By T.J. Mathewson
Contributor, 750 The Game
For much of the past two months, the Beavers and Cougars stood arm and arm as the conference they knew and loved disintegrated around them. Now, the week is upon us that the two programs stand on opposite sides of the field as they gear up for the Pac-12 opener. For the first time ever, the they are both ranked heading into their matchup: Oregon State at No. 14 and Washington State at No. 21.
The Cougars exemplify how deep the Pac-12 has been this season, piling an average of 48 points per game on the board en route to two blowout wins over Northern Colorado and Colorado State, and a home win vs. then-ranked Wisconsin. Yet after all of that, the AP Poll (take it with a grain of salt) has the Cougars as the seventh-best Pac-12 team. Go figure.
The Beavers trail the all-time series 56-48-3 and snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Cougars with a 24-10 win at Reser Stadium last year. Oregon State opened as a two-point favorite, but the line has moved to favor the Beavers by three.
How does OSU go on the road and get a win to open conference play? Here are a few things I’m looking at:
1. All on you, Joshua Gray and Taliese Fuaga
What a pair of fascinating matchups along the edges of the line of scrimmage while Oregon State is on offense. Two preseason all-conference tackles in Josuah Gray and Taliese Fuaga for the Beavers lined up against two preseason all-conference defensive ends in Brennan Jackson and Ron Stone Jr. for WSU.
Oregon State has done a remarkable job protecting DJ Uiagalelei so far this season, only allowing one sack through the first three contests, but Washington State presents an entirely different challenge. They spent much of the Wisconsin game in the backfield harassing QB Tanner Mordecai, with Stone Jr. stripping the senior quarterback on back-to-back possessions, both recovered by Jackson including a crucial scoop-and-score before the half. The Beavers had their first offensive slog of the season on Saturday vs. San Diego State in part due to the most pressure DJ Uiagalelei has faced so far this season. Sure, DJ can be better under pressure, but the line needs to keep their QB upright, and away from the potential damage of the Cougs’ two star rushers.
2. This isn’t your 2022 Cameron Ward
How do the kids say it? Cameron Ward was on the “struggle bus” when the Cougars visited Reser Stadium a season ago. The junior quarterback completed less than half his passes while being down two running backs and operating behind a struggling offensive line. That won’t be the case on Saturday, with Ward operating a new, fast, and explosive offensive under first-year 27-year-old playcaller Ben Arbuckle. The Cougars throw the ball a ton (55 percent of the time), complete a ton (71 percent), and make it count (8.6 yards per attempt). Oregon State has faced one real threat through the air so far, holding San Jose State’s Chevan Cordeiro to 4.75 YPA on 32 attempts in a pass-heavy script.
Defending the pass takes more than just the secondary, and we saw (and wrote about here) a ferocious Beavers pass rush against the Aztecs last week. That defensive line should have a sizable advantage over the Cougar offensive line. The WSU offense does not run the ball well (2.4 yards per carry), so there’s not much to keep the Oregon State defensive line off-balance. That combination should be enough to disrupt the flow of this pass-heavy offense and give the Beavers an opportunity to take the strength away from the Cougars.
3. Keep Your Poise In Pullman
Washington State is expecting a sellout of the 32,952-seat Martin Stadium, so you know there’s going to be a ton of energy on the Palouse. Here’s a different way to think about this: has there ever been a ranked conference matchup, in the history of this conference or another, where the two sides operated in such unity and mutual respect? Sure, Oregon State and Washington State have always been the afterthought in their own states, leading to plenty of comradery in the past years, but nothing compared to what the two universities have had to deal with over the past two months.
How hostile will the crowd be? Dare I say, does Oregon State get a pregame cheer from Cougar Nation before the game? Will there be a demonstration of fan unity? Maybe I’m overthinking this, but there’s been too much that has happened to these two schools for something not to happen. On top of all of that, the Beavers played in front of a pretty relaxed crowd of 20,337 in week one in San Jose; hardly a hostile road environment. This crowd on Saturday will be a different test for the veteran-laden Oregon State offense.
In their first true road test of the 2023 season, I think the Beavers’ ability to run the football and play great defense at all three levels will be the difference against a fun, talented Cougars team. DJ Uiagalelei needs to be better, and I expect him to be. The junior quarterback got away with a couple of late interceptions against SDSU when the Beavers held a sizable lead, but he cannot make those same mistakes again and give the talented Cam Ward-led WSU offense extra opportunities. Oregon State goes on the road and gets their first marquee win of the 2023 season.
Oregon State 23, Washington State 17