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Oregon State Football Offensive Preview
Oregon State has the best offense in the Pac-12. Yes, you read that correctly.
I don’t know if this would be considered a compliment or an insult these days, but I wanted to open with a surprising fact about Pac-12 coaches: if you were to rank the Pac-12 coaches by their record over the past 4 years, you would see that OSU coach Jonathan Smith (14-24) is sitting just half a game behind UCLA’s Chip Kelly (15-24). Obviously 14-24 isn’t the greatest record over a 4-year span, but it shows how well Jonathan Smith is doing with a whole lot less than his peers in Southern California. If you take a closer look at that OSU record, it would show that Oregon State is on a clear upward trajectory; Smith took over a team that went 1-11 in 2017, and OSU is sitting at the top of the Pac-12 North standings alongside Oregon, both of whom currently hold a 3-1 conference record.
Make no mistake, Jonathan Smith is a fantastic coach and the clear frontrunner for 2021 Pac-12 Coach of the Year. Oregon State is a team that is much better than the sum of its parts; they have fantastic gameplans each week, and they execute those gameplans at a very high level. I know that current Arizona head coach Jedd Fisch was an offensive assistant under LA Rams coach Sean McVay, but it’s OSU Offensive Coordinator Brian Lindgren that is drawing up plays reminiscent of the Rams’ high-powered attack. One of the things that makes McVay’s Rams so dangerous is that run plays look identical to pass plays. Teams have trouble making defensive play-calls against the Rams when each play could be 50-50 run or pass, so when the Rams get their running game going and defenses starting cheating up to defend the run, all of a sudden they take a deep shot down the field and hit you with a huge passing play. OSU takes that philosophy to the next level: they run a huge number of plays out of the same formations, they love play-action passes (especially after running the ball down a team’s throat), and they love misdirection— is it a handoff to the running back, is it a pitch to the receiver on the jet sweep the other direction, is it a quarterback run out of the bootleg, or is it a play-action pass deep down the field? The defense might cheat up to defend the run, but they flow to one side of the field with the running back when the ball is actually in the hands of a receiver who took the ball on the jet sweep in the opposite direction. One thing I saw a lot out of Oregon State in 2019 was running a particular play, knowing that they just put it on tape for their next opponent, and then adding a new wrinkle the following week knowing that their opponent has already game-planned against the previous wrinkle. There is no play that exemplifies this philosophy better than “the Angry Beaver,” which I believe is what they call it when former quarterback/fullback/linebacker Jack Colletto takes the snap in short yardage situations and typically runs the ball himself. I’ll come back to this play in a later section (the Jack Colletto section).
Oregon State has the best offensive in the Pac-12, averaging 445.6 yards per game. They’re a very run-heavy team—also leading the Pac-12 with 245.0 rushing yards per game—but they’re running the ball just enough to get teams to focus on stopping the run, at which point QB Chance Nolan torches the secondary. “Run the ball to open up the passing game” sounds pretty simple, but no team in the Pac-12 does it better than Oregon State. For this reason, I am going to shake up the usual order of my position previews.
Oregon State is going to run the ball a lot, and the reason for this is simple: they have the best run blocking offense in the entire Pac-12, and probably one of the best in the entire country. I mentioned in an article earlier this year that I had trouble evaluating Oregon’s running backs because their offensive line was so good and would just open up enormous holes for RB CJ Verdell to run through. In Oregon’s case the past few years, it was because their offensive line was filled with NFL talent. In Oregon State’s case, it’s not just the offensive line that’s blocking well, it’s literally everybody: whether it’s a tight end pulling or a block by a receiver downfield, everyone in the Oregon State offense blocks well (which is obviously a critical part of their run-heavy offense, because you can’t run the ball well if teams are constantly blowing up your blocks).
So let’s start this preview with the feature back, BJ Baylor. Although last year’s star running back Jermar Jefferson was pretty evenly split between power and speed, I want to say that BJ Baylor (although still versatile) leans a bit more on the power side, and is a pretty accomplished downhill runner that is going to challenge defenses to stop him at the point of attack. I won’t say that Baylor has breakaway speed, but he certainly has enough speed:
Of course, when Baylor has a full head of steam, it’s certainly tough for someone like a defensive back to stop him. No player in the Pac-12 has more explosive run plays than Baylor. Baylor does a great job of always churning his legs and falling forward for extra yards:
Although BJ Baylor can (and will) certainly run through a defender, he also showcases some nice vision and cutback ability. In the next play, even though Utah’s talented defensive line is able to beat their blocks, Baylor makes a nice cut to avoid a swath of white jerseys at the line:
This next play is one of my favorites, because who doesn’t enjoy seeing USC players getting stiff-armed into the turf:
While Baylor is the more versatile back, they have a clear power back in Deshaun Fenwick, a 6’2” 230-pound bruiser. If you think simply getting a hand on Fenwick is enough, then you’re mistaken:
Fenwick loves to run through arm tackles. In the following play, Fenwick helps Washington State defenders become more closely acquainted with the turf:
Oregon State also has a speedy scatback-type runner in Trey Lowe, who has seen more action in third down situations recently. He has the speed and shiftiness that other backs lack, and he’s also a viable target on a swing pass out of the backfield. Look at how fast his feet move:
Oh, you thought I was done previewing the OSU run game, did you? A big part of the OSU run game is the use of a fullback, and Oregon State possesses the Pac-12’s most versatile player in Jack Colletto. Colletto was originally a quarterback for Oregon State (and you may remember him from the 2018 Cal-OSU game, where he played QB in the place of an injured Conor Blount), but he then transitioned to become a linebacker for the defense, became the go-to option in short yardage situations (is it still called “the wildcat” when it’s a former QB taking the snap in short yardage situations?) and has since added fullback duties because he decided he doesn’t like standing on the sidelines or taking any sort of rest during a game.
In the following play, Colletto assumes the role of fullback, with both Colletto and RB BJ Baylor setting blocks for the run by QB Chance Nolan:
How do you fool a defense after half a season of being a lead blocker on runs? By utilizing your fullback in the passing game, of course:
And finally we arrive at OSU’s go-to play in short yardage situations: “the Angry Beaver.” The Angry Beaver is basically the wildcat, where a running back takes the snap and typically runs the ball, but remember that Colletto is actually a former quarterback himself. In 3rd-and-short, 4th-and-short situations, it’s almost a given that Colletto is powering this ball up the middle to convert, and he pretty much always does:
Why risk your quarterback on QB sneaks when you can have some big linebacker dude run the ball instead? And again, think of how many different plays you can run from this formation: sure, Colletto is probably going to run it (and the majority of the defense is going to be crashing the line on a likely short yardage run), but he can also hand it off to the running back, the wide receiver on the jet sweep, or he can even throw the ball himself. Teams have struggled to stop this run even when they completely expect a run, so it’s no surprise that OSU would also have a lot of success using misdirection on a play like this.
For a really ridiculous stat, note that Jack Colletto is the first FBS player since 2004 to record two rushing touchdowns and an interception in the same game in OSU’s win over USC. Those two rushing touchdowns obviously courtesy of the Angry Beaver, of course.
QB Chance Nolan is one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12—if not the best—and he’s criminally underrated. No one knows about him because Oregon State is rarely playing nationally televised games, but all I can tell you is that I have more passing highlights of Chance Nolan (too many to fit in this article) than I do of any other quarterback. Oregon State actually started the season with Colorado transfer QB Sam Noyer (a pretty good [dual-threat] quarterback in his own right), but Nolan took over in the second half of their first game, nearly led OSU to a comeback, and has been the starter ever since. Chance Nolan has absolutely fantastic touch on his throws, and regularly drops passes into spots where only his receivers can get them, hitting them in stride for huge passing plays:
Nolan has absolutely no fear of coverages. Let me present to you the absolute best throw I have seen in the Pac-12 since I started taking clips about 5 years ago:
There is absolutely zero margin for error on this throw, with four different defenders viably able to make a play on this ball, and Chance Nolan absolutely THREADS THE NEEDLE on this throw. My goodness, this is a miracle throw.
What’s that? A receiver is double-covered? Well Chance Nolan double-doesn’t give a shit:
Okay, but let’s say we bring a ton of pressure on Nolan, surely he’ll make mistakes then? Wrong again buckaroo, Nolan is fearless:
Nolan isn’t the biggest, most athletic runner out there, but that doesn’t matter when you have an Alex Honnold-like amygdala:
Nolan isn’t a Dorian Thompson-Robinson or Jayden Daniels type of runner, but he absolutely will pick up yards on the ground if they are there, and OSU will have designed QB-runs to keep a defense off-balance. I hope he learns some self-preservation for his own sake.
Even though OSU is a run-first team, Nolan runs an absolutely lethal passing offense.
Chance Nolan will have a number of reliable targets at the receiver position, even if none of them are surefire future NFL players. OSU’s most talented receiver is probably the 4-star transfer from FSU, Tre’Shaun Harrison. Harrison originally committed to Oregon and Willie Taggart, and flipped to FSU when Taggart did. Like Taggart, Tre’Shaun Harrison shows great speed and shiftiness in getting from point A to point B. Harrison is fast and runs great routes to get separation from the defenders.
Harrison is a reliable target:
Speaking of reliable targets, there has been no target more reliable than Trevon Bradford for OSU. Bradford has been at OSU for what feels like forever (seriously, he’s logged 6 years of stats at OSU, stretching back to 2016). Here’s a play that OSU likes to run — Trevon Bradford uses his speed to the outside for the rushing touchdown:
A lot of OSU receivers are very fast explosive athletes but, well, undersized. For example, there’s the 4-star Nebraska transfer Tyjon Lindsey (5’9” 173 lbs), Anthony Gould (5’8” 163 lbs), and Champ Flemings (5’5” 142 lbs). I don’t see OSU receivers making a whole lot of contested catches, because typically Nolan isn’t throwing at them unless they have some clear separation, but we know that Nolan can definitely fit the ball into a tight spot:
Honestly, what Jonathan Smith has done with his receivers at OSU is reminiscent of what Chip Kelly did in his Oregon days: find some under-appreciated (or under-recruited) players—mainly speedy ones— and design an offense suited to their strengths. Because OSU has so many speedy receivers who are dangerous when they get the ball in open space (as opposed to the big tall receivers at Stanford or USC who box out defenders on jump balls, let’s say), that’s exactly what OSU does:
Champ Flemings is commonly overlooked (get it?), but he does a lot of the little things well, and that often goes unappreciated. He’s got sure hands, he’s good at finding the soft spots against a zone coverage, and he even blocks well. Obviously he too has a ton of speed and quick acceleration:
Tyjon Lindsey is another fast guy, but he’s also a great route runner. I’ve seen him leave a ton of corners completely flat-footed:
Of course, I can’t finish this section without mentioning the tight ends. OSU loves 2-TE sets, and they have a pair of great tight ends in Teagan Quitoriano and Luke Musgrave (Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s nephew).
Teagan Quitoriano has the tools to be a late-round NFL draft pick next year. He’s a well-rounded tight end; a great run blocker and solid pass catcher. Here’s my favorite Quitoriano play, and it’s probably not hard to guess why:
Did you guess that it was my favorite play because of the clever misdirection on the play design? Because that would be completely wrong; it’s obviously my favorite because of the way he treated Stanford defenders dressed all in white as bowling pins. This is admirable but slightly incorrect; the correct answer is that Stanford players are trash and litter should be removed from the field. But I give him points for having the right idea, though.
Luke Musgrave is probably the more solid blocker, but he can also find himself open:
It should be clear by this point that although certain receivers might not be the most well-rounded talents, OSU is going to run plays designed to their strengths, and that can be very hard to stop when OSU is blocking and running the ball well, and the quarterback is taking advantage of any window he sees.
I don’t normally do this, but I also have to give a shout-out to OSU’s special teams, because they have made enough of an impact to be the difference between wins and losses for OSU this season (boy, can’t imagine what that’s like). For one thing, they’ve blocked multiple punts:
This wasn’t even the only blocked punt in the Utah game, but Utah was fortunate that OSU made a bone-headed equipment violation penalty (two special teams players wearing the same number) to negate the other blocked punt nearly returned for a touchdown.
On one play, the punter, Luke Loecher, was able to recover from a terrible snap, chasing after the ball with a defender in tow and still managed to boot it away for a big punt. Loecher also made a pretty decent throw deep on a fake punt play against Washington State, although the pass fell incomplete mainly due to a poor route run by his receiver. This is another thing to keep in mind with Oregon State, which is that they always have a number of gadget plays or trick plays up their sleeve, especially in critical situations.
The kicker, Everett Hayes, has never missed a PAT in his career, and currently possesses a career-long field goal of 48 yards. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s because OSU is pretty much always going for it on 4th down anywhere near midfield (and/or long FG range).
It just goes to show you that even if you’re not loaded with future-NFL talent, if you execute plays well, block well, and make big plays on special teams, you can have quite the successful season.
Oregon State has the best offense in the Pac-12, with a very strong run game and a quarterback with the ability to pick apart a defense when teams start focusing too heavily on defending the run. The entire offense does a great job of blocking, which sets up success in the run game, and Oregon State does a fantastic job of running plays that are suited to the strengths of their personnel. The Oregon State offense is going to be very, very hard to stop, and the best that Cal can hope for is to slow them down just enough for the Cal offense to surprise their defense late. Although I am always nervous for the Oregon State matchup, this is the first time in a while that I’m nervous because they simply look like the better team. If Cal wins, it’s going to be an upset—or a sign that Cal is finally ready to play up to their potential, because there are a number of similarly difficult matchups coming soon.