Time to end debate on starting quarterback, coaching staff on fire: 8 takeaways from Oregon State’s 31-7 win over Arizona State

Here are eight takeaways from Oregon State’s 31-7 win over Arizona State, which moved the Beavers to 8-3 heading into the regular season finale against Oregon:

1. Time to end the starting quarterback debate

This should be Ben Gulbranson’s season to finish. And by the end, he should play through the bowl game. The third-year freshman quarterback has earned that right after his performance the past two weeks. Gulbranson’s confidence and ability to lead Oregon State is growing with each game. Chance Nolan was Oregon State’s starting quarterback, but that was nearly two months ago. His injury, while unfortunate, is part of football. Had Nolan only missed a couple of games, then sure, he should get his job back. But the Beavers’ offense is now in sync with Gulbranson running things. If there’s a quarterback debate, let it take place during 2023 spring practice.

2. Still looks like the Sun Bowl

With one weekend left to play, Oregon State is tied for fifth in the Pac-12 standings with UCLA. The Beavers can finish as high as tied for third or as low as tied for sixth, depending on outcomes in the regular season finale. It’s important for the Pac-12’s bowl pecking order. If Oregon State beats Oregon, the Beavers would likely finish tied for fifth, or tied for fourth, if Washington State beats Washington.

It’s pointless to list all the bowl scenarios at this stage, but most signs point to Beavers at the Sun Bowl in El Paso on Dec. 30. If not the Sun Bowl, then the Beavers would probably play in one of the ESPN-generated bowls: Gasparilla, Armed Forces or First Responder. There’s a small shot of a Vegas bowl appearance, but it’s difficult to imagine that committee picking OSU if it has the option to take UCLA, Utah or Washington.

3. Damien The Great

Damien Martinez is within reach of becoming the fourth Oregon State running back to crack 1,000 rushing yards as a freshman. Martinez ran for 138 yards against Arizona State, increasing his season total to 867. Martinez needs 123 more rushing yards against Oregon and the bowl game to hit 1,000. He would join Ken Simonton (1998), Jacquizz Rodgers (2008) and Jermar Jefferson (2018) as freshmen to accomplish the feat.

Now consider how it happened. Simonton averaged 4.6 yards a carry on the way to 1,028 yards. Rodgers averaged 4.8 yards on the way to 1,253. Jefferson averaged 5.8 yards on the way to 1,380 yards. Martinez? He’s reached 867 yards on just 143 carries, an average of 6.1 yards per rushing play.

Also consider this: after five games, when the Beavers were married to a three-man running back committee, Martinez had rushed for just 145 yards. Since then, Martinez has ripped off five consecutive 100-yard games, becoming the first OSU back to do that since Steven Jackson in 2003.

Among all freshmen backs nationally, Martinez ranks third, trailing Mississippi’s Quinshon Judkins (1,383 yards) and Baylor’s Richard Reese (908).

4. Beavers are playing their best in November

The Beavers — like every team in college football — want to be playing our best ball at the end of the season. But that goal is not as easy as one would think, particularly with injuries playing a key role in the production and development of a team. Darned if coach Jonathan Smith hasn’t pulled it off, however. Anyone want to argue that Oregon State played its best two games of the season the past two weeks against California and Arizona State? Before writing off Cal and ASU as duds, consider that all of the Pac-12’s top-tier teams have had their fair share of so-called easy wins. Oregon State made these look like walkovers. The Beavers’ defense ended up getting Cal’s offensive coordinator fired the following day. On Saturday, OSU broke Arizona State’s spirit by the middle of the third quarter.

“I think against Cal, all three phases we were pretty solid, and I think we did it again (Saturday),” Smith said.

5. The names that stepped up

Saturday’s performance was not a given considering Oregon State’s mounting list of injuries. Six starters or regulars, among others, were sidelined with injuries from last week’s game against California. The loss of Jack Colletto was enormous. He’s not only a short yardage ace, but also plays a fair number of snaps at linebacker and performs on four special teams units. Jaydon Grant and Alex Austin have combined for 64 career starts in OSU’s secondary. Deshaun Fenwick was the Beavers’ starting running back the first six games. Anthony Gould is as valuable as anyone on offense, given his receiving and returning skills. All watched on Saturday.

Among the unsung from Arizona State:

Skyler Thomas, a reserve cornerback most of the season, led OSU in tackles with eight.

Ryan Cooper Jr., whose role has increased in recent weeks, continued his stellar play in several defensive back situations.

Tanner Miller, third string not that long ago, made his first career start at left guard. The Beavers’ offensive line did not miss a beat with him joining forces.

Jesiah Irish replaced Gould at punt returner and was flawless.

Jaden Robinson saw his first extensive action of the season at cornerback. Same for linebacker John Miller and walk-on receiver Jeremiah Noga.

6. Oregon State coaching staff is on fire

December figures to be a nervous month for Oregon State football fans, because college football programs — and possibly the NFL — are going to take a long look at the Beavers’ coaching staff. Does athletic director Scott Barnes make another move to improve Smith’s contract and increase the odds of keeping his coach in Corvallis for years to come? Are coordinators Brian Lindgren and Trent Bray in play for a head coaching job or a seven-figure coordinator pay day elsewhere? Does a school looking to upgrade attempt to poach Jim Michalczik (offensive line), AJ Steward (running backs), Brian Wozniak (tight ends) or Blue Adams (secondary)?

There’s little chance this staff stays intact for 2023. That’s a good thing, if OSU hangs onto Smith. Other programs don’t come calling if you’re not doing things right.

7. Washington and/or USC losses were costly

Easy to play the what-if game, but after wins over California and Arizona State, darned if those field goal losses to USC and Washington don’t loom large. If the Beavers had won either of those games, the stakes for Saturday’s rivalry game would be enormous. There could be a Pac-12 championship game berth and Rose Bowl on the line vs. the Ducks.

If the Beavers had won either one of those games, one could argue that the season would contend with 2000 as the greatest in OSU history.

Still a good one, whether it ends up 10-3, 9-4 or 8-5, but the what-ifs will haunt for a while.

8. Remarkable progressive defensive improvement under Smith

It’s incredible to measure the statistical defensive improvement throughout Smith’s five-year tenure at Oregon State.

The stats speak for themselves. (National ranking, stat)

Scoring defense

2022: No. 27, 20.3 points

2021: No. 58, 25.8

2020: No. 93, 33.3

2019: No. 105, 32.5

2018: No. 129, 45.7

Total defense

2022: No. 25, 330.6 yards

2021: No. 73, 387.2

2020: No. 85, 442.3

2019: No. 108, 445.7

2018: No. 129, 536.8

Rushing defense

2022: No. 19, 111.4 yards

2021: No. 52 143.6

2020: No. 110 217.5

2019: No. 73 169.5

2018: No. 129 281.8

Defensive passing efficiency rating

2022: No. 8, 109.67

2021: No. 77, 139.47

2020: No. 78, 139.5

2019: No. 123, 161.21

2018: No. 124, 159.86

Nick Daschel reported from Tempe, Ariz.

ndaschel@oregonian.com | @nickdaschel

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