By T.J. Mathewson
Contributor, 750 The Game
A lot went wrong Saturday night in Pullman. The Oregon State offensive line put up its worst performance of the season, the Beaver secondary got torched by the WSU receivers time after time, and the tackling was suspect at best.
And yet we sit here after all of that thinking about who could bail a team out of all of that and lead them to a ranked victory on the road: The quarterback.
We’ve seen the highs and lows of DJ Uiagalelei in his first four games in Corvallis. A five-touchdown opener in San Jose was certainly the high. The last two weeks, with Uiagalelei completing less than 50 percent of his passes, passing for two touchdowns, and throwing three interceptions, seem like the low point.
Heartbreaking, frustrating losses will always leave people questioning what is and what isn’t, and in this case, that leads us back to something I’m sure fans were going to bring up at some point this season.
Are the Beavers actually better at QB in the 2023 season?
My answer? Still unequivocally yes.
Jonathan Smith was asked after the game if DJ is still his quarterback:
“We’re going to check out the tape, but yes,” Smith said. “This is his first game in the league, and we still ended up scoring 35 points and (he) did some good things. We (still) need to throw the ball better to stay competitive.”
Through four games, DJ has completed 57 percent of his passes, throwing for seven touchdowns, running for another five, and has thrown three interceptions. The interceptions are unfortunate, his one Saturday came with two rushers in his face and his arm hit as he threw on a 3rd-and-13 trying to make a play, but not even the biggest problem.
We saw some really shaky accuracy downfield from the junior quarterback, missing pitch-and-catch throws by a lot (like the crucial overthrow of Damien Martinez in the flat on the first drive of the third quarter on a fourth and one), not throwing to open receivers downfield, holding onto the ball too long, etc., etc. He only completed two passes of longer than 15 yards out of nine attempts. It just wasn’t good enough to keep up with the masterpiece Cam Ward was spinning on the other sideline (28/34 404 YDS 4 TD 0 INT).
Despite that, the rushing ability of the junior quarterback continues to make all the difference. I was a huge fan of the way Jonathan Smith and Brian Lindgren used the legs of Uiagalelei in the second half. Eight of his nine rushing attempts came after halftime despite the deficit, five of them gained a first down or scored a touchdown, and most importantly, it kept the offense on schedule and continues to show the playmaking doesn’t all need to be with his arm, his legs are just as valuable to help this offense score the points. While too little too late, it’s effective enough that we need to see that more. You don’t want your QB getting hit, especially the violent collisions Uiagalelei encounters when he lowers his shoulder, but if it’s a true difference-maker, you have to utilize it.
It’s silly to rush to the keyboard after one poor performance by a quarterback and demand a change. Usually, the result is worse than what was previously on the field. The Beavers are best when Uiagelelei is on the field, and they need him to play significantly better than they saw this weekend.
The Beavers won’t have to worry about keeping pace with the Utah offense when their Pac-12 foe comes to Reser Stadium on Friday. The Utes just slugged one out with UCLA at home 14-7, and have struggled to put points on the scoreboard without quarterback Cam Rising. This is going to play more into the strengths of this Beaver football team playing a tight, close, defensive battle.
This league has shown, though, that you’re going to need excellent quarterback play (Sans Utah, apparently) to win week in and week out. Look at the week four winners: Caleb Williams, Michael Penix, Bo Nix, Cam Ward, Jayden De Laura.
It’s time for this Oregon State offense and its QB to prove that it belongs with that group, or there’s not going to be a trip to Vegas in December.