The No. 19 UCLA Bruins face a stiff test Saturday, as head coach Mike Riley and the Oregon State Beavers pay a visit to the Rose Bowl. This contest will mark the start of conference play for both teams.
Oregon State enters this game with loads of confidence. The Beavers are coming off of a 10-7 victory against the then-No.13 Wisconsin Badgers 10-7. Riley even called this game "the biggest non-conference game" that the program has ever hosted.
It was quite evident from watching the game that the Beavers have a lot of good athletes on the defensive side of the ball. Even more apparent is that they have potential stars at every level of the defense.
Up front, they are led by sophomore ends Dylan Wynn and Scott Crichton. Both Wynn and Crichton earned freshman All-America honors last season. Wynn is a player with a tremendous motor. He's not the biggest player, but he makes up for his relative lack of size with effort, technique and a tenacious disposition.
Crichton is a bit bigger and more athletic, but he also gets after the quarterback with a myriad of pass rushing moves. Both will present an immense challenge to UCLA's two freshman offensive tackles Simon Goines and Torian White.
On the linebacker corps, the Beavers are led by D.J. Welch. Against Wisconsin, Welch played like a heat-seeking missile. He led the team in both tackles (7) and tackles for loss (2.0). He utilized his outstanding speed and lived in the Badgers' backfield. He was a big reason why the Beavers held Heisman Trophy finalist Montee Ball to only 61 yards for the entire game.
Who will win on Saturday?
Due to Welch's efforts, he was recognized as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week. UCLA really has to keep an eye on him. UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone has a propensity to throw swing passes frequently to running backs out of the backfield. With that in mind, one can surmise that Welch will be tasked with stopping those patterns. Regardless, expect Welch to be all over the field on Saturday.
In the secondary, the unquestioned leader and perhaps most talented member of the team is cornerback Jordan Poyer.
An outstanding athlete in his own right, Poyer is an incredibly dangerous kick and punt returner. There's always the possibility that he could break one for a touchdown. The Astoria, Ore. native is also a great cover corner. Mel Kiper listed him as the the second rated senior cornerback in the country, and Poyer was named to the the Ronnie Lott IMPACT Trophy Watch List.
There's no doubt that Poyer is one of the more talented players in the entire conference. Expect him to garner First Team All-Pac-12 honors when the season comes to a close.
Offensively, the Beavers rely on sophomore signal caller Sean Mannion.
The 6'5", 212-pound quarterback is a strong-armed kid who can make throws to all areas of the field. To his detriment, he often tries to force things with his impressive arm strength. Last season as a freshman, he threw for 16 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
Look for UCLA to blitz him heavily. He's not the most mobile quarterback in the world, and that should allow for the Bruins to be more adventurous with their applied pressure. The running threat from the quarterback position that was there with Rice, Nebraska and Houston won't be there with Mannion and Oregon State.
The Beavers do have two very good receivers for Mannion to throw the ball to in senior Markus Wheaton and sophomore Brandin Cooks.
Wheaton is a fantastic athlete. He's a rangy target with blazing speed and good agility. Riley likes to utilize him in an array of ways—including on fly sweeps, reverses, screens, drags across the middle of the field and deep patterns. Wheaton is regarded as an All-Pac-12 performer and a future NFL player.
Generously listed at 5'10", Cooks is a dynamic performer from the flanker position. He was actually committed to UCLA in high school, but switched to Oregon State after (understandably) having concerns about the pistol offense. He's got sublime agility and also has great speed. His effectiveness lies in plays that allow him to get in space and utilize his quickness. Much like Wheaton, he'll be used on reverses and fly sweeps as well.
The run game has been a bugbear for Oregon State in recent years. Especially in 2011, the Beavers haven't been able to run with great effectiveness, making the team very one dimensional.
This season, the Beavers will go running back by committee, using a duo compromised of Storm Woods and Malcolm Agnew. Against a solid front in Wisconsin, they combined for 81 yards on 20 carries. Those numbers aren't terrible, but they do need to improve considerably in order to give the Beavers their desired balance on offense
The offensive line is a solid group, led by senior Colin Kelly, redshirt junior Michael Philipp, junior guard Grant Enger, junior Josh Andrews and true freshman Isaac Seumalo.
The defense is the obvious strength of this football team. The Beavers possess lots of team speed plus tons of aggressiveness. Against Wisconsin, they only gave up 207 total yards of offense.
However, those numbers might be a tad misleading. Wisconsin is seemingly very far down from where they were a year ago. Was this performance indicative of Oregon State's defense, or Wisconsin's inability to provide an offensive threat?
I would say it's somewhere in the middle. That said, the Beavers are talented on the defensive side of the ball.
Oregon State also represents a big change for the Bruins in terms of style of play when comparing them to their first three opponents.
Riley has taken over control of the play calling, and by all means operates an offense which is much more conventional when compared to the spread offenses of Rice, Nebraska and Houston.
This could bode well for the Bruins' defense. It should allow for UCLA to stick with their 3-4 base defense more as opposed to playing in more of a dime or nickel formation in order to compensate for the aforementioned pass-happy attacks in the first three games.
*On Thursday, there will be an article detailing the keys to the game for UCLA against Oregon State