PULLMAN – Here’s what to watch for when No. 21 Washington State hosts No. 14 Oregon State on Saturday evening.
When Oregon State has the ball …
Last December, the Beavers might have felt ecstatic to land quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, a former five-star recruit who had mixed results in the first few years of his career at Clemson. Uiagalelei has all the tools – standing 6-foot-4 with a strong arm – but has been prone to mistakes.
Despite the change at quarterback, Oregon State has kept a formula that made it one of the country’s best rushing attacks a season ago, which Washington State must concern itself with Saturday. The main ball carrier is running back Damien Martinez, who is strong with speed to match, and has an average of nearly 5 yards after contact. The Cougars will need to tackle well – especially in space.
Are they up for the task? Based on their recent outings and the numbers they’ve recorded, the answer could be yes. WSU, Pro Football Focus’ 21st-best run defense in the nation, limited Wisconsin running backs Chez Melllusi and Braelon Allen to just 70 yards in a win on Sept. 9. The Cougars allow 96 rushing yards per game, and with tacklers like Kyle Thornton and Devin Richardson posted at their linebacker spots, none of their three opponents has challenged them much.
It’s critical that Washington State keeps that up. Oregon State’s offensive line, one of best nationwide, has graded out sixth in the country in run blocking, according to PFF. That has allowed Martinez to spring free. Even backup Deshaun Fenwick has turned in three solid games – his best a 70-yard game against UC Davis – which illustrates how well the Beavers block down the field.
“Oregon State’s tight ends can move some people,” WSU head coach Jake Dickert said earlier in the week.
Essentially, so can all the Beavers. Offensive lineman Tanner Miller might be the best guard in the Pac-12. He’s the team’s best run blocker, per PFF, and all four of his fellow linemen are right behind him in those rankings: left tackle Joshua Gray, left guard Heneli Bloomfield, center Jake Levengood and right tackle Taliese Fuaga. That unit has helped OSU average 219 rushing yards per game, 15th in the country – and fourth in the conference.
That’s why Washington State would do well to force a turnover or two. The Cougars generated two apiece in their wins over Colorado State and Wisconsin – including Ron Stone Jr.’s two strip-sacks against the Badgers – but they failed to create any in their rout over Northern Colorado last weekend.
Part of that had to do with the game getting out of reach so quickly, but the Cougars could really help themselves out with an interception or by forcing a fumble. Sophomore safety Jaden Hicks, PFF’s second-best safety in the nation, had a pick-six in that season-opening win and broke up two passes against Wisconsin. Against Uiagalelei, who tossed a pair of interceptions last week, Hicks could swing this game with one of his own.
He and the Cougars’ other defensive backs, cornerbacks Cam Lampkin and Chau Smith-Wade and safety Sam Lockett III, will have their hands full with the Beavers’ wideouts. Those include Silas Bolden and Anthony Gould, two quick, undersized receivers who slip out of tackles. This season, Gould has two touchdown receptions and Bolden has one.
When Washington State has the ball …
The Cougars haven’t had much luck running the ball this year. Against the Beavers, who rank sixth nationally in rush defense with 58 yards per game, it may not be fair to expect WSU to create many holes on Saturday.
Quarterback Cameron Ward will have to find wideouts Lincoln Victor, Kyle Williams and Josh Kelly like he has all season, but depending on how well the Cougars’ offensive line holds up, he may have even more time to do so.
Oregon State plays several excellent defensive linemen, between Andrew Chatfield and Isaac Hodgins, which is why the Beavers have developed such a strong run defense. Their pass rush has left a little more to be desired. OSU ranks 85th nationally, seventh in the Pac-12. The Beavers may have 13 sacks on the year, but according to PFF, their pass rush was at its worst against their toughest opponent, San Diego State.
If that trend keeps up, expect Ward to sit in the pocket and pick apart the Beavers’ defense. Left guard Christian Hilborn, who seems to be completely healthy after suffering an injury toward the back end of fall camp, has graded out as one of PFF’s best guards in the country. Give Ward time and he’s shown what he’s capable of. Victor has three touchdowns this fall. He might add one or two on Saturday.