Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!
Mike Riley’s first season as Oregon State head coach was a challenge, but he had to know it would be.
The former USC offensive coordinator was familiar with the destitution that was Beaver Football — OSU had won just 13 games in six years under Jerry Pettibone, who had followed predecessors Dave Kragthorpe (17 wins in six years), Joe Avezzano (six in five!), Craig Fertig (eight in four), and Dee Andros (eight in his last four) into the proverbial graveyard.
Riley’s USC offense had just scored 46 points on the Beavers in 1996. But he took the job anyway.
In 1997, OSU went 3-8, and it constituted definable improvement. In 1998, with a redshirt freshman walk-on taking snaps at quarterback, they improved to 5-6, their best record since — and I swear this is true — 1971. When Riley left for the NFL, OSU brought in former Miami coach Dennis Erickson, and the progress continued.
In 2000, with that walk-on QB now on scholarship, the Beavers won seven games and attended their first bowl since 1964. In 2001, with future NFL talents T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad Johnson in the receiving corps, they went 11-1 and finished the season with a 10-point win over No. 5 Oregon and a 32-point embarrassment of No. 10 Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. They ended up No. 4 in the country, their highest finish ever.
The walk-on QB was Jonathan Smith.
In those five years, Smith saw the program go from never-gonna-win to the top five. He returned to school as a graduate assistant in 2002, and after trekking out to Idaho, Montana, and Chris Petersen’s staffs, Smith returned to Corvallis last fall.
He probably recognized what he saw, and not in a good way.
When Erickson left to become the Seahawks’ head coach in 2003, Riley returned and further established OSU’s most consistently strong period ever. They continued to bowl and finished ranked in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2012. They single-handedly knocked USC out of the 2006 and 2008 national title. They reached 20th in S&P+ in 2012, their post-2001 peak.
Entering 2019, they’ve regressed for five of the last six years. They had fallen to 62nd by 2014, when Riley inexplicably got hired away by Nebraska. Former Utah State and Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen took over, oversaw a first-year reset, engineered a slight second-year rebound, and then collapsed. He quit halfway through 2017, and OSU went 1-11 and ranked 109th. Smith took over and maintained form offensively, but the defense was an absolute nightmare. The Beavers went 2-10 but fell to 111th.
So here we are. Smith understands his surroundings and, with his experience under both Riley and Petersen, what it takes to build a program. But before he can, he has to head off the collapse. He most certainly did not in year one.
S&P+ is presented in the form of points per game. It is adjusted for tempo and opponent, plus other factors related to the S&P+ ratings. The 2017 Oregon State defense, Andersen’s last in town, was the fourth worst power conference defense of the last 14 seasons. But somehow things got even worse.
Ten worst power conference defenses, per S&P+ (2005-18)
- 2018 Oregon State (43.4)
- 2015 Kansas (40.6)
- 2015 Texas Tech (40.3)
- 2017 Oregon State (39.9)
- 2014 Colorado (38.9)
- 2007 Minnesota (38.8)
- 2011 Kansas (38.7)
- 2018 Illinois (38.6)
- 2011 Indiana (38.5)
- 2009 Washington State (38.5)
Oregon State’s 2018 D wasn’t only the worst of this group; it was the worst by a lot.
The offense has promise, returning its starting quarterback (Jake Luton), a 1,300-yard rusher (Jermar Jefferson), and all but one member of its receiving corps. And it doesn’t matter unless the defense can go from historically awful to merely bad.
The combination of experienced returnees, veterans who were injured in 2018, and transfers should allow for improvement, and not only because things almost literally can’t get worse. But we’ll see how much improvement is possible in a single offseason when you’re this truly putrid.
The OSU offense most certainly wasn’t the problem in 2018. But that doesn’t mean it was good. The Beavers fell from 59th to 73rd in Off. S&P+, though their adjusted scoring averages stayed about the same.
For the second straight year, quarterback Jake Luton missed quite a bit of time with injury. Granted, missing four games with an ankle injury is far less severe than missing most of the year with a spinal injury, as he did in 2017. Still, after almost immediately getting hurt and ceding the floor to Conor Blount, he returned in week 3, played well against Nevada, then missed another month. Blount took the job but ended up dealing with both shoulder and concussion injuries. Jack Colletto got a two-game audition and bombed, and Luton ended up with his job back.
In a roundabout way, that all this happened and OSU’s offense held steady from 2018 is a good sign? If nothing else, OSU keeping the same QB upright for most of the season would probably result in improvement.
Luton and Costello both return, and Blount transferred, but there’s a new candidate for the starting job: Nebraska transfer and former blue-chipper Tristan Gebbia. It appears neither Luton nor Gebbia dramatically stood out in the spring.
Coordinator Brian Lindgren, who came to Corvallis from Colorado, subsisted mainly on short passes and big runs. Luton and Blount both completed about 62 percent of their passes, and OSU ranked 44th in passing marginal efficiency, 35th on standard downs. Things went awry immediately once the Beavers were behind schedule, but they were occasionally dangerous, especially when Luton was healthy.
One person in particular benefited when Luton was on the field: Isaiah Hodgins. The junior from Oakley, Cal., caught 47 passes for 690 yards and five scores with Luton; the other six games, he caught 12 for 186 and no scores. Senior Trevon Bradford also produced better stats with Luton.
One person who didn’t: Jermar Jefferson. Luton is the statue of all statues, and Blount and Costello threatened defenses a bit with their legs. A little distraction appeared to go a long way — Jefferson, a mid-three-star freshman at the time, rushed for 793 yards (7.4 per carry) and 10 touchdowns in games without Luton. In games with the 6’6 senior: 587 yards (4.4 per carry) and two scores.
The left side of the line — guard Gus Lavaka and Blake Brandel — return, having combined for 67 career starts. Unfortunately the other four players with starting experience are gone. The combination of Luton and a semi-new line could make Jefferson’s life pretty hard.
Gebbia isn’t the only transfer Smith is hoping will make a difference: Arizona center Nathan Eldridge flips from the South division to the North, and sophomore Tyjon Lindsey makes it two Nebraska transfers on the offense.
Tim Tibesar has established a perfectly decent coaching career. A former defensive coordinator for North Dakota (2004-05), Kansas State (2007-08), the Montreal Alouettes (2011), and Purdue (2012), he had spent three seasons as Wisconsin’s OLBs coach before moving west to run Smith’s defense in 2018. Wisconsin’s OLBs were, it must be said, quite good.
Whatever his strengths, he had no idea what to do with the personnel he inherited in Corvallis. And he didn’t inherit much. OSU’s 2017 defense had been horrible, most of the line was gone, a couple of potential starting DBs were hurt, and the linebackers with experience didn’t appear to translate into the scheme Tibesar wanted to run.
The Oregon State defense was a master work in awfulness. They were balanced in all the wrong ways — in terms of marginal efficiency, they were 130th rushing, 126th passing, 128th on standard downs, and 129th on passing downs. They sort of prevented big pass plays, ranking 74th in passing marginal explosiveness, but they made up for that by ranking 123rd in rushing marginal explosiveness. They let opponents avoid third-and-longs, and they couldn’t really stop third-and-longs when they were created. They had exactly one semi-disruptive player, linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr. (11.5 tackles for loss), which is to say that they were in no way disruptive (125th in havoc rate).
Worse, there was no hint of in-season improvement. They began the year giving up 77 points to Ohio State and finished giving up 55 to Oregon. They held only Southern Utah under 34 points.
The good news, as it were, is that just about everybody is back. That includes two of the three linemen Tibesar trusted to take most of the snaps (including 385-pound man-mountain Elu Aydon), seven of eight primary linebackers (including Rashed), and eight of nine DBs, plus the two injured safeties (sophomore David Morris and senior Omar Hicks-Onu).
Smith also signed three JUCO linemen and a pair of four-star linebacker transfers in Oklahoma’s Addison Gumbs and Nebraska’s Avery Roberts. (Apparently Nebraska’s trade with OSU was Mike Riley for three players to be named later.)
If nothing else, the competition in practice will be better this year.
You’ve still gotta have some play-makers, though, and it’s really hard to find some.
If at least one of the JUCO linemen (tackle Jordan Whittley was the highest-rated) and one of the linebacker transfers butts their way into the starting lineup, and if Morris can join Jalen Moore in forming a much better last line of defense, then this defense will have almost no choice but to improve.
OSU has a decent pair of legs. Jordan Choukair’s is strong, which resulted in solid kickoffs and a few long field goals (he also missed some short kicks, but we’re trying to be positive here). Daniel Rodriguez’s is accurate, which mean that while he averaged only 41.9 yards per punt (not awful, not great), he didn’t allow many returns. He also had 11 punts downed inside the 20 with zero touchbacks.
I’ve said enough bad things in this preview, so I’ll refrain from mentioning that the return game was horrid last year.
2019 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|23-Nov||at Washington State||36||-20.8||11%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||105|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||68 / 116|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-8.0 (97)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||66|
|2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-10 / -7.6|
|2018 TO Luck/Game||-1.0|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||74% (62%, 86%)|
|2018 Second-order wins (difference)||1.8 (0.2)|
When Chris Petersen took the Washington job, it took him a couple of years to get the pieces arranged. UW was basically the same team it had been before he got there, until a third-year breakthrough.
To say the least, OSU was about the same as it had been in Andersen’s last year, too. And while the combination of a decent offense and probably-not-worse defense should result in overall improvement, the schedule only features two opponents projected worse than 63rd in S&P+. OSU was 111th last year. That is quite the gap.
OSU is a projected 15-point favorite against Cal Poly and a six-point underdog at Hawaii. The Beavers are at least a 13-point underdog in the other 10 games. Improvement to 3-9 will require at least one significant upset.
Smith’s second year will be a success if he finds long-term answers on the two-deep and example-setters in the weight room. It’s doubtful that it will be all that successful on the scoreboard.