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October 18, 2012

New Challenges Emerge for Beavers

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Solid start for Cody Vaz, the formerly unknown backup quarterback turned Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week.

Memo to Vaz: Do it again.

Vaz (later, Sean Mannion when he finally returns from the left knee injury) and the Beavers must overcome two major hurdles in the next several weeks - consistency from week-to-week and the different ways OSU is viewed by opponents.

While he compiled some gaudy statistics (20-of-32 for 332 yards passing, three touchdowns and 10.4 yards per attempt will catch the eye of many pundits) and performed under pressure (consecutive long TD drives in the second half), the performance by Vaz on the road in Provo last Saturday was remarkable for one reason: no turnovers.

In fact, together with the top-notch rushing defense (70.0 yards or game), third down defense (26.9 conversion rate for opponents) and the highly-productive passing attack (338.0 yards per game), the lack of turnovers has truly been one of the main storylines of the Beavers' season to date: after five games OSU is tied with Stanford for the best turnover margin in the Pac-12 at plus-six.

In three road contests, the Beavers are plus-two in turnover ratio. Mannion and Vaz have combined to throw just four interceptions in 201 pass attempts (one pick every 50.3 pass attempts) and they have lost two fumbles.

Essentially, the OSU quarterbacks are throwing the ball to the players wearing the orange and black uniforms and the ball carriers seem to have a firm grasp on the football.

Basically, Oregon State must continue to rely on those strengths against Utah at home on Saturday.

Third down defense has been phenomenal. When the distance required to pick up the first down is two yards or closer, opponents are 7-of-14. But when the distance needed is three yards or longer, opponents have made the first down on just 11-of-53 occasions. That's a 20.8 percent success rate, meaning they've been successful just one out of every five times.

In addition, Oregon State has the top rushing defense in the Pac-12 (4th nationally), while Utah is a lowly 112h nationally out of 120 Division I teams in rushing offense. That's a battle the Beavers should win handily.

And since Utah has trouble throwing the ball (90th in nation), OSU's defense should be able to handle the Utes offense and keep it in check.

In his first start, Vaz was intelligent enough to throw the ball in the direction of Brandin Cooks (eight receptions) and Markus Wheaton (five receptions, two touchdowns through the air) as the dynamic duo accounted for 65 percent of the total number of OSU's receptions (13 of 20) and 72 percent of the receiving yardage (239 of 332 yards).

Vaz should continue to enjoy success throwing the football against a Utah secondary that is 62nd nationally (and fourth in the Pac-12) in pass defense and 99th in pass efficiency defense (145.44 rating).

Running the football will be a dogfight as Utah has one of the top defensive tackles in college football (Star Lotulelei), but the Beavers must figure out a way to gain some yards on the ground in order to keep the aggressive Utes defense from teeing off on Vaz.

Last week, OSU was able to run the ball for 118 yards on 28 carries against BYU. It might not sound like much, but averaging 4.2 yards per rush was productive enough to keep the Cougars defense on its heels.

Reaching the century mark in rushing and allowing only two sacks proves how well the Beavers offensive line performed in Provo.

Staying balanced in terms of run-pass selection (28 rushes, 32 passes at BYU) and continuing to be aggressive on defense with lockdown corners Jordan Poyer and Rashaad Reynolds should produce another victory, one that will make the Beavers bowl eligible and keep them undefeated.

So, if the Beavers improve to 6-0, will anybody East of the Rocky Mountains notice?

Because of the three-win season in 2011 (expectations and what happened last season often dictate the scope and tone of media coverage in September and early October), the Beavers have flown under the radar nationally for most of the first half of the season.

But not for much longer.

Thanks mostly to a very difficult schedule (ninth toughest in Sagarin rankings), Oregon State is nicely positioned at No. 8 in the BCS standings. Under the Goldilocks Theory, that spot is not too hot or too cold right now. It's just right for the Beavers to make a climb in the rankings.

The three teams ahead of them in the BCS standings (No. 7 South Carolina, No. 6 LSU and No. 5 Notre Dame) all have dangerous games upcoming in the weeks ahead. This weekend, the Gamecocks must play at No. 2 Florida and LSU travels to Texas A&M, while the Irish face Oklahoma in Norman, Okla. on Oct. 27.

Thus, don't be surprised when the Beavers (assuming they beat Utah) move up a spot or two when the next BCS standings are released Sunday night.

Which leads us to the second major hurdle the Beavers are about the encounter - keep winning and OSU will soon become the hunted rather than the hunter.

Don't discount the distinction between the two words. They are separated by just one letter, but require completely different mindsets.

Frankly, some teams have historically not been able to make the adjustment from side to the other and fall flat when they finally cross over.

However, as seen by the perfect 3-0 road mark, the Beavers undoubtedly possess the mental toughness and fortitude necessary to make the transition.

Contrast Oregon State's rugged early season schedule to that of its Civil War rival. The Ducks have beaten, drum roll please...Arkansas State, Fresno State, Tennessee Tech (I just listed the three reasons Oregon is No 3 in the BCS standings rather than No. 2), Arizona, Washington State and Washington.

Murderer's Row? Not exactly. The Ducks' strength of schedule - one of the most important components of the BCS - is ranked No. 93, 84 spots below the Beavers.

And they haven't played a true road game yet, either. Thursday night's road test at Arizona State will be their first game outside the Pacific Northwest region since the season started. In fact, four of their final six games are on the road and they're all Pac-12 games to boot - so we'll find out whether the Fightin' Phil Knights are indeed worthy of their lofty BCS ranking before the calendar hits December.

Until then, Oregon State can focus on improving to 6-0 for the first time since 1907.



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