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Pac Ten Week: Life On the Margins

Oregon State had low, low preseason expectations and was wiped out early on national TV by Boise State, and as a result – along with it location and all that – remained failry low profile for a ten-game winner that ended USC’s epic conference winning streak. That’s a shame, because the Beavers were an exciting team embroiled in a string of dramatic games, albeit a group that had a lot go its way. Judging the chances of a return to the polls this year, in fact, maybe a little too much:

Oregon State in One-Score Games
Result Total Yds. 1st Downs TO Margin 'Swing' Points
Wash. State L, 6-13 - 68 - 4 - 2 - 3
at Arizona W, 17-10 + 149 + 6 0 - 7
Southern Cal W, 33-31 - 141 - 7 + 4 + 7
Oregon W, 30-28 - 84 - 4 + 1 + 8
at Hawaii W, 35-32 - 85 - 14 + 2 + 5
vs. Missouri W, 39-38 - 104 + 9 0 -

*-’Swing points’ are points from a defensive or special teams touchdown, a short field (25 yds. in), or other anomaly, such as the safety OSU took at the end of the Hawaii game. See here for a full explanation.
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The first two games there are pretty cut-and-dry – OSU was slightly outplayed by Washington State and lost, then significantly outplayed Arizona and won despite allowing a score on a punt return. Over the last four, though, which includes final three games of the season, OSU was 4-0 by a combined eight points while being heavily outgained in every case, and usually the beneficiary of turnovers (quasi-amazing stat: on fumbles alone, the Beavers were plus-4 in basically random recoveries in those four games). Specifically, USC lost three fumbles, threw a killer interception in the red zone, allowed a punt return for touchdown and still had a chance to tie late on a two-point conversion. Oregon, playing with Brady Leaf at quarterback (see below) threw an interception the Beavers returned for a touchdown, had an extra point blocked and then had the winning field goal blocked on the last play:

Hawaii, too, was far more effective moving the ball consistently but turned it over twice and made an atrocious display of tackling on a 100-yard kickoff return. Missouri averaged more than six yards per carry and infamously led by two touchdowns with six minutes to go in the Sun Bowl, eventually falling by half a yard on a gutsy two-point play. Put another way, while the Beavers earned what they got – they were a fantastic pass rushing team (47 sacks), which is responsible for many opponent mistakes – they were a blocked kick, either of a pair of two-point conversion and any one of a littany of fumbles from being 6-8 and wringing hands rather than enjoying top 25 projections.

This is also troubling, in an overall-talent-level sort of way:

Oregon State vs. Winning Teams
Record: 5-3
Average Margin in Wins: 8.4
Average Margin in Losses: 24.7

Game of inches, doncha know?
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With the exception of trouncing Arizona State 44-10, OSU’s games with winning teams ended with it either hanging on in a nailbiter (USC, Hawaii, Oregon, Missouri) or being run out of the stadium (four touchdown blowouts against Boise State and Cal, an 18-point loss at UCLA). Combine that with the deterioration of its run defense over the final month, which helped turn the Oregon, Hawaii and Missouri games in bona fide shootouts, and the prospects of repeat success with a new quarterback dramatically plummet. Matt Moore proved himself at the end of last season as a difference maker, adept at pulling out tight, high-scoring, back-and-forth games, but if Sammie Stroughter’s weird absence is prolonged along with the unsettled QB derby, this year’s offense could be fighting an uphill battle with one arm tied behind its back.

And now, just to really drive the OSU boards insane, let’s travel down Hwy. 99, where Oregon is one of the most divisive teams of the summer. Projections for the Ducks range anywhere from 2nd to 7th in the Pac Ten, and only four of the eleven outlets tracked by prediction watchdog Stassen.com – Phil Steele, USA Today, College Football News and something called Surefire Scouting, for the record – peg UO ahead of Oregon State after its dismal finish last year.

On a game-by-game basis, the Ducks don’t really belong in this feature; "you win some, you lose some" is the guiding premise of "On the Margins," and Oregon was 2-2 in one-score games (I’ve often considered the ref-marred Oklahoma game only a "half win" for Oregon, so maybe 1.5-2, if you prefer). They were blown out by Cal, USC, Arizona and BYU, and did the blowing out themselves only on Arizona State and, less relevantly, Washington.

But Oregon is a classic "margin" team because of these two very relevant statistics:

Yardage Margin in Pac Ten Games: + 136.4
Turnover Margin in Pac Ten Games: - 13
The first number was by far the best in the conference. The second number was by far the worst.

The second number is probably also more important: Oregon’s ten-win team in 2005, for example, only outgained conference opponents by about 77 yards per game, good but well below last year’s team, yet it challenged for the BCS because it was also plus-13 in turnover margin. Back in March, I rolled out these numbers, which are relevant on this subject:

Dennis Dixon vs. .500 Teams
Opponent Comp. % Yards TD INT Result
Oklahoma 63.4 341 2 2 Win
at Arizona State 63.3 215 3 0 Win
at California 57.1 263 2 3 Loss
UCLA 58.8 144 2 0 Win
at Wash. State 60.0 105 0 2 Loss
at USC 65.2 130 0 1 Loss
Arizona 63.6 88 0 3 Loss
vs. BYU 50.0 122 1 1 Loss

Dennis Dixon was spectacularly hit-or-miss, in very large part due to the turnovers, which were greater part "horrible interception" than "lost scramble for loose ball." Dixon, just like his star running back, Jonathan Stewart, was inconsistent and injury-prone, and his sketchy disposition was intrinsically tied to the team’s occasional sleepwalking. So is his backup: Brady Leaf made a push at Dixon statistically over the second half of the season (he flew solo in the near-upset at OSU) but wound up 0-5 in games he attempted more than ten passes.

Oregon had many other problems aside from the quarterbacks – the run defense in particular, easily the worst in Mike Bellotti’s tenure – but the hard part (consistently moving the ball) was rarely the problem; the Ducks are going to move the ball either way. But Dixon is an experienced senior and at a point that all those correctable mistakes should, uh, get corrected. If he remains healthy and merely takes care of the ball as well as he did in relief of Kellen Clemens in 2005, with the skill talent abounding throughout the rest of the lineup, Oregon is a serious threat to rebound back to double digit wins.