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Oregon State Football Defensive Preview
Jack Plummer will face off against the best secondary Cal will see all year.
As I briefly alluded to in yesterday’s offensive preview, I think that the Oregon State defense will pose a challenge that Cal’s offense has not yet seen this year. Most of the Cal games this year have been against a good defensive line that dominates Cal’s offensive line and pressures QB Jack Plummer relentlessly, while he tries to get throws off under duress to his talented receivers against a questionable secondary. Oregon State, on the other hand, has a questionable defensive line that doesn’t generate a ton of pressure, but has a really strong secondary and pass defense behind it. If the Colorado game is any indication—Colorado, the team that has the 2nd fewest sacks in the entire FBS—Oregon State will probably still get pressure on Plummer, which means the Cal offense is really going to have their work cut out for them.
Oregon State has the #4 passing defense and #3 rushing defense in the conference. A lot of this credit—even the rushing defense—belongs to the secondary (3 of the team’s top 4 tacklers are defensive backs), and to the linebackers who’ve done an excellent job containing some of the conference’s best dual-threat quarterbacks, like USC’s Caleb Williams and Washington State’s Cameron Ward (they were not as successful containing Utah’s Cam Rising, however).
Before we move on to the positional breakdowns, I have to point out the mascot. What’s going on here?:
Clearly, the Beavs should not be underestimated.
So I’ve been a little harsh on OSU’s defensive line, but the truth is that they’re about on par with Cal’s (albeit banged-up) defensive line. In OSU’s defense, I believe some of their defensive linemen suffered injuries in the preseason, and have perhaps been slow to find their stride. Here’s defensive end Isaac Hodgins’ only sack of the season (Hodgins broke his foot in the offseason):
Washington State was one of the few games where the defensive line generated a decent amount of pressure. Here’s DT James Rawls beating a block to force the quarterback to scramble, and his teammate cleans up the sack:
In the following play, it looks like the center isn’t able to get over in time to block Rawls as he shoots into the backfield:
In the following play, the nose tackle Simon Sandberg correctly diagnoses the swing pass, and is able to knock it down:
There just isn’t a lot of highlights to put in this section. Like Cal, OSU will find creative ways to bring other players in (LBs, DBs) to blitz and create pressure. Although the defensive line hasn’t been terribly effective at the pass rush, they’re at least reliable run stoppers, and don’t have too many missed tackles at the line.
I’m a big fan of the inside linebacker, Omar Speights, although he’s been having a relatively quiet season so far this year. He’s shown some nice pass coverage skills in years prior, and is an effective tackler. This is something OSU does well: here he correctly diagnoses the screen pass and promptly blows it up:
Here’s another example of a solid tackle, as the running back can’t shake him:
The other inside linebacker, Kyrei Fisher-Morris, is a big hitter (and thus slightly less reliable in wrapping up), but he’s definitely shown that he can.
On the other hand, Kyrei Fisher-Morris is a liability in pass coverage, relative to the rest of the linebackers.
Outside linebacker Riley Sharp is another one I’ve been a fan of for a while, as he’s been a solid pass rusher since starting as a freshman (you may remember he posted 3 sacks in a 2019 upset over Cal). Here he is with a solid bullrush, driving the right tackle back into the quarterback to force a fumble:
The other outside linebacker, John McCartan, has been having a breakout season this year after missing all of 2021 with a hamstring injury.
McCartan has a couple sacks as an edge rusher, but he’s also the team’s highest-rated linebacker in coverage per PFF:
OSU has plenty of depth at linebacker. Here’s the backup inside linebacker Easton Mascarenas-Arnold picking off UW QB Michael Penix Jr.:
And here’s a nice speed rush by the backup outside linebacker, Andrew Chatfield Jr.:
And this section couldn’t be complete without mentioning the backup inside linebacker (the backup, likely so he has some time to rest after playing on offense) Jack Colletto. Per PFF, Colletto is the team’s 2nd highest-graded tackler, with exactly 0 missed tackles this season:
A lot of these highlights aren’t super exciting, but that may be the point: everyone just does their job effectively, and there’s less need for superhuman effort/highlight reel plays to get stops on defense. That’s a sign of a well-coached team.
Finally, we get to the meat of this preview. Oregon State possesses a pair of NFL-caliber corners in Alex Austin and Rejzohn Wright.
Alex Austin has been having a fantastic season, and he’s been improving year by year. He has the size, speed, and length of an NFL corner, and he excels in man coverage. He’s a very physical defender, and does a great job in both diagnosing plays and tackling in open space. It’s hard to see from TV angles, but I’m not sure I’ve seen a receiver beat him in man coverage this year, as he’s always glued to his receiver:
No wasted steps, reads the route, and makes a nice break on the ball:
Here Austin passes his receiver off to the safety, reads the QB’s eyes, and makes the interception:
Some of these ESPN games look like they’re using their FCS camera crews when covering Oregon State, so forgive the weird camera angles and abrupt camera switching here. Alex Austin is with his receiver the entire way, and the Boise State quarterback makes a dumb decision to challenge him downfield anyway:
The other outside corner is Rejzohn Wright, the younger brother of former OSU cornerback and 3rd round NFL Draft pick Nashon Wright. Of the two, Rejzohn is probably the better NFL Draft prospect, with the NFL frame and athleticism to be a press corner at the next level.
Wright has the speed to quickly break on the ball:
And the NFL athleticism and ball skills:
Cal was fortunate enough to miss USC’s top two receivers, Jordan Addison and Mario Williams, but Austin and Wright kept those two in check, showing that they have the coverage skills to matchup with anyone.
Next is Jaydon Grant, who converted from nickel to safety this season. Grant has also done well in pass coverage this year, right up there with Austin and Wright (although perhaps lacking the physical measurements that will get him NFL looks like the other two). All of OSU’s defensive backs are excellent in run coverage, and Grant is no exception:
In the middle of the field is the enforcer, safety Kitan Oladapo. Oladapo is very solid in run coverage, and leads the team in tackles, as he’s an extremely sure tackler.
In general, I think he’s a bit of a step down in pass coverage skills from the other three, but he’s still made some nice plays in coverage:
Finally, there’s the new nickelback, JUCO transfer Ryan Cooper Jr.:
Cooper Jr. has struggled adjusting to the increase in competition, and hasn’t performed particular well in coverage outside of a solid game against FCS Montana State. He has drawn a number of defensive holding and pass interference calls as he starts to lose his man in coverage. Here was one positive play he made, although he got away with a hold as the receiver tried to make his break to the outside:
So although Oregon State’s secondary consists of strong tacklers and solid run-supporters, not to mention a pair of NFL-caliber outside corners, the middle of the field is not impenetrable.
Cal needs to win their final 3 games to become bowl eligible, and so Oregon State could end Cal’s bowl hopes with a win on Saturday. Cal has lost a number of one-touchdown games (ND, Colorado, UW, USC), and if those results were flipped, Cal would be 7-2, with losses to just Washington State and Oregon. OSU, on the other hand, lost 2 one-FG games (UW, USC), handily beat Washington State, and is thus just a couple field goals away from being 8-1 and in the mix for the P12 Championship. That is to say, Cal will have their work cut out for them in Corvallis. It will be the biggest test of Cal’s stellar wide receivers yet. Cal’s offensive line will need to hold up, QB Jack Plummer will need to throw accurate passes into tight windows, and the Cal defense will need to get stops on the ground. I can see maybe one or two of those things happening, but I have trouble imagining all three, which doesn’t bode well for Cal’s chances. Still, hoping for the best.
You can find my full clips here.