IT’S NOTHING NEW for coordinators on both sides of the ball to be the subject of fanbase criticism – and there seems to be no middle ground. Whether it's the offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator, the song remains the same, they are either a genius or a fool. And when it comes to long-time Oregon State defensive coordinator Mark Banker, you can put this writer firmly in one camp..
The “genius” camp.
I mused on this phenomena a great deal in the wake of the Washington State game. And I know that the cognoscenti that reside on the BF.C forums are split on Mark Banker. But here’s the deal…
Sometimes fans, even educated ones, have trouble seeing the forest for the trees. Just following the live game thread for the tilt against Washington State, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about Banker’s inability to defend a spread offense – whatever that means since “Spread” has become the single most nebulous term in all of college football.
But I wouldn’t trade Coach Banker for the world.
There was a time when I thought Banker was a touch limited by his stubborn refusal to stray from Oregon State’s base 4-3 over look. There was a pretty loud outcry from the fanbase that OSU badly needed a nickel package, but Banker insisted that it would be a mistake to go away from the Beavers’ base set. It could be at the time that Banker just felt that OSU didn’t have the personnel to execute the defense, but conventional wisdom is that Riley insisted on integrating a nickel package after having yet another slot receiver come off a career day against the normally stingy Beaver D.
If you want my opinion – and even if you don’t since I’m the one with the pulpit here – there are a number of things that changed and permitted Oregon State to go to the nickel and dime defenses that we see on the field today.
Traditionally (and by traditionally I mean since college football began in 1998) Oregon State has recruited linebacker-heavy. The reason for this is simple: There are lots of linebacker-type bodies out there, so the pool is deep. Linebacker-types that are 6-2, 200-220 pounds aren’t the rare gems that 6 foot 4 guys who are 300 pounds and athletic enough to play defensive tackle are.
The linebackers also make up the backbone of your special teams units, and helps explain why Oregon State has traditionally had such strong special teams units (in addition to being one of the few programs that employ a full-time ST coach in Bruce Read).
And Oregon State is recruiting fewer of these linebacker bodies these days.
The reason is simple: Linebackers are beginning to have a smaller role in the Oregon State defense, and safeties and corners are finding a larger role in an attempt to get more speed onto the field.
Not only has Oregon State frequently deploy nickel packages (5 defensive backs) in 2013, they are now sending dime packages (6 defensive backs) out on to the field. There was a time when it was utterly unfathomable for the Beavers not to have a middle linebacker on the field at all but for those who are paying attention, that is exactly what they did for the almost the entire game against Washington State. How’d that all work out for Washington State and their Air Raid offense?
BANKER HAS GONE from stubborn and inflexible to an absolute Renaissance man. Not only has Oregon State changed their packages to keep up with the modern offenses in the Pac-12, they’ve changed their fundamental approach to the game under their longtime defensive coordinator.
Ten years ago, Oregon State had a brutally effective, simplistic approach to the game -- 4-3 base, man press from the corners and depend on the safeties to mix up the look. Oregon State cornerbacks didn’t garner a lot of interceptions – that was mostly the work of the free safety. Job One was to stuff the run, Job Two was to rush the passer. It was deadly against the pro-set and there was no reason to go about it any differently… until Oregon upset the entire apple cart by bringing in the spread option. And folks, that changed everything.
The thing that continues to impress me about Banker is how the defense has evolved. Not just with going with a 3-man front and having some 5 DB and 6 DB looks, but from a fundamental approach things are different. It struck me like a lightning bolt while I was watching the Washington State game – The Beavers are playing a Ducks-style of defense, at least with the secondary.
It’s hard to recall a time when the Beavers have so drastically shifted their fundamental approach to the game, shifting to a long-game chess match designed to put pressure on the opposing signal caller and disguise the looks in the secondary to force turnovers. They’re mixing in zone coverage, disguising looks and dropping into the zone to snare interceptions, and guess what – it’s working.
TRULY, BANKER CALLED a brilliant game against WSU. The defense started out easy – clearly the plan was to play soft with the secondary and keep the wideouts in front of them, giving away the 5- to 7-yard passes, wrapping up and making tackles in space until the secondary gets into the flow of the game. The Beavers were in a nickel or dime all game – I don’t recall ever seeing an Oregon State middle linebacker on the field unless it was the goal line set.
It was clearly a bend-but-don’t break defense that the Beavers played in the first half, and then the adjustments were made at half time based on what WSU was doing in the first half with pressure being put on the Cougars to keep up with OSU’s high-flying aerial assault.
It’s pretty clear what the plan was: Bend but don’t break, show certain looks in the first half and then bring on the Dial-A-Blitz defense. Three man fronts, blitz both linebackers. Just a ton of different looks. Send 2 LB’s through the same gap, bring the safety on a delayed blitz, disguise the coverage, show man and drop into zone.
It was brilliant. And one can’t help but feel like Rod Perry’s NFL expertise plays a big role with the looks in the secondary. And the turnovers fell like rain.
There are some weaknesses in this defense, for certain. There are with any defense. Here, there is simply a void at defensive tackle. Editor’s Note: The author wrote an article back in April
warning Beaver fans not to expect a lot out of the platoon of junior college defensive tackles until Year 2. And indeed, it's proving prescient as Edwin Delva and Siale Hautau have not been big impact players for the Beaver D.
Right now the Beaver defense is soft in the middle because of a lack of quality depth at defensive tackle and middle linebacker. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t talent at those positions, it's more a lack of experience. The Beavers have been dinged up at both OLB positions with the (potentially season-ending) injury to Michael Doctor and the early season injury to D.J. Alexander. Mana Rosa has been doing a bang-up job at defensive tackle but he needs a running mate and the Beavers are still waiting for one to step in and fill that void.
In order for this defense to really start putting the clamps down, game-long, they need a space-eater who can command a double team to anchor the middle of the line.
As a result, Banker appears to have designed his defensive gameplan around creating turnovers much more than I can recall in the recent past. How often do you recall OSU using zone schemes in the secondary?
It was a rough transition integrating the scheme and probably cost the Beavers the game against Eastern Washington, but it feels like the defense has found their rhythm and their identity.
I’m impressed with Banker’s flexibility and creativity, and I’m excited to see what Banker has up his sleeve for the rest of the season. I have to think most Beaver fans, even the ones who have grumbled about Banker in the past, should be starting to feel the same.