Pictured: half of OSU's returning defensive starters.
While the defense is a significant question mark for Oregon State this year, they passed their first test by doing what should be done against a bad FCS team, holding Weber State to 178 yards and no offensive points in their 26-7 win. How much can be learned from such a game is in question, but let's try anyway.
Personnel: Oregon State is the ninth-youngest team in the country. This is on full display in Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:
Your eyes do not deceive you. There are two—two!—returning starters.
Base Set? Oregon State hired former Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, who runs a real, two-gapping 3-4 defense. It usually looks like the diagram above, but they'll show some different fronts, especially on passing downs.
This created a strip-sack when the standup rush linebacker ended up one-on-one with the fullback somehow. Weber State: not good.
More often, the Beavers would go with a 2-4-5 look, lifting the nose tackle for the nickel:
Or, on shorter third downs, they'd run a more traditional 4-2-5:
If you're looking at the diagram and wondering "isn't Oregon State really undersized to be running a 3-4?" then you are an astute reader.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Man or zone coverage? Mostly zone, which tended to leave some holes underneath. More on this in the overview.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? Much more Greg than GERG. Sitake doesn't often call for more than five guys to rush, though he'll occasionally bring extra heat on passing downs. The tricky part is figuring out who's going to rush. Sometimes it's two linebackers. Sometimes it's a safety. On several occasions he blitzed the boundary corner, usually to good effect:
Blitzing that corner worked very well against WSU, which had some success picking apart zones with underneath throws; the corner blitz forced some misses even when the coverage wasn't great and sped up the QB so he had a more difficult time picking the correct target.
Dangerman: In a first, I'm going with the defensive coordinator, Kalani Sitake. This is in part because Oregon State brings back two starters; it's in part because Weber State wasn't good enough to test the new guys; it's also in part because Sitake called a great game.
While his aggressive style will cede some decent gains now and then, he didn't back off when that happened. In one second-half sequence, Weber State set up a third-and-short when they correctly anticipated the boundary corner blitz and immediatly threw to the abandoned flat. Instead of abandoning the concept, Sitake blitzed the same corner on the very next play; WSU didn't anticipate it at all and their QB nearly tossed a pick when he double-pumped a throw to the flat after being surprised by the pressure.
Sitake didn't get very creative with his coverages. He also didn't have to; Weber State didn't threaten downfield at all. With Utah last year, Sitake handily won the RPS metric (don't click that, trust me) in the Michigan game. The circumstances are obviously different this year, but he should get the most out of this defense.
The concern, of course, is it's tough to tell how much Sitake can get out of the defense. They shut down Weber State, but Weber State is not good. Even after that performance Oregon State bloggers have no idea what to expect from their defense. Their top performer against WSU was inside linebacker Rommel Mageo, who roamed unblocked—including on a sack against a blown blitz pickup—for most of the afternoon. Mageo is a solid tackler and a good athlete who can line up on the edge in addition to playing inside, but I don't know how he'll fare when he has to take on a block.
Nose tackle Kyle Peko, a JuCo transfer billed as the man to solidify the defense, held up strong in the middle. The starting ends were invisible, combining for two tackles; part of this is the nature of being 3-4 ends, especially against a team focused on holding first-level blocks instead of reaching the second level, but they certainly didn't come off as playmakers. Backup DE Jalen Grimble, who rotates in frequently, did tally an impressive shed and stop and the line of scrimmage; that was about the full extent of the DE production.
The linebackers cleaned up nicely against the run, often unimpeded, and the safeties are aggressive, sure tacklers. Weber State mostly abandoned the run, but they averaged 4.8 yards on 15 non-sack carries. They could usually get past the line, but met resistance at the second level.
One major concern for OSU is their underneath pass defense. Their linebackers were exposed in zone coverage on several occasions, often on crossing routes, and they were beat badly enough in man coverage that they usually avoided calling for it at all. WSU's best pass play of the day occurred when Mageo got no depth on a drop and left a huge hole between the linebackers and safeties:
Weber State didn't have the talent to take advantage. Michigan has Jake Butt and Amara Darboh.
The corners were tough to judge as they were barely tested at all. Larry Scott, one of the two returning starters, made it appear screen yardage may not be as easy to come by as it was against Utah:
I wanted to see WSU test Treston Decoud, a JuCo transfer corner built like Jeremy Clark, but they did not, because they're not very good, in case I haven't made that clear.
The safeties could get aggressive as Weber State didn't even attempt to throw deep. Free safety Justin Strong looked good in run support, wrapping up and making a couple big hits—including one in which he briefly knocked himself out of the game with a shoulder stinger. Strong safety Cyril Nolan-Lewis was disruptive as a blitzer but missed his chance at a sack when he flew right by the QB instead of breaking down for the tackle.
I have a hard time expecting this defense to be very good. They're young, playing a new system under a new coordinator, and really undersized for a 3-4 outfit. This game didn't tell me much. I can say with some confidence it'll be a very bad sign if Michigan's guard can't get push in this game—the Utah line this ain't—and Jake Butt should be in line for a big game.