Beavers' defense still has something to prove
CORVALLIS — A few thoughts after Wednesday's practice session as Oregon State prepares for a Saturday night visit to Honolulu to play Hawaii. ...
• Defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar has been placed under the microscope for the Beavers' poor defensive performance in their season-opening 52-36 loss to Oklahoma State.
It comes with the territory when your defense gives up 52 points, 30 first downs, 555 yards total offense and 352 yards rushing, even to what could be one of the better offenses in the FBS ranks.
"We're not pleased with the results," said Tibesar, in his second season as Jonathan Smith's D-coordinator. "We have to play better. We know that. It was disappointing to see the results we got. We have to continue to work hard for daily improvement. We're focusing on the same things we were focusing on all (training) camp — tackling, block obstruction and creating takeaways.
"(The Cowboys) were a top-10 offense last season, and they had nine of their 11 starters returning. They're a good team, but we have to play better. We're working on it. There's an urgency to get it better, but there's no panic. We're a better defense (than a year ago); we just have to go out and prove it."
Oklahoma State's balanced attack, led by quarterback Spencer Sanders and running back Chuba Hubbard, carved up Oregon State's defense in a number of ways. Now come the Rainbow Warriors and their run-and-shoot offense — hello, Mouse Davis — which more appropriately would be called a pass-and-pass-again attack.
"This is a completely different offensive system," Tibesar said. "They'll have four wide receivers on the field every snap. They played 21 snaps with five receivers on the field. They spread it out. It's a unique system, based on receivers and quarterback being able to read the coverage. They adjust the routes every single snap."
Hawaii piled up 31 first downs and 595 yards total offense — 436 of it through the air — in its season-opening 45-38 win over Arizona on Aug. 23, prevailing despite coughing up six turnovers.
"I've never seen it where a team had six turnovers and won the game," Tibesar said. "It's an anomaly."
Against the Wildcats, junior quarterback Cole McDonald completed 29 for 41 passes for 378 yards and four touchdowns, with senior Cedric Byrd snaring 14 receptions for 224 yards and four TDs.
"They throw the ball a ton," Tibesar said. "They may throw incompletions on first and second down and it doesn't affect them. They're going to throw again on third down. They'll mix in some runs — they had 30 (including one sack) against Arizona — but they want to throw it."
Byrd, said OSU safety Shawn Wilson, "is a good receiver. He has good hands, runs good routes. We have to lock on him and put our hands on him and slow that guy down a bit and see where it goes from there."
• A year ago, Oregon State faced a similar offense in Washington State. The Cougars rushed for only 100 yards but threw for 430 in a 56-37 victory. OSU's Shemar Smith expects the Warriors to take a different tack.
"I have a feeling they're going to come out running on us," the senior linebacker said. "We have to focus on that first. Once we stop the run, we'll make them go to the passing game. Once we lock that down, we'll have a good outcome."
Wilson offered a similar opinion: "We have to stop the run. That's one thing we have to do. After we do that, then we have to stop the pass."
So that must be the mantra of Oregon State's defensive coaches this week. Funny, because it would seem the emphasis would be on applying more pressure on the quarterback, on tackling better in open space and in improving coverage on the opponent's receivers.
Tibesar said it was "definitely a positive" that Oregon State had nine tackles-for-loss against Oklahoma State. The only time the Beavers reached that figure last season was when they registered 13 TFLs against Washington.
With several transfers and a couple of true freshman seeing two-deep duty, Tibesar said the Beavers had nine defensive players who "logged a lot of snaps and played their first college football at Oregon State, or hadn't played in two years."
"Some of these guys are just getting used to play college football," Tibesar said. "We're hoping their performance will improve as time goes on and as they get more snaps under their belt."
• OSU is shorthanded on the defensive side. Among those injured who didn't play against Oklahoma State was safety Jalen Moore (hamstring), who led the Beavers in tackles by a good margin last season. Moore was running full speed and working out on his own Wednesday during practice.
"It'd be great to see him out there," Tibesar said. "It's still not for sure that he'll be fully cleared to play, though. That will be up to the trainers."
Safety Jeffrey Manning (foot) did not practice and also is unlikely to play Saturday.
The defensive line group has been thinned, starting with the season-ending knee injury to Jeromy Reichner in training camp.
Tackles Simon Sandberg (knee) and Evan Bennett (injury unknown) didn't play last week and won't be available in Honolulu. Sandberg, a 6-3, 270-pound junior transfer from City College of San Francisco, was expected to be in the Beavers' D-line rotation. Tibesar said the hope is he'll be ready to go for the Pac-12 opener against Stanford on Sept. 28 at Reser Stadium.
Oregon State's D-line rotation against Oklahoma State included 6-4, 270-pound redshirt sophomore Cody Anderson out of Thurston High. Anderson wasn't even a recruited walk-on.
"He was already enrolled in school here and just came out for the team in an open tryout two years ago," Tibesar said. "He has done a nice job for us. It's been fun to see him progress over the past year and a half."
• The Beavers' base defense is a 3-4, but they used two down linemen — normally employed only in the nickel package — on roughly half of the plays against Oklahoma State out of necessity. They simply don't have enough depth or talent in the D-line, and they have a number of players with experience and ability at linebacker. The Beavers generally use four linebackers and five defensive backs in a 2-4-5 set.
"In nickel, the outside 'backers become your stand-up defensive ends," Tibesar said. "You want those 'edge' guys to be your best pass rushers. That's why we're trying to recruit those 240-pound outside 'backers."
• Wilson, who led Oregon State with 12 tackles against Oklahoma State, is one of the few players left who was recruited by former head coach Mike Riley.
"I'm one of the old heads," said the 5-9, 185-pound Wilson, a Pomona, California, native. "I was recruited by Coach Riley's secondary coach (Rod Perry). A week after I committed, Coach Riley left (for Nebraska)."
Wilson thought about going to Washington State, but Riley's successor, Gary Andersen, and his defensive coordinator, Kalani Sitake, reached out to Wilson. "I've been a Beaver ever since," Wilson said.
Wilson was a fine receiver in high school, catching 50 passes for 1,375 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior, but expected to play cornerback at Oregon State.
"I really felt I'd be a corner or a nickel," Wilson said. "Then I played safety when (secondary coach Greg) Burns was here (in 2017), and it stuck. It's easier to play safety. Being a corner, you're on an island. It's one-on-one, and it can get intimidating."
Wilson started five games at safety as a sophomore in 2017 and all 12 games as a junior last season. He has now played for four head coaches — Riley, Andersen, interim coach Cory Hall and Smith — along with secondary coaches Burns, Hall, Derrick Odum and Blue Adams.
"It's been kind of hard," Wilson said. "Every time a new coach comes, you have to prove yourself again. But it's just competing. In this sport, you have to compete."
Wilson is very small for a safety, "but you have to play big," he said. "I'm not afraid of contact. The physical aspect of this game is nice. Coming down and making tackles is something I enjoy doing."
Asked if any doubt was creeping in with the defensive players after the opener against Oklahoma State, Wilson said, "Maybe to the outside world, but not in here (with the team) at all. We just have to finish. We have to keep our intensity up. Just because a breakdown happens, we can't get down. We have to create our own energy against Hawaii."
• Oregon State's defense took some heavy criticism for its play against Oklahoma State, but the Beaver coaching staff deserves scrutiny as well — for two game decisions in particular.
Almost everyone noticed the first call — going for the two-point conversion after scoring in the closing seconds of the first half to draw within 31-16. The pass failed, and the Beavers went into intermission trailing by 15 points instead of 14. I could see trying to catch the Cowboys off-guard with the two-point try, but they called a timeout and set up their defense for it. At that point, Oregon State should definitely have settled for the kick.
Asked about it in the postgame media conference, Smith said, "We were looking where the score was going and were trying to find ways to get an extra point or two."
That wasn't the time to make such a gamble. It took away momentum, left everyone scratching their head about the decision and led to the Beavers having to chase points — they missed a later two-point conversion attempt, too.
The other one seemed to slip by many observers. The Beavers scored a touchdown to close to within 52-36 with 1:19 left, making it a two-score game. Oklahoma State lined up its kickoff return team expecting an onside kick. Jordan Choukair booted the ball deep into the end zone for a touchback. The Cowboys ran two plays into the line and time expired.
Asked Monday why he didn't try an onside kick, Smith said the OSU coaches had discussed the possibility.
"Some of the logic was, we feel like we have a pretty decent onside kick scheme," Smith said. "We weren't ready to show it with the score where it was so late in the game."
That makes little sense. Sure, it was unlikely Oregon State was going to come back to score two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions to force overtime — but crazier things have happened. Seventy-nine seconds is plenty of time, and the Beavers had all three timeouts remaining.
If you don't want to put your No. 1 onside kick scheme on display, go with No. 2, or 3, or 4. Anything. What do you have to lose? Had the Cowboys recovered the onside kick, they'd have done exactly what they did after the touchback — run two plays into the middle and call it a night. Even if they were to come out passing — and that wasn't going to happen — who cares? The verdict was decided, anyway.
Smith admitted to second-guessing himself when asked Monday if he evaluates how the coaches did against Oklahoma State.
"We do that all the time," he said. "There are things to learn, starting with myself. ... with the onside kick, there was still (1:19 on the clock) — is that the right call? You're always looking at ourselves. ... weekly, we need to evaluate that all the time."
Those two calls — the two-point conversion try, not going for an onside kick — would not seem to require a doctorate in coaching philosophy to get right. That's just Football 101.
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