Wednesday, December 23, 2009

CFI Recap: Las Vegas Bowl – BYU 44, Oregon State 20

On the first series of the second half, down 23-7, Oregon State called a fake punt. Their two previous punts into the wind traveled a total of 12 yards, so why not? Punter Johnny Hekker connected with Lance Mitchell, who had room to run and pick up the first down. However, the safety slipped as he turned to run. Had he converted, the play would have been called back on illegal shift anyway; it was that kind of night for the Beavers. You can blame it on the wind, a defensive scheme adjustment by BYU (far more man-to-man coverage than was expected) or a letdown for Oregon State (the loss to rival Oregon in their final game cost them a Rose Bowl bid)—any way you slice it, the Cougars dominated the Beavers.

* The Quarterbacks: Max Hall outplayed Sean Canfield: The BYU quarterback completed 19-30 passes for 192 yards and three touchdowns (no interceptions), while the left-handed Beaver was just 19-40 for 168 yards and an interception (no touchdowns).

The undersized Hall offers much more than meets the eye. Not only has no BYU quarterback won more games than the senior field general, but he’s also an accurate passer that can tuck it and run in the face of heavy pressure. It took some time for Hall to brave the howling Las Vegas winds, as a couple of early throws floated on him. Once the 6’1” Cougar adapted, however, he began throwing darts in those same windy conditions on rollout plays to elude the rush. Hall primarily lined up in the shotgun and put good touch on a few of his throws in the red zone by placing the ball to where only his receiver had a chance of coming down with it. The heady quarterback immediately recognized a wide-open Dennis Pitta running to the end zone on a well-timed post pattern, which put the Cougars up 30-7 in the third quarter. While Hall doesn’t quite have the arm to consistently fire the ball in tight windows over the middle, he displays a quick, compact delivery and impeccable accuracy in the short and intermediate passing game.

From the first possession it was evident Canfield was off his game. The senior did not make good decisions with the football and appeared confused at times, which caused him to be hesitant. He rushed his throws and sometimes flat-out missed his target, often by a wide margin. The wind could have played a role, but even with the wind at his back in the first quarter he only completed one pass. Moreover, when he was right, his passes cut through the wind. So to blame his performance on the conditions would be too simplistic.

When he is at his best, the southpaw signal caller displays touch, accuracy and anticipation, which he did from time to time against BYU…but not nearly often enough. The way this game went for OSU it’s not surprising that Canfield’s best pass of the night was an incompletion that fell harmlessly in the end zone. Just before the half he hit H-Back Joe Halahuni in the hands, but the sophomore dropped the ball. Halahuni took a big hit from a BYU defender but should have caught it. The throw showed Canfield’s great touch, and that’s what the scouts came to see.

Despite the lopsided performance, we still rate Canfield ahead of Hall on the list of senior quarterbacks for the 2010 Draft. Canfield has the better size and arm-strength, and was a consistent performer for the Beavers throughout the season. In his first campaign as a full-time starter, the California native was impressive enough to earn first team All-Pac-10 honors. One game shouldn’t wipe that all out, although it will make his performance in the Senior Bowl more important. As for Hall, he did the most he could with his last opportunity as a collegian to impress the scouts. Although the aspiring pro probably won’t follow in his uncle’s footsteps as an every-week starting NFL quarterback (see White, Danny), he has the physical and mental tools to be a fine backup at the next level.

* Best Pro Prospect OSU: DT Stephen Paea – 2 Tackles, 1 Tackle for a Loss

The game’s first series was an example of why stats can be deceiving when it comes to defensive tackles. Junior Stephen Paea recorded a tackle for a loss on the first play of the game, but came in virtually unblocked—he displayed great quickness to get into the backfield, but it didn’t take much effort for the man from the Tongan Islands. BYU learned quickly that it would be smart to double-team the All-Pac-10 performer, which they did on the very next play. The result? The other defensive tackle, Brennan Olander, made a tackle for a loss. That is what the top defensive tackles do…they make the players around them better.

OSU used wide splits on their defensive line and moved Paea around—he lined up on the right side and the left side. He also showed the ability to play on the inside shoulder of the guard, as well as the outside shoulder. When he was closer to the center (guard’s inside shoulder), Paea displayed the ability to bull rush and overpower the blocker. When he was closer to the tackle (guard’s outside shoulder) the junior used his speed and quickness, almost like a defensive end coming off the edge.

Paea is quick off the snap and is also able to power through to split double-teams. He is very tough to block one-on-one; he tossed the BYU left guard out of his way and nailed BYU’s Hall as he threw the football. That’s what happens when one man is asked to block him.

There is speculation that Paea could declare for the 2010 Draft and should he choose to do so, expect the Beaver to be a second-round selection. He is a bit undersized for a defensive tackle at 6’1” and 285 pounds, but should be an effective three-down player. He also could be an intriguing talent for teams searching for a 3-4 end, adding to his value come draft weekend (either in 2010 or 2011).

* More Oregon State Defense: Other than Paea, not many Beavers stood out. Senior linebacker Keaton Kristick had a solid game, recoding eight tackles. He was active, but the BYU offense lacks speedy playmakers so Kristick’s lack of speed was not an issue. The SAM had Hall in his sights on a third down draw, but missed the open field tackle on the BYU signal caller, who is not exactly a great running quarterback.

Junior cornerback James Dockery struggled. He was beaten more than once in one-on-one coverage and was also flagged for a pass interference penalty. On a BYU touchdown, Dockery gave ground to Luke Ashworth and was out of position, with no chance to make a play on the ball. Add a slip and he whiffed on the tackle as well, which allowed Ashworth to waltz into the end zone.

Young safeties Lance Mitchell and Cameron Collins, a pair of sophomores, appeared to be a step too slow for most of the game. On third and goal from the 17-yard line, Pitta spilt the two and neither was really that close to making a play.

But have no fear Beaver faithful—Kristick is the only senior starter on the defensive side of the ball and players like Dockery, Mitchell and Collins do have ability. Expect this unit to bounce back and be among the best in the Pac-10 conference, if not the nation in 2010.

* Best Pro Prospect BYU: TE Dennis Pitta – 5 receptions, 45 yards, 1 TD

The athletic tight end was every bit the showstopper everyone expected him to be versus Oregon State. The facility with which he extended to make a one-handed diving catch in the first quarter, while also keeping the ball away from his nearest defender, was truly a sight to behold. While Pitta did also drop a couple of easy throws, he also exhibited the ability to consistently beat man coverage by running precision routes. The senior playmaker was particularly at ease executing curl patterns. Pitta, moreover, has a little toughness in his game, as evidenced by a couple of second-half plays in which he pushed off smaller defenders to create space for himself downfield. In addition, the John Mackey Award finalist gained tough yards in traffic on underneath screen passes. In the running game, Pitta is a willing and sometimes effective blocker, but isn’t quite big or strong enough to be utilized as a lead man. The 6’5” weapon seems to have a good grasp of offensive schemes, which allows him to often be at the right place at the right time. His ability to play through pain will also endear him to NFL talent evaluators. Pitta definitely has the talent to be a starting tight end at the next level.

* More BYU Offense: Harvey Unga (24 carries, 71 yards, 1 TD) pounded Oregon State’s defense into submission by making deft moves in tight spaces, displaying great vision along with his overall shiftiness. The big 239-pound back set the tone early in the contest by spinning his way out of tackles, changing directions, and carrying a pile of players with him when necessary. The only blemish on the underclassman’s performance was his fourth-quarter fumble that came about as a result of him pumping his legs and twirling for extra yardage. Unga’s ability to run block allows BYU to line him up in tandem with fellow back Manase Tonga.

Pitt isn’t the only BYU tight end who might be playing on Sundays in 2010, as fellow senior Andrew George recorded four receptions for 46 yards. The unheralded second-team tight end is a big, mobile target that catches the ball in his hands and masterfully uses his body to shield defenders away from the football. Much like Pitta, George ran crisp routes all night.

Sophomore Matt Reynolds manhandled his adversaries all game long. In the pass protection, the gifted left tackle took good angles to neutralize pass rushers trying to get by him on the edge. The sophomore trenchman showed off his good mechanics by adjusting to the pass rusher’s moves and using his long arms to keep his opponent at bay. In the running game, Reynolds kept his feet moving to clear the path for Unga and Tonga.

* The Rodgers Boys: You hate to say it, but this was the worst performance we’ve seen from Jacquizz and James Rodgers. Neither brought their A-game to Las Vegas. They were not the playmakers we expected to see and for the most part, they were bottled up by the BYU defense. On the first two plays of the second half, Canfield connected with both James and Jacquizz on completions, yet the Beavers were still left facing a third down and 10; two completions for a net gain of zero yards…that tells you the whole story.

As did a backwards pass to Jacquizz Rodgers. He failed to pick it up, assuming it was an incomplete pass and the lateral was returned for a touchdown by BYU. He simply didn’t have the same sense of urgency as the BYU players did in going after the football. Quizz also needs to do a little less dancing; he’s at his best when making a quick decision with the football. You can understand the sophomore back was trying to make something happen, but there’s a little too much “Barry Sanders” at times and he ends up losing big yards—in the second half he turned a 3rd & 3 into a 4th & 10 in an obvious four-down situation.

That is not to say the 1,000-yard back didn’t have his moments. He always makes the first man miss in the open field and you have to love the way he runs between the tackles—quick cuts, moving up-field. His 29-yard third quarter run was a thing of beauty and displayed his speed, quickness, vision, balance and power—everything it takes to be a great back.

James Rodgers didn’t make plays on balls you’d expect him to catch and was a non-factor in the passing game—four receptions for 30 yards. His best play came on a fly sweep for 17 yards. The junior receiver is a very effective runner and like his little brother, is stronger than you might think.

* More OSU Offense: Senior wide receiver Damola Adeniji had a solid game, grabbing seven passes for 102 yards and a score. Many of his numbers came after BYU had jumped out to a big lead, but that’s not his fault. At 6’3” and 213 pounds, the Eugene native has an NFL frame and knows how to use it to shield off defenders. He doesn’t need much separation to make the catch and displayed the ability to make plays with defensive backs draped all over him. Adeniji was also very comfortable catching the football on the move. Due to his lack of separation and game-breaking speed, the senior may not get drafted come April, but should find himself in an NFL camp with a chance to make a roster.

Halahuni, the Beavers’ H-Back, made a nice grab near the sidelines as he went up and caught the football with his hands and got his foot down in bounds—impressive athleticism for a man of his size (6’2”/249 pounds). He also had the aforementioned drop in the end zone. The Washington native is just a sophomore and figures to play a bigger role in the Beavers’ passing game in the years to come. It is unclear where he will ultimately end up—H-Back, fullback or tight end—but he has two more seasons to polish his game.

Canfield, Adeniji and right guard Gregg Peat are the only senior starters on the offensive side of the ball. If they can replace Canfield—be on the look out for red-shirt freshman Ryan Katz—Oregon State could be even better on offense next season. The offensive line will return four starters and true freshman left tackle Michael Philipp could be ready to be one of the premier linemen in the Pac-10.

The BYU Defense: Defensive end Jan Jorgensen packed his lunch and came ready to rumble in this one, as the high-effort lineman used an assortment of spin moves to prevent blockers from moving him off the ball. He maintained good gap discipline throughout the night and helped keep Oregon’s running attack in check. The stay-at-home end doesn’t possess the quickness to get around tackles and consistently rush the passer, but he did do a phenomenal job of tracking down Jacquizz Rodgers on one running play in which the senior defender ran from one side of the line to the other in pursuit of his man.

From the outset it was pretty evident that SAM Jordan Pendleton was the fastest player in BYU’s front seven. Early in the first quarter, Pendleton made his presence felt by blitzing Canfield and forcing him to get rid of the ball. At the end of the quarter, he instinctively recognizes a screen play and alertly jumps all over Jacquizz Rodgers, and separates the player from the fumbled ball, allowing teammate Matt Bauman to scoop it up and run it in for a score. The promising sophomore is a sideline-to-sideline difference maker who can also cover backs and tight ends.

Scott Johnson is an intelligent defender that reads the quarterback eyes and anticipates passes, which allows him to constantly be around the ball. In the second quarter, the 6’2” free safety perfectly times his deflection when helping a teammate in breaking up a pass into the end zone. He’s also a headhunter when coming up to lay the wood on helpless backs in the running game. Johnson does occasionally get overaggressive by leading with his head (as he did one play, which resulted in an unnecessary roughness penalty in the fourth quarter), but he’s always willing to put his body on the line to prevent his opponents from catching the ball.

Photos Courtesy of Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo, College Press Box, Dennis Wolverton/Oregon State, Dave Nishitani/Oregon State, Mark A. Philbrick/BYU Photo