Pac-12, Meet New Oregon State Head Coach Gary Andersen

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The only thing more surprising than longtime Oregon State head coach Mike Riley leaving for the vacancy at Nebraska last week is the Beavers attracting Gary Andersen from Wisconsin Wednesday.

First allusions to a shocking hire came from MGoBlog, and–unlike a Chuck Johnson report–the end result did indeed live up to its build.

Initial reaction on social media was understandably perplexed. Why would Andersen leave a perennial Big Ten title contender for a Pac-12 program that last went to the Rose Bowl a half-century ago? Just this year, Andersen led the Badgers to 10 wins–twice as many as Oregon State–and a berth in the conference championship game.

But the “why” remains to be seen. The “what” is that the Pac-12 has added yet another successful head coach into its ranks, giving the league nine teams with a sideline general who won at least 10 games in the last two years.

Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, USC’s Steve Sarkisian and Washington State’s Mike Leach are the only three who haven’t.

Pac-12 Connection

Andersen has strong Pac-12 ties. Andersen is the alum of a Pac-12 university (Utah) and a true Western, which might explain his departure from the Upper Midwest for the Pacific Northwest.

Prior to going to Wisconsin, his coaching roots were firmly entrenched in the West. As head coach at Utah State, Andersen won the last Western Athletic Conference, at the expense of two current Pac-12 peers: Colorado’s Mike MacIntyre (formerly of San Jose State) and Cal’s Sonny Dykes (formerly Louisiana Tech).

Andersen earned himself the Utah State job after a tremendous run as defensive coordinator at his alma mater from 2005 through 2008. Andersen’s work at Utah in 2008 didn’t just benefit his career trajectory: a small portion of the Utes’ acceptance into the Pac-12 could be attributed to the coordinator’s defense.

After all, Utah had the nation’s No. 12-ranked scoring defense, with the group doing its best work in high-profile wins over TCU (held the Frogs 23 points their average); BYU (held 10 points below its average); and Alabama (held 13 points below its average).

The Alabama game in particular boosted Utah’s national profile, as the Utes routed the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl to finish the campaign the only undefeated team in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Utah’s invitation to the then-Pac-10 came two years later.

Alright, so maybe it’s a stretch to suggest Andersen is at least partially responsible for Utah landing in the Pac-12. But he did play an integral part to help Whittingham keep the Utes relevant after Urban Meyer’s departure for Florida.

What’s His Style?

Andersen is obviously a defensive-minded coach. Playing in the wide-open WAC against such foes as Louisiana Tech–the nation’s most prolific scoring team at 51.5 points per game–and San Jose State with its 34.8 point-per-game offense, Utah State stood out as the alternative.

The Aggies held opponents to just 15.4 points per game, seventh-best in the nation. The program’s identity was forged with that season, as Utah State has remained the rough-and-tumble defensive team of the Mountain West under current head coach Matt Wells’ regime.

That identity made a seamless fit for Wisconsin, a program that has long prided itself on playing old-school football. And Andersen delivered, putting out defenses that held opponents to 20 points per game this season, and 16.3 points per game in 2013.

Meanwhile, Andersen’s offenses have complemented the stout defenses with smash-mouth running games–something Oregon State was decidedly lacking in recent years.

This year’s Wisconsin team showcased Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon, of course. But dating back to his tenure at Utah State, Andersen’s teams relied heavily on workhorse running backs Kerwynn Williams (116.3 ypg in 2012; No. 12 in the FBS) and Robert Turbin (116.7 ypg in 2011; No. 13 FBS).

Otherwise, however, Andersen’s Utah State and Wisconsin offenses deviate in a crucial manner that could determine the coach’s success in the Pac-12.

How Will Oregon State Look?

There’s no doubt that by making this hire, Oregon State brass is planning to establish its football program’s identity as one of a tough-nosed, workmanlike team.

It’s a sharp contrast to in-state rival Oregon, the high-scoring machine with its shiny Nike uniforms and uptempo style.

Aside from crafting an image completely distinct from that of Oregon, adopting an old-school mentality reflects on the history of the university. Oregon State’s roots are in agriculture.

However, contrary to the old cliche “defense wins championships,” stout D alone cannot survive in the Pac-12. First-year Washington head coach Chris Petersen learned that the hard way in 2014, sputtering to an 8-5 finish despite fielding one of the most talented defenses in the nation.

Oregon State needs an effective run game to work in tandem with Andersen’s defensive philosophy, but the last few seasons, the Beavers have ranked No. 101, No. 113 and No. 118 (twice) in rushing offense. The program’s last 1,000-yard rusher was Jacquizz Rodgers in 2010.

At the same time, Andersen faces a choice in building his staff. Fellow former Utah assistant Andy Ludwig served as Andersen’s offensive coordinator at Wisconsin.

As Associated Press reporter Dan Greenspan alludes, Ludwig’s name might send shutters down some spines:

Ludwig’s offenses at Wisconsin were bereft of anything resembling a consistent, or even competent passing game. And while that could be fairly chalked up to the Badgers’ carousel of quarterbacks, truth is that Ludwig’s quarterback track record is less than stellar.

San Diego State’s Ryan Lindley, for example, saw his production drop in key areas from 2010 to 2011 when Ludwig replaced Al Borges. Ludwig favored an offense based on shorter passes to the perimeter; Ludwig’s YPA average dropped nearly two full yards yet his completion percentage fell almost five percent.

Ludwig’s conservative play-calling at Oregon in the early-to-mid 2000s didn’t quite fly; shortly after he left Eugene for Utah, former Ducks head coach Mike Bellotti opted to install a hurry-up spread, and the rest is history.

That was a decade ago; in today’s Pac-12, this style of offense would look like a Model-T on the Autobahn.

The offense Andersen presided over with Matt Wells coordinating at Utah State is a much better fit for the Pac-12. Wells installed a spread with zone-read principles at Utah State, which allowed playmakers Adam Kennedy and Chuckie Keeton to flourish.

Keeton in particular was outstanding, throwing for 27 touchdowns and rushing for another eight in 2012 to pace the Aggies’ 34.9 point-per-game offense.

If Andersen opts to find a coordinator more in line with this philosophy to work opposite his always-stingy defenses, Oregon State can become a dangerous threat to the Pac-12 North power structure.