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UCLA Football vs. Oregon State Defensive Preview: Fighting it Out in the Trenches

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Will the troubled Bruin offensive line be able to hold off the Beaver defensive front?

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Stanford Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon State’s struggles are not limited to their offense. Although they have had significant injuries and other problems, the defense has not fared much better. OSU is currently ranked 96th in total defense, and 112th in passing defense, which is dropping as the season progresses. This year, they are running a new 3-4 scheme, and as bad as it looks right now, they are actually seeing some success as compared to last year. The Beavers finished the 2015 season ranked 11th or 12th in most major defensive categories, but this year they have moved up to 8th in total defense. In 2015, OSU allowed 37 points and 481.5 yards per game. The Beavers had trouble getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, finishing with a conference-worst 17 sacks, 10 behind the 11th-place team. Oregon State is also young, and as they moved into fall camp, a freshman or sophomore was listed as a starter in seven positions on defense. Two key players with the most experience left the team after 2015. Linebacker Rommel Mageo, OSU’s leading tackler last year, transferred to Ole Miss. Mageo had 87 tackles in addition to a team-high two interceptions, two sacks and two forced fumbles. Free safety Justin Strong, the team’s fourth-leading tackler last season, moved on to the University of Montana. They did not start this season with a lot of depth on defense, and this was troubling to first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Clune. Even though there has been improvement, the Beavers still struggle both up front and in the secondary.

Defensive Line

Junior Baker Pritchard is returning with the most experience on the line. He has 22 total tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and is also credited with a half sack and two pass breakups. Sophomore Kalani Vakameilalo has 16 total tackles this year and Redshirt freshman Elu Aydon has 17 tackles. OSU ranks 98th in first down defense, and I attribute this to a young line. There isn’t a player that is racking up huge statistics, and with a new scheme and a new defensive coordinator, there are bound to be some growing pains. Even though the line isn’t as bad as last year, there is definitely room for growth.

Linebackers

Team captain and senior Caleb Saulo has recorded a team-high 75 tackles this season, including two 13 tackle games against both Cal and Utah. He was considered one of the most valuable returning players for the 2016 squad and has personally taken on the responsibility of being the “core” of the defense. Back in August, Gina Mizell of The Oregonian quoted Saulo: "We just gotta be the heart of the defense. We're right there in the middle with the core. Coach (Kevin) Clune always tells us, 'When things aren't going, it's the core.'“. Saulo has no problem looking back at film of the 2015 season and learning from it, as bad as it was. Junior Manese Hungalu has 59 total tackles, and also recorded 13 of those against Utah. He suffered a shoulder injury against Idaho State, but has since recovered. Sophomore Bright Ogwoegbu has recorded 54 tackles, already more than tripling his 2015 statistics. I’d say under the new defensive coordinator, the linebackers have definitely made the most progress (Coach Clune is also responsible for coaching inside linebackers). They are a more solid group and are really anchoring the Beaver defense this year.

Secondary

Redshirt senior Devin Chappell has undoubtedly made the most noise on the OSU defense this year. Despite missing spring ball due to injury, he started this season at safety and also plays at the nickelback position. He has recorded 65 total tackles and four forced fumbles, and according to Building the Dam (OSU’s SB Nation blog), he is the #9 most valuable returning player. He actually started his college career at Western Oregon, the only school to offer him a scholarship. After two seasons, he took a risk, borrowed money for tuition, and became a walk-on at Oregon State. He is now on scholarship and a team captain. Junior safety Brandon Arnold also tops the depth chart with 54 total tackles and a 43 yard interception to his credit. Senior cornerback Treston Decoud has 47 tackles and four pass break ups, and was one of the Pac 12 Players of the Week in week three. He had Oregon State’s longest interception return for a touchdown since 2000 (75 yards) against Idaho State, and added another for 12 yards. Finally, freshman cornerback Xavier Crawford has been in the mix, and has 58 total tackles, including a season high ten against Cal. This group, coupled with strong linebackers, will see continued success down the road. It may not be immediate, but we will see this group continue to improve.

Analysis

There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind about who has the stronger defense. I believe this game will definitely be won in the trenches if the Bruins are to come out on top. Due to a weaker defensive line, if our offense can protect Fafaul, we should walk away with the W.

Go Bruins!