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Canzano: Oregon State QB play feels like game of chance
Utah beats Beavers 42-16.
SALT LAKE CITY — I bumped into Chance Nolan on his way out of Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The Oregon State quarterback wore a sweat suit, a backward baseball cap, and had a back-pack slung over his shoulders.
Also, he wore a frown.
Nolan rolled his head and neck while he walked up the ramp out of the stadium, toward the team bus. His teammates were back in the locker room, dressing and digesting a sobering 42-16 loss.
What happened to OSU?
On one hand, Utah is very good. Its home stadium is a loud and uncomfortable place to play a football game, or throw a pass with any kind of concentration, or even hold a picnic. On the other, if OSU doesn’t get better quarterback play — like ASAP — its football season is going to find itself in a death spiral.
For the second straight week, the Beavers got great play on defense. The offensive line blocked well enough. The running backs mostly found the holes and ran hard. At 21 of 22 positions, it sure looks like Jonathan Smith’s team is playing well enough to beat just about anybody.
Position No. 22?
That would be quarterback. And it has been a living, breathing, nightmare for OSU. Nolan was just 2 for 7 passing before leaving the game with a neck injury. Smith said the decision to sit his starter was “100 percent” due to injury and not a benching. But the way things were going, the sit-down looked like it was just a matter of time. Nolan’s confidence looks shot.
Utes all-world corner Clark Phillips III had three interceptions on Saturday — one for each Roman numeral in his name. Two of them came at the expense of Nolan, including a “pick six” that should have never been thrown.
I asked Smith in the post-game news conference if it was an oversimplification to think that all OSU needs to win games this season is better quarterback play. He shot back: “I won’t go that far.” Then Smith talked about dropped passes, missed assignments, and suspect play calling.
“Yeah,” the coach finished, “I think that’s oversimplifying.”
Nolan has six interceptions in his last two games. That’s a simple fact. His replacement, Ben Gulbranson, threw a couple more in relief on Saturday. That’s eight picks in two games for the OSU offense.
Said Smith: “That ain’t gonna get it done.”
I think the coach is being kind. I’ll bet you do, too. Because my eyes tell me the Beavers are talented enough to play with anyone in the Pac-12 on defense and special teams. But when the OSU offense gets into an obvious passing down and distance, it feels as dicey as a spin of the roulette wheel.
It’s not just the interceptions, either. There were at least three occasions on Saturday that OSU quarterbacks overthrew wide-open receivers in what looked like easy TDs.
Nolan is injured now. No telling if he’s going to be available next week vs. Stanford. Gulbranson was just OK in three quarters of play, completing 12 of 21 passes. Maybe there’s some room for growth. And Tristan Gebbia hasn’t thrown a pass in a regular-season game since he was severely injured in 2020. What I’m saying is, Smith doesn’t have great options right now and that feels like a crying shame.
Anyone else wonder what OSU’s offense would look like with a star quarterback? How fun would it be? Smith and Beavers’ offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren scheme well in the open field. They run a series of screens, reverses, and throw backs to the quarterback.
It’s a blast to watch. But like a meal in a five-star restaurant, eventually the bill comes due. Third and long feels dire. The red zone has been dicey, too. Oregon State needs a QB who can take a three-step or five-step drop, read the defense, and make the right play.
That — is the missing piece.
USC grabbed Oklahoma QB Caleb Williams out of the transfer portal last summer. Washington snagged Michael Penix Jr. from Indiana. Maybe Smith jumps into the portal this offseason and finds a transfer quarterback capable of putting the team on his back. But that doesn’t solve this season’s looming problem.
Kyle Whittingham, Utah’s coach, was in the other locker room giving the Beavers a lot of credit. He said, “They’re a salty defense, they get after you and they play hard.” What Whittingham didn’t say was how devastating and dangerous the OSU passing game is — because it just isn’t.
I happen to think Smith is the best offensive mind in the Pac-12. He’s creative and lethal with the right weapons. I don’t think I’m writing anything today that he doesn’t know — down deep — himself. But if the Beavers don’t get immediately better at quarterback, they’re going to waste what should be a wonderful season.
Meanwhile, Utah looks plain better than USC right now, doesn’t it? The Utes play hard, have skilled players on defense, and quarterback Cam Rising threw three touchdown passes with no interceptions. Utah’s season boils down to the next two weeks (at UCLA, home vs. USC).
USC and Utah are two of the top teams in the Pac-12. They have talent and are well coached. But they look especially determined to not beat themselves right now. That’s something Oregon State needs to quit doing.
Utah knows what it’s like to lose a game because it beat itself. Rising threw an unfortunate pick in Week 1 against Florida. But Oregon State is putting on a turnover clinic right now.
The game ended. The teams shook hands. I watched OSU’s players jog off the field in Salt Lake City, faces long. They must know the game should have gone differently. It wasn’t that different than the scene at Reser Stadium a week earlier against USC.
That one was much closer. Turns out, heartbreak comes in many forms.
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