UO defense must contain OSU run, slow Beaver receivers
EUGENE Whether Sean Mannion or Cody Vaz has played quarterback for Oregon State, the Beavers have been able to throw the football.
Benefitting from star receivers Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, Oregon State ranks third in the Pac-12 with 303.4 yards passing per game, completing 60.8 percent, with 21 TDs and 10 interceptions.
It'll be Mannion at the controls in Saturday's Civil War game against Oregon. He led OSU's 62-point onslaught against California with four touchdown passes. He seems to have regained his early-season form, after an injury.
"Great command of the offense. Extremely accurate thrower. Goes through progressions, makes quick decisions," UO coach Chip Kelly says.
But, clearly, the OSU offense has improved this year because of its ability to run the ball with Storm Woods, Terron Ward and others. The Beavers average only 120.3 yards rushing per game, sixth in the Pac-12, but the run game complements the play of Mannion/Vaz and Wheaton and Cooks.
"They actually try to rush it," says UO defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, whose unit has held the Beavers to 189 yards on 75 carries in the past three Civil War games. "Their backs are playing better. They're more experienced in knowing their blocking schemes and where the holes are going to be. Probably, their line is better.
"It's hard for me to assess that off of film. They've added a few wrinkles in their run game. It's an impressive offense. I think I've said this (before), we have our work cut out for us. They're good."
The Beavers had youth and injuries on offense last year, linebacker Michael Clay says. Improved Oregon State offense? It's because of experience, he adds.
"Now they have a year under their system," Clay says, "and they're not as injury-plagued. It's starting to click for them. We have to stop the run. It's a good team, a Pac-12 team. It's going to be a battle."
Just as Marqise Lee, Robert Woods and Nelson Agholor helped USC's Matt Barkley tear up the UO defense for 51 points this season, the Beavers possess the same kind of dangerous passing game. Wheaton and Cooks, Aliotti says, compare favorably in the talent and explosion departments to the USC guys. Wheaton has 69 catches for 986 yards and 10 TDs; Cooks has 58 catches for 1,039 yards and five scores.
"And, they run the ball well enough (to complement), and have a lot of formations," Aliotti says. "Those two receivers are really good."
The Ducks returned some injured players to the lineup against Stanford, other than injured-and-out defensive lineman Wade Keliikipi and free safety Avery Patterson. The Cardinal ran the ball well, and had the mobile talents of QB Kevin Hogan and big tight ends.
It's a different animal at Oregon State. Cornerbacks Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Terrance Mitchell, as well as new starting free safety Erick Dargan, will be challenged.
Clay says that slowing the OSU run game and pressuring Mannion could negate the two receivers.
And, he says: "They're a good duo, one of the best duos in the country. We have to stop them before they get going. We've got to tackle in space, can't let them run for more yards. We definitely want to get physical with them, have a presence. They're track guys, you don't want them running free or they're going to run away from you. Slow them down, it gives you an opportunity to make tackles on them."
Kelly says Wheaton and Cooks, both being really good, help spread out the opposing defense.
"Both have outstanding speed," he says. "Not only are they great route runners and catch the ball, they're extremely dynamic after they catch. We've got to make sure and wrap up and tackle. They catch, and they can turn six (yards) into 60 really quickly. You've got to be really aware of them. It makes your defense spread out when you have two great ones on each side."