Look Forward to Defense in the Sun Bowl, the Rest Might Not Be Pretty

By T.J. Mathewson

Contributor, 750 The Game

After a month of drama, uncertainty, and stress, it’s finally time for Oregon State to play real football for the final time in this 2023 season. What feels like an almost completely new team will take the field in El Paso on Friday against Notre Dame, the count of missing starters on the two-deep is 11 as of Wednesday. I have no clue how Vegas handicaps this game accurately, but the line sits at ND -6.0 after opening at -10.5. 

Certainly, the lack of regular starters will not affect the energy or the atmosphere of the game, the residents of EP and the fans traveling to the game have sold it out for the first time since 2010. Will they get a good show? Here are three things I’m looking at.

1. It’s been a while for Ben Gulbranson

Seriously, it’s been 375 days since Oregon State’s 30-3 win over Florida in the 2022 Las Vegas Bowl, the last time Ben Gulbranson started a football game. Unlike that game a year ago, where that ten-win Beaver team had a significant roster advantage over a backup-heavy Gator team and trounced them in all three phases (Ben had an excellent game), Gulbranson will not have that luxury this time out. He will be missing his top running back (Damien Martinez), top WR (Anthony Gould), top TE (Jack Velling), and both tackles (Joshua Gray and Taliese Fuaga) and a different play-caller. That would be a difficult situation even if the Beavers still had DJ Uiagalelei and Aidan Chiles on the roster, but they don’t. Gulbranson will have to play much differently than the way that won him seven games in eight tries in 2022. The total (41.5) isn’t buying more than two touchdowns for the Beavers, so anything more than that would be a rousing success.

2. Can this be the best the defense has looked all season?

Oregon State took a brutal hit when Easton Mascarenas-Arnold and Akili Arnold portaled to USC following the departure of Jonathan Smith. It’s difficult to replace two all-conference defenders no matter how you cut it, but when you zoom out and look at the Beavers’ two-deep on defense, it looks like a group that can be….. better (?) than the group we saw throughout the season. A lot of people are excited to watch the linebackers, both Isaiah Chisolm and Melvin Jordan are projected to start after Calvin Hart didn’t appear on the depth chart, while Jack Kane slots into the safety role. The pass rush is intact outside of Isaac Hodgins, and veteran Kitan Oladapo will still be out there playing and leading from the safety spot. That’s a motivated, young group that gets to face a ND offense down it’s QB, top RB, top three receivers, and multiple offensive lineman. The Beavers struggled defending away from Reser Stadium this season, but Friday gives an opportunity for their best defensive outing.

3. Special teams impacted more than anything

Oregon State is thinner than expected in some crucial special teams spots. Freshman AJ Windsor will take on punting duties from Josh Green, who looks to have opted out of the bowl game, while Everett Hayes slots into the kicker spot after Atticus Sappington hit the portal (recently announced his commitment to Oregon). Having a multi-year starter come off the bench to kick for you is an ultimate luxury, and for Hayes, redemption for getting hurt in the weeks leading up to the season and seeing his job go away. I’m much more curious to see the field position Oregon State can generate in a game not expected to have much offense, and if any special teams mistakes cause a short field for the ND offense.

PREDICTION:

SCORE: Notre Dame 21, OSU 14

T.J. Mathewson is an Oregon State Beavers football contributor for 750 The Game. He also covers the Beavers for KEJO 1240 in Corvallis and has work featured throughout the season here.