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July 11, 2008

Oregon State Preview

Here's a fun fact on the Oregon State Beavers. They have won 39 games in the past five years, and only USC and Cal have won more in that time period. Mike Riley has been able to build a perennial bowl program in Corvallis, and he managed to squeeze nine wins out of last year's team despite getting poor quarterback play, which is usually a death sentence in the Pac-10. He did it on the strength of a stiff defense and a solid running game. Both of those aspects of the game took a hit thought with graduation, so not much is expected of Oregon State. There are some reasons to think that OSU could surprise some people though.

Last Season

The Beavers did their usual non-conference dance of being dominant at home and awful on the road. They stifled the Utah Utes after a couple of injuries sunk the visitors, but then the Beavs traveled to Cincinnati and were buried under an avalanche of turnovers and special teams mistakes. The conference season kicked off in Tempe, where six OSU turnovers helped turn 19-0 and 26-13 leads into a 42-33 loss. Five more giveaways converted a 14-0 lead into a 40-14 blowout loss at the hands of the Bruins. At that point, Riley's squad was 2-3, off to their usual slow start in Pac-10 play, and characteristically unable to stay out of its own way on offense.

A great defensive performance against Arizona helped turn the tide with a 31-16 win, and then OSU shocked #2 Cal on the road by holding on for dear life after Bear QB Kevin Riley foolishly took off running late in the game with no timeouts. A cruise past Stanford was followed by an ugly loss to SC, in which starting QB Sean Canfield was lost for the regular season after a shoulder injury. That meant Lyle Moevao would take over, and the team didn't look back. After holding off a late comeback by Washington and humbling the Cougars in Pullman on the strength of eight forced turnovers, the Beavers snapped a long losing streak in Eugene with a double OT thriller of a victory. Oregon State wrapped up the season with a defensive clinic against Maryland, which featured a few end around plays from WR James Rodgers, a talented little guy.

Quarterback

So here's the thing. Oregon State has a recent history of first year quarterbacks struggling in their system. They do a lot of intermediate throwing in the seams over the middle, which has led to a lot of sacks and turnovers for inexperienced signal callers. More experience has meant far better performance for QBs under Riley. That's a good thing, because the top two guys last year combined to complete under 55% of their passes, with a TD to INT ratio of almost 1:2. Ouch! So who will be the guy this year?

Moevao is first string for now because Canfield's shoulder injury had not recovered enough for him to participate in spring football. Moevao is a short bulky kid with some athletic ability and a good arm. What he has not shown to this point is accuracy and proper decision making. He only threw two TDs in 147 attempts last season, which is brutal. For OSU to emerge as a first division team, he will need to be far better than he was last year.

Canfield will compete to regain the spot in the fall. He is more in the classic pocket passer mode that we've seen from OSU in guys like Derek Anderson and Matt Moore. After putting up a great performance in game three against Idaho State, he was pretty much mediocre to awful in conference play until his injury. He boasts more accuracy than Moevao, but his arm is not as good, and he's a statue when it comes to mobility. He has the tendency to lock on to one guy and hold the ball too long, which created a lot of sacks. Sophomore Brennan Sim and freshman Justin Engstrom showed some flashes in the spring game. The Beavers need improved play here to meet their own expectations.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

The good news is that whoever lines up under center is going to have some weapons to throw to. Rodgers is a sophomore now, and he showed big play ability last year. He only had 19 catches last season, but he came up huge in the bowl game, and better QB play would mean more touches for him. They like to line him up in the slot, motion him across, and hand him the ball. He torched Maryland on that play over and over again. The Beavers will welcome back Sammie Stroughter as well from some injury and personal problems that he had last season. Stroughter was dominant in 2006, earning all Pac-10 honors. He's another burner who can hurt you in space. Darrel Catchings returns after a solid freshman season in which he caught 33 passes. He's not a playmaker, but they can't all be.

Seniors Chris Johnson and Shane Morales give OSU a couple of functional back up wide receivers with better size than the starters. The Beavers lost leading receiver Anthony Brown, but I doubt they'll miss him with the group they have.

The Beavers are in good shape at tight end as well. Junior Howard Croom was the starter last season, and he gives them good run blocking and the ability to make short yardage plays on play action. He led the team in TD catches last year with three. Gabe Miller is a very talented player who has some speed at the position, and he could vertically stretch the middle of the field, keeping the safeties occupied. The Beavers have no shortage of guys who can hurt you catching the ball.

Running Back

Oregon State said goodbye to Yvenson Bernard after last season, and replacing his production won't be easy. He was a good fit for the ace spread offense with his slashing style, and he was an outstanding recei ver. In the spring, redshirt freshman Ryan McCants was the guy, but he isn't going to knock anyone's socks off. He's a big plodder who would be better served as a short yardage back than an every down guy. Patrick Fuller, Ahmed Mokhtar, and Jeremy Francis aren't going to scare anyone. Beaver coaches and fans are looking forward to seeing freshmanJacquizz Rodgers show up for camp. He's the brother of James. He is tiny at 5-6, and he doesn't have elite speed, but he is shifty and tough to get a hold off. He will be a good fit for the offense, but can he take the grind as a true freshman at that size? We'll find out.

Offensive Line

The Beavers lost a couple of all conference linemen, but they still should be solid here. The best returning player is left guard Jeremy Perry, who was first team All Pac-10 in 2006 but was lost early last season to the injury bug. Senior Adam Speer gives OSU a solid guy at the other guard spot. Andy Levitre can play both tackle spots in a pinch, but is best suited for the right side. Who will play the all important blind side, especially for a team that gave up 36 sacks last year? Ineligibility problems for Tavita Thompson really hurt the Beavs, costing them last season's starter. Right now, sophomore Ryan Pohl is first on the depth chart, but at 277, he's probably not big enough to play there. Michael Cole wasn't able to take the job from him. Oregon State fans are hoping that JC transfer Jon Ioane, who has signed twice with the Beavs only to not quali fy each time, can step in and fill the void. He's a big guy, but is considered more run blocker than pass protector. Watch this spot, because it could be a problem for Riley.

At center Marcus Henderson is currently the guy, but don't be surprised if Pohl moves to center if the find a more capable left tackle and challenges Henderson. Brent McNeill is a well thought of JC transfer who could get a look as well. There is not a great deal of depth on the line, but the group as a whole should be pretty good if they can find a serviceable left tackle.

Defensive Line

The entire starting front seven graduated after the 2007 season, leaving what looks like a gaping hole right up front for what was an outstanding defense last season. But OSU did a lot of rotating players last year, and as a result, they think they will be able to reload. DE Victor Butler is the star of the group. As a situational pass rusher last year, he mounted up ten and a half sacks. He's a candidate for all conference honors. Slade Norris had nine sacks of his own from the other side despite being recruited as… a wide receiver. The end position could be bolstered by the heavily recruited Simi Kuli, if he can qualify. That is very much in the air right now.

At tackle, the situation is a little more unsettled. Pernell Booth is the only returner at the position who has played much, but he should be pretty solid. Booth will have to fight off Sioeli Nau for the starting position, but both will play. The coaches are excited about Stephen Paea, who may not start right away, but he will likely by season's end. Mitchell Hunt and Brennan Olander round out what should be a five man rotation. The pass rush element of this unit should be good, but can they stop the run as well as they did last year (71 yards per game, 2.1 yards per carry) without Coker and Lee? Good question.

Linebacker

This group was outstanding last season, and while there is some talent here, I don't think it will be as easy to replace Doggett, Darlin, and LaRocque as people think. There will be a learning curve here for a while. The most experienced guy of the new corps is senior Bryant Cornell, who will likely man the middle. Sam backer Keaton Kristick also played some last season. The other side appears to be a battle between sophomores Keith Pankey and Dwight Roberson, who are two very different kinds of players. It's hard to know how well this group will do. It's the most inexperienced LB corps of Mike Riley's tenure at OSU, but the defense is tailor made for linebackers, and the Beavers have done a great job of replacing some stars in the past.

Secondary

Oregon State has two solid senior starters at CB in Brandon Hughes and Keenan Lewis. Hughes was outstanding last season, and could be the conference's best corner. Lewis had three INTs last season because people were trying to stay away from Hughes. Tim Clark is the team's nickel back, and he played a lot last season. However, the Beavers are in some dire straits early at the safety position. Bryan Payton left school and won't be coming back. That means that Greg Laybourn is the free safety, and he is not big or fast enough to star at the position. But he did play quite a bit last year, and made a play or two. Al Afalava is solid at the strong safety position, but he has to sit the Stanford game because of a suspension, leaving redshirt freshman Cameron Collins to pick up the slack. With Payton's departure, the team is a little thinner at safety than they would l ike, but the secondary should still be pretty good.

Special Teams

Replacing Alexis Serna, who was awesome as a kicker and handled punting last year, is a chore. But Justin Kahut played well in the spring game. We'll see how he does this season. The punting game was a disaster last year, and Riley is hoping that redshirt freshman Kyle Harper can do the job. Still, if they didn't take the redshirt off last year with the struggles that Serna had, it's hard to believe he'll be that big of an improvement. I expect Stroughter to be back on punt return duty terrorizing opponents, and James Rodgers and Gerard Lawson could share the kickoff return duties. The Beavers were outstanding in kickoff coverage with Serna doing the booting, and they didn't get many punts returned because Serna kicked so many short ones. The return teams should be good, but the kicking game may be a problem for OSU.

Outlook

This team could be pretty darn good, or horrible. It just depends on the new guys. My guess is that there will be improvement at QB, but it won't be extensive. I'm just not sure Moevao is a Pac-10 level QB. I suspect the front seven will be pretty good, although not as good as they were last year, when the led the nation in run defense. They don't have to play at that level though, and I don't think there will be much drop-off on defense at all. I think the two main questions come at RB and LT. If the younger Rodgers cannot come in and at least provide a change of pace, I think there will be a slide in the running game, which will force Moevao/Canfield to make plays. If the Beavers are forced to play Pohl at left tackle, they are likely going to give up a lot of sacks again, especially if Canfield splits time with Moevao.

The schedule makes another tough start possible. Winning at Stanford is not nearly as easy as it used to be, and the Cardinal are more experienced and confident than they've been in a while. A trip to Happy Valley will likely mean a loss. OSU will have a good chance to beat Hawaii at home, but then they face the Trojans in Corvallis and then head to Salt Lake City for a return match with the Utes. The good news is that they have winnable conference road games against Stanford, Washington, UCLA, and Arizona, while getting the power schools (SC, ASU, Cal, Oregon) at home. You've still got to win those games. My forecast: another slow start at either 3-2 or 2-3, but another strong finish to get to 7-5 or 8-4.

Questions, comments, or info? Contact me at tvenegas@comcast.net


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