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Oregon State football is getting somewhere, but that’s a nasty 2017 schedule

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Gary Andersen is making some progress, but will it show this season?

NCAA Football: Oregon at Oregon State Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t that long ago, you know. On October 20, 2012, Oregon State shut down Utah to move to 6-0 and seventh in the country. It was their first trip into the top 10 since 2001, and they would finish 9-4, their fourth finish with at least nine wins under Mike Riley and their fifth since the turn of the century. The next season, they would win the Hawaii Bowl, their 11th bowl appearance since 1999.

With help from Dennis Erickson, who spent four years in Corvallis before heading to the NFL, Riley’s second stint established a level of sustained success that Oregon State had never seen. From the moment Tommy Prothro left for UCLA in the mid-1960s, the program bottomed out for most of three decades. Riley proved Beaver fans could expect more.

It took just three years, however, for OSU to go from 9-4 and 18th in S&P+ to 2-10 and 100th.

This is a hard job, and when things unravel, they unravel a lot. The school pulled off a coup in stealing Andersen from Wisconsin, but he inherited a two-deep that was not nearly as well-stocked as it had been a couple of years earlier. He has won six games in two years.

Of course, he was only 8-16 after two years at Utah State. He then went 7-6 in his third year and 11-2 in his fourth. He has proved he doesn’t mind taking his time to set things up.

We caught glimpses of an Andersen defense in 2016. After bottoming out at 103rd in Def. S&P+ in 2015, the Beavers surged to 49th. The offense remained problematic but improved enough to finish 73rd in Off. S&P+. And after the first month of the year, OSU played around a top-50 level and finished by romping over Arizona and ending an eight-game losing streak against Oregon.

Close losses prevented a drastic change in the win total, but Oregon State was far more physical, athletic, and competent. And the odds are good that the Beavers will be even more so in 2017.

Riley brought in the best athletes he could and then figured out what to do with them. Sometimes that meant an offense built around workhorse backs (Steven Jackson or Yvenson Bernard, for instance), and sometimes it meant passing a ridiculous amount (Sean Mannion threw for more than 4,600 yards in 2013). Sometimes it meant a delightful, attacking defense; sometimes it meant hardcore bend-don’t-break.

This approach proved frequently worthy in Riley’s hands. The Beavers peaked at fifth in Def. S&P+ in 2007 and 16th in Off. S&P+ in 2008 and won a lot. But the downside was that when the pieces weren’t right, there was no base identity to fall back on. After winning 36 games from 2006-09, Riley’s Beavers fell to 8-16 in 2010-11. And after a rebound in 2012-13, OSU tumbled.

We don’t know whether Andersen’s program will achieve the same success, but he brings an identity. Andersen teams play sound, 3-4 defense with swarming linebackers and play a low-tempo, run-first, big-bodied offense. His Utah State teams were a Western Wisconsin of sorts, and he has the pieces to play Andersen ball this year. He has as many as four exciting running backs, and almost all of his front seven returns. There are flaws, but this will be an Andersen team.

With eight games projected within one possession by S&P+, close-game execution and luck will determine whether Oregon State makes a decent bowl or settles for improving on paper again. But the Beavers’ time as a Pac-12 doormat is coming to an end.


2016 in review

2016 Oregon State statistical profile.

On October 15 against Utah, OSU outgained the Utes on a per-play basis (4.6 to 4.3) but missed two field goals and handed Utah nine points via safety and a fumble deep in Beaver territory. Final score: Utes 19, Beavers 14.

Two weeks later, OSU led Washington State 24-6 at halftime before playing maybe its worst quarter of the season to start the second half. The Beavers went three-and-out three times and allowed three consecutive TD drives to forfeit the lead. They stabilized and had two separate chances to take the lead late but failed twice on fourth down in Wazzu territory and fell, 35-31.

If these two games flip by about one play each, OSU goes 6-6, and a lot more of the universe notices how much the Beavers improved.

  • First 4 games (1-3): Avg. percentile performance: 37% (~top 80) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.6, OSU 4.5 (minus-1.1) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-3.6 PPG
  • Next 4 games (1-3): Avg. percentile performance: 58% (~top 55) | Avg. yards per play: OSU 6.4, Opp 6.0 (plus-0.4) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-6.2 PPG
  • Last 4 games (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 62% (~top 50) | Avg. yards per play: OSU 5.8, Opp 5.7 (plus-0.1) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-7.4 PPG

OSU was hapless early in the season. The offense wasn’t ready to poke holes in the Minnesota defense in a 30-23 loss, and after a win over Idaho State, the Beavers got outscored by a combined 85-30 against Boise State and Colorado. But from that point forward, this was a competitive, if inconsistent, team.

The offense went through ups (7.4 yards per play against Wazzu) and downs (4.5 against UCLA), and the defense fell into a funk before rebounding. But the fact that OSU finished 65th in S&P+ — ahead of seven-win Kentucky (67th) and eight-win Georgia (68th) — suggests this team had a higher ceiling than you might think. And if the secondary and offensive line hold up in 2017, look out.


Offense

Oregon State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The 2016 offense was good at things Andersen teams need to be good at and awful at everything else. The Beavers were 20th in Rushing S&P+, and the emergence of running back Ryan Nall correlated with the offense’s surge after the first month.

  • Ryan Nall, first 4 games: 49 carries, 211 yards (4.3 per carry), 3 TD; 13 catches, 87 yards
  • Nall, next 4 games: 34 carries, 384 yards (11.3 per carry), 5 TD; 3 catches, 71 yards
  • Nall, last 4 games: 64 carries, 356 yards (5.6 per carry), 5 TD; 6 catches, 56 yards

Nall dealt with constant leg injuries, which led to iffy productivity early and caused him to miss most or all of the Utah, Washington, and UCLA games. But he rarely lost ground, and in his absence, freshman Artavis Pierce had his moments. Pierce didn’t show the same explosiveness as the 239-pound Nall, but he was more efficient, rushing for at least five yards on 44 percent of his carries (Nall: 41 percent).

With this duo carrying more than 20 times per game, OSU was able to generate solid yardage on first downs. That’s step one toward playing Andersen Ball (or any other ball, for that matter).

It kind of went downhill from there. OSU struggled more in short-yardage than you would assume with the burly Nall, and anything that required passing was probably a disaster. OSU ranked 128th in passing success rate and 112th in Passing S&P+. There were some big plays here, but OSU completed just 68 passes of 10-plus yards. For perspective, four teams (Texas Tech, Louisiana Tech, Clemson, WKU) completed more than 68 passes of 20-plus yards.

NCAA Football: Idaho at Arkansas State
Jake Luton
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Part of the troubles in the passing game came from not being able to keep a quarterback on the field. Darell Garretson looked pretty good against Minnesota but struggled mightily thereafter and then broke his ankle against Utah. Conor Blount threw one pass against Utah and went down with a knee injury.

That meant the job went to sophomore Marcus McMaryion, who produced low lows (10-or-24 for 137 yards and two interceptions against Stanford) and high highs (16-for-19 for 265 and five touchdowns against Arizona).

All three QBs return in 2017, but the job might go to a fourth: former Idaho quarterback Jake Luton, who threw for 383 yards in 2015 before transferring to Ventura Community College, throwing for 3,551 yards and 40 touchdowns, and signing with OSU. The 6’7 Luton looks the part but did throw four picks in 78 passes at Idaho and didn’t run away with the job this spring.

Whoever is behind center will have a far more experienced receiving corps. Receivers Seth Collins and Timmy Hernandez are juniors now, tight end Noah Togiai is back after missing most of 2016 with injury, and well-regarded pieces like slot receiver Trevon Bradford and tight end Tuli Wily-Matagi are now sophomores. Throw in JUCO transfer Aaron Short and four-star freshman Isaiah Hodgins, and you’ve got the makings of a far more effective group.

They’ll still need a QB, though. And they’ll still need that QB throwing in favorable downs and distances. This being an Andersen offense, that will depend on the ground game. There’s plenty of reason to be excited. Not only are Nall and Pierce back, they’re joined by TCU grad transfer Trevorris Johnson (225 yards, 5.5 yards per carry last year) and, potentially, Oregon transfer and former blue-chipper Thomas Tyner, who took a medical retirement early in 2016 but wants to make a comeback.

Will they have the line they need? Those responsible for 32 of last year’s 60 starts are gone, but thanks to injuries and shuffling, seven linemen with starting experience do return, including sophomore guard Gus Lavaka, who started only seven games last year but earned honorable mention all-conference status.

Stanford v Oregon
Thomas Tyner
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Defense

Oregon State defensive radar

In Andersen’s last two seasons as Utah defensive coordinator (2007-08), his defense ranked 10th and 25th in Def. S&P+. After taking a few years to get pieces, his last defense as Utah State head coach (2012) ranked 12th. Both of his Wisconsin defenses ranked in the top 25.

Granted, his success at USU and UW came with coordinator Dave Aranda, and Aranda stayed behind when Andersen moved to Corvallis. But under first-year coordinator Kevin Clune, Andersen’s LBs coach at USU, Oregon State’s defense began to look like an Andersen attack in 2016.

Granted, OSU couldn’t even pretend to stop a good run game. The Beavers ranked 115th in Rushing S&P+, generating almost no disruption whatsoever and allowing constant five-yard gains. Still, from a style perspective, the aesthetics were Andersen-like. OSU ranked 32nd in linebacker havoc rate and attacked the passer well enough that opponents stuck with the ground game even on passing downs.

OSU played a lot of linebackers, and they looked pretty good. Bright Ugwoegbu recorded 11 tackles for loss in just nine games while Titus Failauga and Andrzej Hughes-Murray combined for six TFLs and two sacks while playing just six games each. Manase Hungalu and Jonathan Willis were less disruptive but managed to stay on the field.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at California
Bright Ugwoegbu (47) and Jonathan Willis
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The linebacking corps is everything Andersen and Clune need, but they need a lot more help from the line. The line will be better in the beef category. Tackle Elu Aydon is a sophomore and listed at 332 pounds, and JUCO transfer Craig Evans weighs in at 330. With sturdy, mature options at nose tackle, others like senior Baker Pritchard and junior Kalani Vakameilalo might be able to stand up blockers a bit better. If that’s the case, OSU’s run defense could improve. Of course, 80th in Rushing S&P+ would be improvement.

OSU ranked a far more sturdy 31st in Passing S&P+ but must replace nickel back Devin Chappell and corner Treston Decoud; the duo combined for eight TFLs, three interceptions, 17 breakups, and four forced fumbles last year, and their departures might put pressure on some youngsters.

A host of sophomores-to-be — corners Xavier Crawford and Jay Irvine, safeties Jalen Moore, Omar Hicks-Onu, and Shawn Wilson — saw the field last year, and four-star redshirt freshman Christian Wallace is eligible after sitting out for academic reasons. Veterans Brandon Arnold and corner Dwayne Williams are still in the mix; toss in well-regarded freshman safeties like David Morris and Trajan Cotton, and you’ve got a unit that should be able to hold its own in 2017 and dominate in 2018.

If the run defense is able to hold up, I don’t think the pass defense will regress much.

NCAA Football: California at Oregon State
Xavier Crawford
Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Andersen’s next good OSU special teams unit will be his first. Punter Nick Porebski was mostly unreturnable in 2016, but that was the only strength. Place-kicker Garrett Owens was unreliable, and Victor Bolden Jr. only had a couple of good returns, but I guess that doesn’t really matter — Owens and Bolden are both gone. OSU is starting over in these problem areas; that’s probably not a bad thing.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
26-Aug at Colorado State 43 -4.1 41%
2-Sep Portland State NR 35.9 98%
9-Sep Minnesota 47 1.8 54%
16-Sep at Washington State 40 -5.1 38%
30-Sep Washington 13 -12.0 24%
7-Oct at USC 7 -20.8 11%
14-Oct Colorado 50 2.0 55%
26-Oct Stanford 12 -12.4 24%
4-Nov at California 55 -2.4 45%
11-Nov at Arizona 68 -0.5 49%
18-Nov Arizona State 58 2.8 56%
24-Nov at Oregon 23 -10.6 27%
Projected S&P+ Rk 54
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 56 / 50
Projected wins 5.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 2.5 (55)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 43 / 49
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / 3.7
2016 TO Luck/Game -1.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 70% (77%, 63%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.2 (-1.2)

The turnover in the secondary and on the offensive line scare me, but the Beavers have plenty of experience in the latter and are loaded with young upside in the former. If these units hold up, and if the run defense improves as I expect it to, this could be a top-50 team. And if newcomers at running back and quarterback give the Beavers more weapons than opponents can account for, we’re talking maybe top 35.

Even if those ifs are semi-realistic, however, they’re still ifs. The list of known quantities on this squad is small compared to most of the Pac-12 North, and it takes faith to assume a lot of potential big-time guys all step forward.

And if they don’t, the schedule might be too much. OSU faces 10 teams projected 58th or better in S&P+; that puts the Beavers’ No. 54 ranking in perspective. They could improve but still finish pretty far behind the pack.

Still, the upside is undeniable. Oregon State has high-end talent at running back (Nall, plus maybe Tyner or Pierce), offensive line (Lavaka), linebacker (Ugwoegbu, Hungalu), and cornerback (Crawford, Williams) and might have upgrades ready at quarterback and on the defensive line. There’s reason to be excited here.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.