, Hughes-Murray comes around on a stunt, slipping by the much bigger offensive lineman:
In the next play, Andrzej Hughes-Murray quickly sheds the Utah tight end for a tackle for loss. Look at the speed at which OSU flies to the ball carrier:
Although Oregon State’s outside linebackers are pretty solid, it’s the inside linebackers that are the strength of this defense: Avery Roberts and Omar Speights. Do you know who the top two tacklers were in the Pac-12 last season? I’ll give you a hint: it was Avery Roberts and Omar Speights. (That’s what we call a “Stanford hint,” by the way). This year’s current leading tackler? Also Avery Roberts.
Avery Roberts, the 4-star transfer from Nebraska, has the size and speed to become a late round NFL draft pick. Besides being a sure tackler, he has really good instincts and will quickly crash down on the run:
Like Riley Sharp, Omar Speights also made an immediate impact for Oregon State. Another elite tackler at linebacker, you just have to appreciate the speed at which Omar Speights is moving:
And because I spent so much time talking about him yesterday, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also include OSU’s two-way player, LB Jack Colletto. He’s one of the backup linebackers, but he’s shown up in a couple big plays (an interception, a forced fumble, etc). Here he is dropping into coverage against QB Kedon Slovis:
If you need further proof that the linebackers are the strength of this defense, just note that not only have they been critical to stopping the run, they also have half of OSU’s interceptions (5 INTs by the linebackers, 5 by the defensive backs). Five interceptions by the linebackers is more interceptions than even some Pac-12 secondaries, and the highest total by any non-secondary position group in the Pac-12. A lot of Pac-12 teams have a defensive lineman with an interception, usually right in the face of a QB, but only two teams have a a position group with more than 1 interception: ASU has 4 INTs by their linebackers (3 by LB Darien Butler), and Utah has 2 INTs by their linebackers (both belonging to LB Devin Lloyd). Unlike those other teams, OSU doesn’t have just one linebacker to watch out for; it’s all of them.
When Jonathan Smith first took over the Oregon State job, they had a historically terrible defense (think Cal Sonny Dykes-era defense). They were actually quite functional on offense, but even the best offense on college football would have been hard-pressed to score points at the rate Oregon State was giving them up. I remember one game in Smith’s first year, they put up a very respectable 31 points on AP #5 Ohio State… the problem was that they gave up a touchdown nearly every time Ohio State touched the ball (seriously: 10 TDs on 12 drives, 1 punt, 1 fumble). Oregon State’s offense has steadily improved, but the real reason Oregon State is tied for first in the Pac-12 North has been the marked improvement of their defense. Even when Oregon State’s defense wasn’t good, they had a decent secondary, thanks to the talent they had in their secondary: the corners Nashon Wright (3rd round draft pick by the Dallas Cowboys) and Isaiah Dunn (UDFA, currently on the New York Jets). I was always a big fan of Nashon Wright (e.g. , ) and thought that (like many OSU players) he didn’t get enough respect.
Well, the loss of Dunn and Wright to the NFL definitely hurts. Stepping in to replace Nashon Wright as OSU’s top cornerback is… his brother, Rejzohn Wright (he’s also the cousin of the safety, Alton Julian). Rejzohn Wright reminds me of Nashon Wright in many ways, and not just in my propensity to make typos when I try to type their names into my notes. Nashon was a very tall, rangy defender, and he had good instincts and cover skills, but he was a bit raw overall. Rejzohn is like this to another degree; he’s also tall and rangy, but even more raw than his brother, although the talent is obviously there.
Rejzohn Wright does a good job of not getting pushed around by the receiver:
And like I said, also possesses good instincts:
Overall, Rejzohn Wright is a talented corner with plenty of room to grow, and he too can grow to be a corner that quarterbacks avoid at all costs.
Opposite of Wright is the corner Alex Austin. The best thing I can say about Austin is that he is a very physical corner. I mean, very physical. We’re talking Olivia Newton-John levels of physical here. If you have one of those “let ‘em play” refs, that’s great news, because Austin will be all over opposing receivers:
If you don’t have a ref that’s willing to overlook penalties, well, then the best way I could describe Alex Austin is “PI Machine.” Austin had the unenviable task of guarding Drake London in the USC game, and Austin’s strategy was to basically tackle London to the ground every time the ball was heading towards London. I’m not kidding; Slovis started just throwing it in London’s general vicinity each time to drive USC down the field via pass interference penalties.
OSU’s most technically sound defensive back is probably their nickelback, Jaydon Grant. He started as a walk-on, but he’s the current leader of this defense. Grant just has a penchant for making big plays, and putting himself in the right place at the right time. He plays with a lot of heart:
No one in the secondary shows better instincts than Grant, and he’s likely to find himself disrupting a big play at some point on Saturday. Although he’s typically at the nickel position, he also plays safety, and that’s important because OSU just announced that they lost their starting safety, Alton Julian, for the season due to injury. Julian possess the lone safety highlight clip I made:
And now he’s out, so let that tell you what you need to know about the OSU safeties. The starting safeties are likely to be Kitan Oladapo and Akili Arnold. Oladapo has shown good ball skills in man coverage (missing Hawaii highlight clip here), but I have to say that there’s been a number of times where I just have no idea what the OSU safeties are doing. Plays like this, for example:
This is a nice way to say that there will definitely be passing opportunities to score.
Oregon State has a very strong “middle” of the defense — good pass rushing outside linebackers, great run stopping inside linebackers — but they’re a bit more pedestrian on the defensive line and in the secondary. Cal will definitely be able to move the ball against OSU, but the question will come down to whether or not they can move the ball and score at the same pace that OSU does.