In this week's Behind Enemy Lines, we decided to double the fun with two Oregon State writers weighing in on what to expect when the Beavers visit Sun Devil Stadium this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. MST.
Andy Wooldridge and Robert Morris of Building the Dam were kind enough to give us their time. Hopefully they're not tired of answering "how in the world do you stop Brandin Cooks?" questions by now:
Q: I don't know if you heard but Todd Graham called Brandin Cooks the best player Arizona State will face this season. For those who aren't familiar with his jaw-dropping body of work, how is he able to do what he does at his size? And is playing conservatively deep and committing to the pass rush like Stanford did the best way to limit the damage?
Andy Wooldridge: We did see Coach Graham's comments and it's nice for Brandin to be acknowledged.
As far as how he does it, he's combined speed and hard work. He learned from James Rodgers and Markus Wheaton, and the lesson was to learn how to apply his talents in a variety of situations. In this past offseason, he caught over 1,000 balls thrown by quarterback Sean Mannion, working on their own on every conceivable route and location.
Robert Morris: I would say if anyone can replicate what Stanford does on defense they have a pretty good chance of limiting any passing game. So yes, that would go a long ways to limiting the damage Cooks and Mannion would do. As for Cooks, he has put a lot of work into coming into this season. I don't know the details but it does indeed look to go beyond just getting in better physical shape. He has really worked on becoming a smart receiver too. As Andy has noted, the program does seem to run these receivers through, as not only individual stars on the field, but they also seem to take pride in mentoring each other. Learning from and playing with someone like Wheaton totally helped him mature into the leader role this year.
Q: How has the Beavers offensive line held up this season? How do you expect Mannion to deal with the pressure that Graham will inevitably dial up?
Wooldridge: Considering the right side was shuffled and reshuffled due to injury and illness early in the season and had to use some inexperienced players, the offensive line has held up pretty good. It became apparent very early that Mannion was going to have a huge season, and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh focused on max protection. That's the reason why Oregon State hasn't had a more consistent rushing game...in order to keep Mannion, who is not very mobile, upright and healthy.
The key to slowing down Arizona State's pressure is probably going to be quick passes to tight ends Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith, and probably some passes to Storm Woods and Terron Ward out of the backfield, which constitutes much of the Beavers' rushing game. Those will hopefully force the Sun Devils to slow down the pressure, opening up deeper routes to Cooks and Richard Mullaney.
Morris: Mannion's worse game was against USC. Yes, the Stanford game was rough but to put my own personal spin on it they seemed a bit more "ready" for that type of pressure. That was a big deal because he took a lot of shots in that game, but he and the line still held up just enough to keep that game down to the very last play. USC just came out and flustered the heck out of the offense early and they never could recover.
While I agree with Andy here that the basic need is to make any aggressive defensive schemes pay with OSU utilizing the quick stuff to the tight ends and backs, I do really think that they need to get Mannion and his main guys opened up in the passing game. I see more deeper routes as being very important in this game to get the offense back on track. Yes, the short and quick stuff will open that up, but I see it as a two-way street and they need to spread the field much more than they have done the last two games. If they rely too much on the short stuff ASU will be able to pack it up close to the line and tee off too much.
Q: Beyond an effective pass rush, what can Arizona State learn from the blueprints USC and Stanford drew up against Oregon State the last two games?
Woolridge: Bumping Mullaney off his routes, making him a less effective option for Mannion, is a key tactic, especially with Kevin Cummings gone for at least the rest of the regular season after surgery on the wrist he broke against Stanford.
And getting Marion Grice going, both running the ball and as a receiver, which will keep moving the sticks, keeping Mannion and Cooks on the sidelines. Both Stanford and USC ran the ball effectively, shortening the game and reducing the opportunities for Cooks to make plays.
Morris: Andy covered some specifics so I will go more general: ASU needs to hit hard in the opening quarter on defense. This could build on the lack of confidence the team showed in the USC game, which in many ways was USC building on Stanford beating up on the Beavs. This could take good advantage on OSU's bye too if the Beavs have any bit of rust the Sun Devils could get OSU on their heels.
Q: What's the one area you hope Oregon State worked on during its bye week? Do you expect anything special from the Beavers coming out of their midseason vacation?
Wooldridge: They worked on getting Connor Hamlett, who missed a lot of action and practice in recent weeks with a knee injury, back in the flow, and on getting Caleb Smith healthy.
Beyond that, I hope they were able to get Malik Gilmore more comfortable and effective. Gilmore made his first start ever against USC in place of Cummings, and wasn't nearly the threat. Mannion has proven he can make good choices, but he has to have options to choose from.
Fortunately for Beaver fans, Coach Mike Riley has a pretty good track record at adding some surprises when he has an extra week.
Morris: I just hope they are somewhat more healthy overall. I also hope, in general, that they have not sat around and stewed on the previous two losses. Lots of time to think about those games, but in many ways they just need to move on and see this as the home stretch against three teams that are different enough from Stanford and USC. The Beavs should approach things a bit from a perspective of a "new" last quarter of the season. Sure, I hope they learned some lessons, but I'm hoping too that the loss to USC was more of a throw-away game with a tired and banged up OSU playing an athletic team who has found some new coach lightning in a bottle. Get healthy, learn from the mistakes, move forward, and finish strong. Still a great opportunity for OSU to make some noise.
Q: Let's talk about that OSU secondary: what does it looks like when Rashaad Reynolds and friends are at their best and how does that boost the rest of the defense?
Wooldridge: Reynolds, and Steven Nelson especially, as well as others in the secondary, use speed to make big plays. But it's the pressure from the defensive line, usually Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn, that is key. When Oregon State can get an opposing quarterback to fire the ball up in the general direction of downfield, the Beavers are able to get to the ball, create breakups and come down with interceptions.
Morris: Seems a bit cliché but they just seem to be a very opportunistic secondary. I agree with Andy; to make this type of play work, it does mean that the defensive line is playing solid...It is a cumulative effect for sure. The big plays like interceptions get more recognition than I think the defensive line receives for their play.
Q: So it's probably safe to say we are in for a shootout. But how exactly do you see this game going? What's your score prediction and why?
Wooldridge: I expect a game along the lines of last year's, where the final was 36-26. Both offenses are good enough to be very difficult to contain. Arizona State has especially played very well at home. I think [the Sun Devils] are correctly around a 10-point favorite, but Oregon State has matched up well with their system in recent years.
Because the game will be up and down, I think the team that wins something like a 38-27 game will be the one that doesn't lose it; by that, I mean the team that minimizes negative plays, turnovers, drive-killing sacks or penalties, and big play by the opponent in special teams. If Arizona State gets a big kick return, that could easily provide the separation in the game.
Morris: Indeed I don't think we are in for a 13-7 type of game. Of late, with how both the OSU and ASU's offenses have struggled a bit, I don't think it will be quite the light-it-up shootout we may have expected earlier in the season. On a technical level, I think there is enough film on these two offenses that it may be harder for each of them to fully exploit the defenses as it would have been if they played this one in early October. But that said, I would not be shocked either if we got a game with both teams scoring over 40 points each. Not sure where you all stand about it from the ASU side of things, but for me and the OSU side of things, it will be a pretty interesting game to see which Oregon State offense shows up.