Kerry Says: Tibesar guides Beavers in right direction
First, please indulge me a sliver of boasting. Oregon State's record is 3-4 after its grind-it-out, 21-17 victory against defensive-minded, offensive-challenged California. My record in predicting OSU games this season is 7-0, a combination of a bit of forecasting prowess and fortuitous hunches.
I had the Beavers, who entered the game as 11-point underdogs, winning 28-24 in Strawberry Canyon against a Cal team hampered by the loss of quarterback Chase Garbers. I hit the spread exactly, even as I slightly underestimated just how difficult it would be for both offenses to find the end zone. Yes, Nostradamus is my middle name; we all know that can change in the blink of an eye.
The record will stay clean, however, for at least another week. Oregon State has a bye this weekend, and it comes at a good time for the Beavers. By their next game Nov. 2 at Arizona, they could regain the services of several key players who missed the Cal game due to injuries, including running back Jermar Jefferson, offensive linemen Gus Lavaka and Nate Eldridge and linebacker Matt Tago.
That Oregon State finds itself at 3-4 overall, and at 2-2 in sole possession of second place in the Pac-12 North (behind Oregon's 4-0 mark), proffers a mixed message. It's undeniable that, in Jonathan Smith's second season at the coaching helm, the program is moving in the right direction. The Beavers came off the mat after a 52-7 pounding at home by Utah to secure back-to-back road conference wins for the first time since 2013.
There also is some hand-wringing that the Corvallis contingent let a pair of big opportunities slip away in matching 31-28 losses to Hawaii and, especially, to Stanford. Even splitting that pair would have the Beavers at 4-3, with at least a slugger's chance at bowl eligibility. That's something only those wearing orange-colored spectacles would have predicted before the season.
Let's give Tim Tibesar credit. Last year's Oregon State defense was historically bad — the worst by far for a Power Five team. After a season-opening 52-36 loss to Oklahoma State in which the Cowboys amassed 30 first downs and 555 yards total offense, Beaver Nation seemed ready to send the defensive coordinator down the Willamette River to points unknown.
Since then, with the exception of the game against the rather powerful Utes, Oregon State's defense has been anywhere from acceptable to very good — this despite losing two of the most respected linebackers, Andrzej Hughes-Murray and Addison Gumbs, for the season to injury.
With more talent than a year ago, Tibesar has gambled more, sending pressure at the opposing quarterback and trusting his secondary to cover. It has worked more often than not. Oregon State had nine sacks and 14 tackles-for-loss against Cal, both school records (with marks not available before 2001). Discounting sacks, the Bears had 11 rushing plays for no gain or losses. The Beavers have 60 tackles-for-loss this season, more than the 53 they totaled all last season.
There are still issues on the defensive side, especially on the back end. The cornerback position has been unstable, with junior Isaiah Dunn and sophomore Nahshon Wright the starters but true freshmen JoJo Forest and Alex Austin being thrust into action sooner than hoped. Forest, Austin and true freshman safety Akili Arnold are three potential starters in the future, but it would have been nice to allow them to redshirt this season.
Safety has been hampered by injuries to senior Jalen Moore and sophomore David Morris. Those two were together for the first time this season against Cal, with Moore — still not at 100 percent with the hamstring — roaming at free safety and Morris at strong safety, looking more like the player he was as an outstanding true freshman in 2017.
Coach Trent Bray has gotten a lot out of his linebackers. Senior Shemar Smith — who injured an ankle in the second quarter against Cal and missed the rest of the game — and sophomore Avery Roberts have been rocks in the middle. Junior Hamilcar Rashed Jr. has been outstanding on the outside, leading the Pac-12 in both sacks (nine) and tackles-for-loss (14.5) by a whopping margin. (Runners-up have four sacks and 8.5 tackles-for-loss.)
Then there are true freshman Omar Speights and redshirt freshman Riley Sharp, who have flashed all-Pac-12 potential in their first season of Pac-12 ball.
The offense, so effective for the first five games, has been quieted by the excellent defensive units of Utah and Cal. Can Jake Luton and company get their mojo back against an Arizona team that yields 34.1 points and 469.6 yards total offense per game? That's integral to the Beavers' fortunes for the rest of the season.
OSU could use a second receiver to step up and take the pressure off Isaiah Hodgins, who had trouble springing open and caught five passes for a pedestrian 36 yards against Cal. Hodgins remains tied for the national lead with 10 TD receptions, is second in receptions (56) and is eighth in receiving yardage (745).
Luton's longest pass play at Cal went 21 yards to reserve tight end Teagan Quitoriano. Going deep is an important part of the Beavers' offensive arsenal. The expected return of Trevon Bradford, who has been down with a foot injury all season, for the final four games would help. Bradford was an able No. 2/3 guy a year ago. Playing him for only the final four games will allow him to redshirt and play as a senior in 2020.
Luton has thrown 16 touchdown passes with one interception. That's second in the Pac-12 behind Oregon's Justin Herbert, whose ratio is 21/1. On occasion, Luton will throw the ball away under pressure a bit quickly when a play may yet be made. But you can't argue with the turnover stats.
Oregon State, incidentally, is the only FBS team with no lost fumbles this season. OSU leads the nation with two turnovers.
The unsung hero of the victory over the Bears was senior Daniel Rodriguez, who punted nine times — and several of them under duress — for a 40.9-yard average. Rodriguez, a walk-on until this season, ranks fourth in the Pac-12 with a 44.2-yard average. He was honored Monday for the second time this season as Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week. The kid has been a model of consistency in an area that often gets overlooked.
But there were others who rose to the occasion against Cal. There were Sharp with three sacks, and offensive guard Onesimus Clarke, who filled in capably for the injured Lavaka. And sophomore nickel back Jaydon Grant, who made his father — ex-Blazer Brian — proud by snagging his first career interception late in the fourth quarter.
And then there was Artavis Pierce, who rushed for 80 tough yards and caught four passes for 34 yards and a TD. The senior running back could have transferred after teammate Jefferson claimed Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors a year ago. Pierce stayed, and as Jefferson's has been hampered by a foot injury, has been one of the Beavers' most valuable performers this season, ranking fifth in the Pac-12 with 583 yards rushing.
The kicking piece, though, remains a question mark. Senior Jordan Choukair appears to have relinquished his place-kicking duties to true freshman Everett Hayes, who was 3 for 3 on PATs but didn't attempt a field goal. If the Beavers can't regularly convert 3-point tries from 45 yards and in, it can cost them momentum and, at times, a chance at victory.
It was mostly overlooked that Oregon State overcame a huge penalty imbalance against Cal, with 13 for 102 yards compared to two for 17 yards for the Bears. Smith wasn't pleased with several calls, especially one for pass interference against Moore that — compounded with an unsportsmanlike conduct flag on the OSU bench — led to the Bears' first touchdown. Such things always hurt less in a victory, of course, than in defeat.
A final note on the season: The Beavers have been strong starting and finishing games. They have outscored opponents 73-49 in the first quarter and 55-30 in the fourth quarter. They have been outscored by an aggregate 142-85 in the middle periods. Perhaps Smith's mantra, rather than "start fast and finish," should be, "don't let up on the gas."
The remaining schedule is difficult — road games at Arizona (4-3, 2-2), Washington State (4-3, 1-3) and Oregon (6-1, 4-0) and home dates with Washington (5-3, 2-3) and Arizona State (5-2, 2-2). All five opponents boast winning overall records. The Beavers would love to get to that point. One at a time, gentlemen, starting Nov. 2 in Tucson.
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