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Oregon State Football Offensive Preview
The offense is like the game "Duck, duck, goose," only it's "Block, block, run."
Oregon State has been a strong home team this year, losing only to USC by 3 at home. Cal, on the other hand, has been relatively weak on the road, with victories over… well, no one. Even in the past when Cal was good and Oregon State was bad, OSU always had some weird juju that helped them upset Cal. This year, Oregon State is already bowl eligible, while Cal needs to win out in order to become bowl eligible. And don’t forget, Cal is on a 5-game losing streak, and will be underdogs in at least two of their final three games (Cal should be a slight favorite over Stanford, but rivalry games are always anyone’s guess).
Oregon State head coach Jonathan Smith led the rebuild of his alma mater, leading Oregon State to their first bowl game in 8 years last year, and their first Top 25 ranking this year since 2013. I think they’ll pose an intriguing matchup for Cal, who has already faced various iterations of the same team: that is, a talented quarterback on offense, and a strong defensive line and weak secondary on defense. Oregon State, on the other hand, will be a run-first team on offense (like we saw with Notre Dame in the second half of that game, and literally no one else), and a team with a questionable defensive line but a very strong secondary. Only ASU, Arizona, and Colorado have fewer sacks than Oregon State, but Colorado (with 6 sacks on the season through 9 games, the conference’s fewest) had no trouble generating pressure on Cal QB Jack Plummer, so I am not sure how much the relative strength of the defensive line matters when facing Cal’s offensive line. But outside of Utah, Oregon State probably has the best secondary, and thus the best secondary that Cal will face this season. I’m not especially optimistic about Cal’s chances slowing a run-heavy team, however.
Let’s start with a positional breakdown.
Wait a minute, this is not a position. That’s because Jack Colletto plays whatever position he wants. Originally recruited to Oregon State (and played) as a dual-threat quarterback, Colletto now plays whatever position he wants. Quarterback, fullback, running back, receiver, tight end, kick returner, kick coverage, linebacker (and he played safety in high school)… Jack Colletto can and will play any position he’d like. Most often though, he’s playing both ways, as a fullback and as a linebacker. With his versatility, he’s a big part of the offense.
First, it’s important to note that Oregon State loves the I-formation more than most teams in college football:
The I-formation is when the “backs” (in order: QB, FB, RB) are aligned in a straight line (hence the “I”). An offset I-formation will shade the fullback to one side of the offensive line, which you can see in a later Colletto clip.
Because of Colletto’s proficiency blocking, OSU will run a lot of run plays with Colletto as the fullback/lead blocker. Watch as the running back follows the block by Colletto (#12):
OSU does a good job of steadily chewing up yards on the ground, and getting a lot of 3rd-and-manageable drives (and they love going for it on 4th down anyway). Fundamentally, Oregon State is just a team that blocks very well, and they’ve built they’re offense around that fact.
There’s nothing fancy about the following play. The tight end and fullback (Colletto) both pick up blocks to open a lane for the running back, and the running back uses his momentum to carry the tackler into the endzone with him:
At this point, I am not sure what position to use when Colletto takes the direct snap (QB?), but he has the 4th most rushing attempts on the team (behind the RB committee), almost always in short yardage situations, and hence he’s T-1st with the most rushing TDs on the team. When Colletto is taking the snap, teams know he’s going to run the ball, but he still has an extremely high success rate converting on 3rd and 4th downs anyway. With the game on the line, OSU will turn to Colletto:
Although he most often runs the ball from the direct snap, he can take the handoff:
But he can still catch passes as well. Colletto blocks so much that the defensive end instinctively tries to beat his (fake) block, which leaves Colletto wide open for a pass:
And oh yeah, don’t forget about those “QB” letters (in fact, he took over as quarterback the last time Cal beat Oregon State in Corvallis). He runs the ball so often in short yardage situations that a pass will catch the defense off-guard, but the (former?) quarterback is still plenty capable of throwing the ball:
OSU in years past briefly used him as a tight end (again, because of blocking + receiving ability), but he’s pretty solidly a fullback now. But that doesn’t mean Jack “Hammer” Colletto and his versatility won’t still be used in a variety of creative ways on offense.
Oregon State loves to run the ball, and averages the 2nd most rushing attempts per game in the conference with 39.0 (2nd only to Utah; 40.6), but their 43.7 rushing attempts in the past 3 games (read: with starting QB Chance Nolan was injured) puts them firmly in 1st place (43.7 attempts/game). They’re 4th in the conference in rushing yards per game (behind UCLA, Oregon, and Utah; all fantastic rushing offenses).
They’re a running back by committee squad, but that stable of running backs is now led by true freshman RB Damien Martinez. Martinez bears a lot of similarity to Cal’s RB Jaydn Ott in that he’s surprisingly well-rounded and developed for a true freshman running back (although I’d still take Ott any day of the week, and anyone who says differently is lying). Martinez struggled a bit in pass blocking, but he has improved in that regard in the past few games.
For one thing, OSU running backs have a lot more space to work with (and the following 2 clips show exactly how I imagined the Cal-Colorado game would go):
Still, Martinez shows good vision in finding the open lane:
Here, Martinez makes a nice cut to shed the
JV Stanford defender:
Martinez does a good job of keeping his legs moving to find a lane when the gap he was supposed to hit is not there (and a solid, well-coached move to switch the ball to his outside hand here):
He’s got enough balance to break weak ankle tackles:
But still has the power to lower his pad level and run through defenders when called for:
The current backup (although a bit unclear with Deshaun Fenwick returning from injury) is the Georgia Tech transfer, Jam Griffin. He’s a bit more compact than Martinez, and runs with a more traditional power-running style:
But Griffin does have some nice agility as well:
Deshaun Fenwick, the original starting running back for the season, has been struggling with some injury issues, but returned for the previous (Washington) game. Fenwick is another powerful running back with good vision and burst, although he lacks the elite top-end speed you’d like to see in a back at the next level:
Regardless of who is running the ball, the Oregon State running backs will have plenty of great blocks at the line and downfield to give them plenty of room to run.
Oregon State has the 11th ranked passing offense in the conference, and I think it’s fair to say that they use their passing game to supplement the run instead of the other way around. In particular, OSU loves the play-action pass once they get the defense to start biting down on the run.
As a disclaimer, I have no idea who the quarterback will be on Saturday, as injury reports apparently mean nothing. Chance Nolan is reported to be practicing again in a limited capacity and is “questionable” (USC wide receivers Jordan Addison and Mario Williams were reported to be practicing last week too, and they never played).
I think the starter will likely be the backup, QB Ben Gulbranson. I think Ben Gulbranson so far has been more of a game-manager quarterback. OSU has run the ball a lot more since he took over, and he’s not being asked to beat defenses with his arm, only to keep defenses honest when defending the run. Despite watching all of his games, I haven’t taken very many highlights. I think this is the nicest throw I’ve seen him make:
Although Oregon State does a good job of scheming plays, there have been times where Gulbranson could not capitalize:
And again, when the threat of the run gets the defense to collapse inward, he’s unable to take advantage:
I haven’t been super impressed with his reads, either:
On the other hand, I am way higher on the original starter, Chance Nolan, than most. Since I have no idea who will play (Coach Jonathan Smith said he’ll play when he’s able), I figure I’ll cover him as well. Nolan has had a rough time so far this season (19 TDs/10 INTs in 2021 became 7 TDs/8 INTs so far in 2022), but I’m assuming that some of these misses (bad throws for interceptions) can be explained by a nagging injury (Nolan threw 4 of those INTs against USC and 2 more INTs the following week against Utah, and he’s been out ever since).
If a team is able to stop the OSU run game (the way USC and Utah did), I don’t think Gulbranson could beat a team through the air, but I do think Chance Nolan could (as long as he doesn’t turn the ball over the way he did earlier this season).
Not the biggest arm, but a bit more accurate (although this one is slightly underthrown):
Nolan has some very nice touch on his throws, and this is why I’m a big fan of his (even if he doesn’t have the NFL arm strength):
I mentioned earlier than OSU loves their play-action. Here’s Nolan making a nice throw under pressure:
I’ll stop short of praising Nolan’s passing under pressure as most of his interceptions this year came under heavy pressure, but I feel he was uncharacteristically accurate in those two games and hence why I’d like to attribute those to an injury.
Here Nolan makes a nice play-action pass to the tight end Luke Musgrave, just over the defender:
Nolan is also far more mobile than Gulbranson, and a legitimate dual-threat. His ability to run the ball gives another dimension to the OSU run game:
Nolan will also run it on designed run plays:
While Nolan generally has (at least in 2021) good accuracy, he’s also prone to overconfidence. Here he tries to fit a ball into triple coverage (under pressure, and probably why he locked onto that first read), which is either a really bad read or a really bad decision:
I wouldn’t expect too much out of Nolan if this is first game back from injury, but I feel safe in saying that it won’t be the quarterback punishing the Cal defense.
Normally, this would be the Luke Musgrave section (you know, Bill Musgrave’s nephew). But as a future NFL tight end currently out with an injury, he’s probably not rushing back to play in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl and hurt his future NFL Draft stock. I was actually able to talk extensively with both TE Luke Musgrave and CB Alex Austin at the Pac-12 Media Day (due to the lack of respect most of the media gave Oregon State, there was pretty much no one else there to ask questions, and hence I was just standing at the player table asking questions I knew I probably wouldn’t be reporting on). I tried my best to pry some Cal information out of them, and they did their best to give non-answers to most of my questions, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share the following nugget. I asked Luke Musgrave if he ever gave any thought to playing for his uncle, to which he answered “no… we have a really good coaching staff at Oregon State,” which I interpreted as an indictment (“better than your uncle?” I thought to myself).
In the extreme off-chance that Luke Musgrave returns (personally, I wouldn’t risk my draft stock if I were him, even if I were completely healthy), Musgrave would be the go-to receiver:
Oregon State’s #1 receiver, and their most talent, is the Nebraska transfer Tre’Shaun Harrison. I feel like Harrison hasn’t been playing up to his potential this year, and he was a much bigger factor in the offense last year. But I have to give him props for my favorite play of the season:
I broke this into two clips just so I could show a better angle of the replay:
Tre’Shaun Harrison has some nice moves after the catch:
As talented as he is, though, he’s been suffering from concentration drops this season. OSU will rely on a lot of short passes, and it seems like Tre’Shaun Harrison is too focused on what he’ll do after the catch than he fails to secure the catch itself:
And again: wide open, simple route, drop:
Outside of Harrison, the rest of OSU’s receivers are undersized, speedy receivers: Tyjon Lindsey (5’9”), Anthony Gould (5’8”), and Silas Bolden (5’8”) are the other top receiving targets not already mentioned. Lindsey is a slot receiver, usually the target on short yardage throws, where OSU will try to get him into space due to his YAC ability:
Here Lindsey again makes a nice move to pick up yards after the catch:
Anthony Gould is the deep threat receiver, who will line up in both the slot and to the outside, although he’s lined up outside more often in recent games:
Gould also has some YAC ability:
Gould has also shown some contested catch ability:
Silas Bolden, typically an outside receiver, is the one most often used on gadget plays relying on speed. Here he takes the reverse for a touchdown:
And here he uses his speed on the end-around for a rushing touchdown:
In Musgrave’s absence, the tight end I’ve been the most impressed with so far is the true freshman TE Jack Velling (whose last name made me do a double take):
When Jonathan Smith first took over as coach for Oregon State, they faced a large talent gap in most of their games, and thus they loved trick play. Now that Oregon State is doing fairly well (with a 6-3 record, only with losses to #8 USC, #13 Utah, and #24 Washington), they haven’t relied on the trick play much this year. But it’s always an option:
Oregon State will rely on a short passing game, trying to work their receivers into open space, so that their receivers can create their own yards after catch (when they’re not running e.g. tunnel screens, etc). OSU will most likely challenge the secondary only when the defense commits too many defenders to stopping the run.
Oregon State’s offense will pose a new challenge to the Cal defense. After Notre Dame accidentally discovered they could reliably run the ball at will against Cal to compensate for their weak quarterback play, I am not especially optimistic about Cal’s chances stopping the OSU run game. Conversely, Cal’s wide receivers have out-talented their opposition this season, so this should be their stiffest test yet. I can imagine Cal slowing the pace of the game and trying to steal a possession or two to get an edge, but something tells me that OSU will convert drives when needed in order to squeak out another one-possession win against the Cal Bears.
With great sadness,
You can find my full clips here.