Five questions: The Oregonian’s Gina Mizell on Oregon State

Oregon State is in its second year under Gary Andersen and has started to take steps forward. In a sentiment that many UCLA fans are familiar with, the Beavers say they’re “close” to a breakthrough. The Oregonian’s Gina Mizell answered a few questions about OSU, its quarterback carousel and what a successful year might look like in Corvallis.

1. What were the expectations for a successful year for Oregon State at the beginning of the season and how far away are the Beavers from those expectations?

I actually wrote about that exact topic — how the Beavers would define success in Year 2 of Andersen’s rebuild — before the season and got a variety of answers from players and coaches. Of course, wins and losses are the ultimate indicator, but this season was also going to be about progress after Andersen brought a new offensive and defensive scheme to Corvallis when he was hired and has been revamping the culture. I projected this team to go 3-9, with wins against Idaho State, Cal and Arizona and multiple close games. So far that’s played out, and I think most reasonable fans would have projected something similar. But now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Beavers won two out of their last three, which would be a nice springboard into 2017. This team is clearly better than last season, though I think the biggest disappointment is that the offense — particularly, the passing game — has been poor again this season.

2. Gary Andersen said quarterbacks Marcus McMaryion and Conor Blount could both play this week, what unique qualities do they each bring to the offense?
McMaryion obviously has more experience, as he’s started four games total in his career and the past three contests and is actually the quarterback who has been in the program the longest. He’s a level-headed kid and clearly well-liked, but he’s struggled with consistency and accuracy when he’s been in the game. Blount, a true freshman walk-on who surprisingly surpassed McMaryion for the backup job in late September, is still quite green. But coaches like his mobility and his potential, which is why they’ve emphasized it’s important for him to get game reps. I’ll be curious to see how their time is split up Saturday.

3. Prior to the Stanford game, you wrote that many within the program feel OSU is close to a breakthrough. What things have improved to get the Beavers to get to that level and what things still need to improve to get them past it? 

It goes back to that progress that I alluded to above. At this time last year, OSU was getting blown out by every Pac-12 opponent except Colorado. The gap has clearly closed, thanks to an improved defense, a solid running game and some younger players growing up on the fly (and perhaps a down year for the Pac-12). Several on-field things can improve, from the passing game to the ability to get pressure on the quarterback and stop the run, but this team also just needs to get over that mental, intangible hurdle to close out games and win on the road.

4. Oregon State was 11th in the conference in both scoring and total defense last year. There has been moderate improvement up to eighth in both categories. What’s been the most notable positive change for the defense? 

The secondary has been solid for most of the season, which is particularly impressive given the Beavers are razor-thin there from a depth perspective. But Xavier Crawford and Treston Decoud have made up a stout cornerback duo, and Devin Chappell has been an all-around playmaker at both safety and nickelback. Additionally, they’ve added and developed some speed and athleticism at linebacker — though one of their biggest playmakers, Bright Ugwoegbu, will miss the UCLA game with an ankle injury.

5. The passing offense is second-to-last in the Pac-12 in yards per game and last in yards per pass. Why have the Beavers struggled so much to pass the ball? 

This has been the most surprising development this season, given the expectation that transfer Darell Garretson — who was a part-time starter at Utah State — was expected to solidify that quarterback spot and most believed the receiving corps was the Beavers’ deepest and most talented position group. But Garretson got banged up behind a shaky offensive line even before breaking his ankle against Utah, and I think that messed with both his mechanics and his confidence. Now they’ve got the two young guys playing. And some blame absolutely needs to go on the receivers, who have struggled to break free from man coverage. Victor Bolden has had a strong season, particularly in the second half. But Seth Collins‘ production has fallen off following an impressive start after switching from quarterback to receiver, and Jordan Villamin‘s disappearance from the offense has been a total shock.