CB RASHAAD REYNOLDS
CORVALLIS--Game Six – It’s a trap! Or at least it has the potential to be. Granted, it does not correlate on paper that Oregon State (No. 8, 5-0) loses their Homecoming tilt against a struggling Utah (2-4, 0-3) football squad. But in a Pac-12 football season characterized by rising underdogs and falling stars, Kyle Whittingham and the Utes have a lot to prove and not much time to do it.
That is why this game could be a trap – if Utah plays its cards right.
From this chair and many others, OSU has a clear cut advantage at nearly every position and measurable category. But..
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Whittingham and Co. -- early on -- figure to be pulling out all the stops Saturday night. Travis Wilson can run, and saw most of his passing success against UCLA when he moved around outside the pocket to open up mid- and long-range looks.
If OSU loses this game, it figures to be because of their pass defense. Give credit where credit due – the Beaver defensive backs have come through in the clutch more than once to influence the outcome of a game this season – Rashaad Reynolds’s game winning interception against Arizona, for example. Jordan Poyer’s’ three picks against Washington State, another. But dig a little deeper, and the glamour gets grungy.
The combination of Poyer and Reynolds along with sophomore safety tandem Tyrequek Zimmerman and Ryan Murphy have allowed OSU to slip quietly to 110th in the nation when it comes to defensive pass efficiency. Yes, Jordan Poyer has five interceptions and Reynolds is a 5-11 tank on two legs, but those big plays are covering up a major dilemma facing Mark Banker and Rod Perry.
No, it’s not quite time to hit the panic button. And Utah coming in appears to be a mild threat when it comes to the passing attack.
But No. 110 in the nation is not kosher for a team who started so promisingly in the secondary, a team that was heralded as having one of the most efficient corner tandems in college football. They can fly (to the ball), they can fight (to cause turnovers) but they aren’t quite living up to expectations for a team ranked No. 8 in the BCS.
From this chair, the issue with the OSU defense is not a lack of talent – it’s a lack of focus, a lack of discipline. And a scrambling quarterback, even a true freshman scrambling QB, can make that work in his favor.
WHEN YOU LOOK at the Beaver safeties, sure, they’re young. The collective inexperience needs to be taken into account given they’re just a pair of second year sophomores.
But combined the duo represent two of the top five tacklers on the squad with 54 stops between them -- Murphy has 31 tackles, one interception and Zimmerman has posted 23 takedowns. They have yet to struggle with bringing guys down – what they do struggle with is consistency at defending the pass, particularly the middle of the field. But it’s not just them in the middle.
Overall, the OSU pass defense is tight on the edges, aggressive within the first five hashes to alter routes a smidge and are decent in red zone schemes. Overall, they’re a well-rounded, well coached group.
But if the OSU defense were a solar system – the center of the field would be its black hole. ‘Zona, WSU, and BYU all had success attacking that weakness – in those last three games OSU allowed 942 total yards through the air. And the vast majority of that success came from teams attacking that 10-15 yard void between the safeties and linebackers on the field.
And this is why blame cannot be delivered solely to the doorsteps of Zimmerman and Murphy. The middle of the field is the responsibility of linebackers, cornerbacks in zone drop patterns and the safeties– and it has proven to be the Achilles heel of the Oregon State defense.
WHITTINGHAM AND CO. are no doubt aware of this. So while Utah is averaging a mere 100 yards on the ground this year (its running attack has been plagued with injuries to John White and inconsistent performances from the O-line), they haven't given up on it. They're still running it more than they've thrown it -- 211 rushes to 184 passing attempts.)
Utah probably isn't expecting much from their running backs against a OSU rush defense ranked fourth in the nation (just 70 yards per game). So what do they do? Well, it probably won’t just be about trying to pass.
Whittingham might well use Wilson’s scrambling abilities to draw the defense into the backfield - essentially supplementing Utah’s run game in that regard. Once that has happened, they can try to use the speed of Dres Anderson and Devonte Christopher to take chunks out of the Beaver secondary -- as long as Wilson becomes enough of a running threat.
Utah has been sluggish at best this season on offense, with injuries and position battles limiting a joint production was anticipating bigger, better things this season. The odds are heavily stacked against the Utes – a whispering fire under their feet will have to be ignited somehow, some way.
Expect the unexpected. Magic tricks, perhaps? Utah doesn’t currently have the offensive weapons to score more than 30 points in a traditional way -- they have yet to do so this year. For Utah to pull off the upset and crush OSU's widening postseason hopes, they’ll need some Houdini’s and Whodunits against a dynamic OSU front seven spearheaded by Michael Doctor, D.J. Alexander (formerly Welch) and Scott Crichton.
And that chance rests with Wilson – OSU has not defended well against active quarterbacks who can both move the chains with their feet and make throws on the move.
Then again, Riley and Co. know all this. And so maybe this is the game that solves a lot of what’s been ailing OSU's pass defense. Indeed, it’s hard to see Utah walking away with an upset. Isn’t it?