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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 80: Oregon State

Two years ago, Oregon State was a disappointment. Yes, there was the schedule, and yes, there were injuries, and yes, the team did have its fair share of personnel issues. But the 2010 team was likely the first of Mike Riley’s tenure – two different stints, beginning in 1997 – to fall short of expectations; most, in fact, surpassed the preseason expectations heaped on their plate. Last year’s team, on the other hand, did what it was supposed to do: lose games. And not just lose games but lose most of its games, suffering nine losses in a season for the first time since the dark pre-Riley days, which seems so long ago as to make most forget that yes, there was a time when Oregon State was a laughingstock not merely to those in Eugene but to college football fans from one coast to another. So you wonder: Is it worse to lose games and disappoint or to lose games and not raise one single eyebrow?

Conference
Pac-12, North

Location
Corvallis, Ore.

Nickname
Beavers

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 66

2011 record
(3-9, 3-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 93

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    Nicholls St.
  • Sept. 8
    Wisconsin
  • Sept. 22
    at U.C.L.A.
  • Sept. 29
    at Arizona
  • Oct. 6
    Washington St.
  • Oct. 13
    at B.Y.U.
  • Oct. 20
    Utah
  • Oct. 27
    at Washington
  • Nov. 3
    Arizona St.
  • Nov. 10
    at Stanford
  • Nov. 17
    California
  • Nov. 24
    Oregon

Last year’s prediction

There are reasons for concern. There’s another tough schedule, one that sends Oregon State to Wisconsin, Arizona State, Utah and Oregon. The Beavers also host B.Y.U., Stanford and Washington. Then there are the roster issues: running back, receiver, defensive line and linebacker. Now, keep this in mind: with last season as one of the few exceptions, Oregon State seems to play beyond its means under Riley. So perhaps returning to an underdog role will be just what the doctor ordered for the Beavers in 2011. I do think this is important, and it’s perhaps the main reason why I think O.S.U. will return to bowl play this fall. But I don’t think this team is going to be great, even if Riley always seems to make something out of less than something.

2011 recap

In a nutshell Youth and injuries. This was the second straight year that O.S.U. could blame the latter for a losing season. Five players projected for a starting role heading into the season missed at least five games, stretching an already thin roster to the breaking point. In all, 23 players made their first career start in 2011. Then there was the Beavers’ overwhelming youth and inexperience: freshmen and sophomores accounted for 74 starts on the year. This was not a recipe for success. Adding fuel to the fire was a schedule that included nine bowl teams, three that reached a B.C.S. bowl, and only two F.B.S. teams that would win fewer than five games on the season. Also not helping matters: O.S.U. dropped the season opener to Sacramento State, then shortly thereafter dropped its quarterback. In the big picture, the team lacked any offensive momentum – though the Beavers did improve as the year wore on – and was forced to play far too many youngsters not yet ready for prime time. O.S.U. hopes that the program never gets any lower under Riley’s watch.

High point A 38-21 victory over Washington on Nov. 19 was the Beavers’ lone win over a bowl team. The victory does signal one fact, if it was not already clear: O.S.U. owns the Huskies.

Low point You had an inkling that something was amiss when O.S.U. opened the year with a 29-28 loss to Sacramento State. No team in college football came out flatter, and perhaps few teams – given how the Beavers fell short in 2010 – were in more desperate need of a sunny start to the season. O.S.U. sandwiched the year with that defeat and another loss to Oregon, the program’s fourth straight in the series.

Tidbit The Beavers’ fourth consecutive loss to Oregon ties the program’s second-longest losing streak in the rivalry’s modern era, joining a pair of four-game losing slides from 1984-87 and from 1994-97. The longest was an eight-game losing streak from 1975-82; the Beavers and Ducks would tie, 0-0, in the famous 1983 meeting, after which U.O. would roll off another four straight wins. O.S.U. hasn’t won more than two straight since taking eight in a row from 1964-71 – and own only a pair of two-game winning streaks over the previous four-plus decades, from 1973-74 and from 2006-7.

Tidbit (road woes edition) O.S.U. is 2-10 on the road over the last two seasons – the wins come against Washington State last fall and Arizona in 2010. By comparison, the Beavers went 14-10 away from home during the regular season from 2006-9, going 4-2 in 2009 and 2006 and 3-3 in 2007 and 2008. Prior to the 2010, the last time that O.S.U. won only a single road game during the regular season was in 2003, when the Beavers went 1-4 on the road but 6-0 at home.

Tidbit (Terry Baker edition) This season marks the 50th anniversary of former O.S.U. quarterback Terry Baker’s Heisman-winning season in 1962. Baker, the first player to win the Heisman at a school west of Texas, enrolled at O.S.U. on a basketball scholarship, making him, for all intents and purposes, a walk-on to the football program. He likely first entered the Heisman picture on Nov. 3, 1962, when his 62-yard touchdown run against Washington State proved to be the deciding score; Baker then sealed the Trophy by rallying the Beavers back from a 17-6 halftime deficit for a 20-17 win in the Civil War.

Former players in the N.F.L.

26 S Al Afalava (Tennessee), QB Derek Anderson (Carolina), LB Nick Barnett (Buffalo), CB Brandon Browner (Seattle), LB Victor Butler (Dallas), QB Sean Canfield (New Orleans), LB Cameron Collins (Miami), OG Kyle DeVan (Tennessee), CB James Dockery (Cleveland), DE Dwan Edwards (Buffalo), S Brandon Hardin (Chicago), P Johnny Hekker (St. Louis), CB Brandon Hughes (Philadelphia), RB Steven Jackson (St. Louis), OG Andy Levitre (Buffalo), CB Keenan Lewis (Pittsburgh), DE Gabe Miller (Kansas City), QB Matt Moore (Miami), LB Slade Norris (Detroit), WR Chad Ochocinco (Miami), DT Stephen Paea (Chicago), OT Mike Remmers (Denver), RB Jacquizz Rodgers (Atlanta), WR James Rodgers (Atlanta), WR Sammie Stroughter (Tampa Bay), S Suaesi Tuimaunei (Atlanta).

Arbitrary top five list

Chicago Cubs’ second basemen since Ryne Sandberg
1. Mark DeRosa.
2. Eric Young.
3. Todd Walker.
4. Ryan Theriot.
5. Darwin Barney.

Coaching

Mike Riley (Alabama ’75), 72-63 over 11 years in Corvallis. This record is compiled over two separate stints. The first, from 1997-98, saw Riley go 8-14, while the second, more successful stay, which began in 2003, has seen Riley finish 65-49. The two spells were interrupted by a four-year term in the N.F.L.: an unsuccessful three-year period as the San Diego Chargers’ head coach (14-34 from 1999-2001) was followed by one season as an assistant with the New Orleans Saints. Though there is a large dichotomy between his two stints with the Beavers, his initial two-year stint saw Oregon State begin to change the losing culture that had pervaded the program for more than a generation. After going 3-8 in 1997, Riley led the Beavers to a 5-6 1998 season, the program’s best finish in 27 years. Dennis Erickson, most recently the head coach at Arizona State, reaped the benefits of that groundwork to go 31-17 from 1999-2002. When Erickson left Corvallis for another shot at the N.F.L., Riley was the logical – and perfect – choice for the job. He has had only three losing seasons since returning, with a 5-6 finish in 2006 joining the last two seasons, and Oregon State’s 28 wins from 2004-7 placed it second in the Pac-12 over that span, trailing only U.S.C. Before coming to Oregon State, Riley spent four seasons (1993-6) as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at U.S.C. under John Robinson. So there’s the resume, short and sweet. What Riley has done in Corvallis really can’t be explained in such a short space. There’s a reason this guy’s name is associated with almost every major job opening the country: and I’m not talking small jobs — try U.S.C., Alabama and the like. Despite the recent slide, Riley remains one of the most well-regarded head coaches in college football.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Riley only makes coaching moves when he has to, which delights the fan base when O.S.U. is winning eight games but stands as a source of irritation when the program suffers back-to-back losing seasons. The one coaching change heading into this season came as a result of Keith Heyward’s painful move to Washington – painful on two fronts, as Heyward was not only an extremely valuable member of Riley’s staff but he’s now plying his trade with the rival Huskies. His replacement, Rod Perry, has 24 years of N.F.L. experience, most recently with the Indianapolis Colts, and two years of college experience at his alma mater, Fresno State. One notable behind-the-scenes addition to the staff: Trent Bray, formerly the linebackers coach with Arizona State, will be one of Riley’s graduate assistants. He’ll focus on the linebackers in 2012, freeing up Mark Banker solely for his duties as defensive coordinator. That’s a fairly small move that could pay enormous dividends.

Players to watch

I don’t entirely buy into the idea that O.S.U. needs a new voice on offense. More than anything, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has been stymied by injuries and rampant inexperience over the last two seasons; to say that he ignored the run at times in 2011 completely ignores the fact that O.S.U. landed nothing from an abomination of an offensive line, one that utterly failed to control the line of scrimmage. O.S.U. could use more balance, but don’t place all the blame for the program’s recent struggles solely on Langsdorf’s plate. Some of the blame, yes – Langsdorf will need to do a better job developing several younger skill players in 2012 – but not all.

The offense now officially belongs to sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion, the former backup who moved into the starting lineup three games into last season. Your typical freshman season followed, though Mannion did show more passing acumen than most rookie starters. Part of the lofty numbers – at least 231 yards in each of his 10 starts, at least 300 yards four times – has much to do with the team’s paltry running game, which led O.S.U. to lean heavily on the pass, but regardless: Mannion acquitted himself admirably after being thrown into the mix, which does bode well for his future as the Beavers’ unquestioned starter.

He needs to cut down on his interceptions; Mannion tossed 18 as a freshman, most in the Pac-12, and had five multiple-turnover games during conference play. Improved decision-making and accuracy are qualities that will come with time, and Mannion will begin making steady progress with each start of his sophomore season. Above all else, and despite his obvious abilities, O.S.U. could afford to take the brunt of the offense off of Mannion’s shoulders – balancing out his abilities as a passer with a stronger running game. Mannion averaged 42.3 attempts per game over his 10 starts; that’s a ridiculously high number, but the Beavers might again not have another option should the running game struggle finding a foothold.

The days of an every-down back are gone in Corvallis, at least for one more season. O.S.U. has six contenders for the starting job heading into the fall, and even if one claims the top job it’s extremely likely that at least three will share the load. Did one back separate himself from the pack during spring ball? Not really, though redshirt freshman Storm Woods did show the best combination of speed and power. The top group during the spring: Woods, senior Jordan Jenkins, junior Jovan Stevenson (229 yards and 5 touchdowns) and sophomores Terron Ward (211 yards) and Malcolm Agnew (team-best 423 yards).

Agnew can play, though staying healthy is a concern: he missed all or part of seven games as a true freshman, though he did rush for at least 100 yards twice – including 223 yards in the season opener against Sacramento State. Each back seems to bring something to the table, such as Jenkins’ strength as a pass protector, which does seem to indicate that the Beavers could combine three or four to make one complete back.

The two-deep will experience another shakeup come August, when the five returning backs resume their competition with incoming freshman Chris Brown added into the mix. There’s enough depth and talent here for O.S.U.’s running game to improve; it all depends on the offensive line, which I’ll touch on below.

Senior Markus Wheaton (73 catches for 986 yards) will again lead O.S.U. in receiving, and should crack the 1,000-yard mark with some ease in his final season. The Beavers will hand the flanker position formerly occupied by James Rodgers over to sophomore Brandin Cooks (31 for 391), who filled an injured Rogers’ shoes over the first two games of last season. The top group consists of this pair and senior Jordan Bishop (31 for 384). What O.S.U. needs is an intermediate target to replace Joe Halahuni, with senior Colby Prince the likely starter at tight end – though keep an eye out for freshman Caleb Smith, who could be valuable as a pure pass-catcher at either tight end or H-back.

There’s speed and athleticism at receiver. Wheaton and Cooks can fly. Sophomore Obun Gwacham (8 for 147) has the length and leaping ability to be a tremendous weapon down the field or in the red zone, perhaps pushing Bishop into a secondary role. The Beavers will also continue to use the running backs in the passing game, with Jenkins the most proven pass-catcher of the bunch. There are enough options at his disposal for Mannion to continue his development under center. It won’t result in many more wins, but O.S.U. could continue to move the ball exclusively through the air.

This is not a big defense. O.S.U. will combat a lack of enviable size – especially along the defensive line – with pure speed, hoping that enough consistent pressure in the backfield can help the defense overcome a projected inability to handle a straightforward, run-first offensive attack. This approach didn’t work last fall, when the Beavers ranked 101st nationally and last in the Pac-12 against the run. Is there any reason to think that this coming season will be any different? Not really. But the defense will undoubtedly be improved, if only thanks to last year’s experience. How much better depends on whether Banker can cobble together a less porous front seven.

And what about the idea that this defense is lacking the “killer instinct” that defined the program’s top groups from 2006-9? Balderdash – yes, balderdash. There is no such thing as a defense-wide “killer instinct,” merely the confidence that comes with getting stops with consistency. O.S.U. will regain this confidence once the defense proves that it can limit what the opposition can achieve on the ground and through the air. Whether the Beavers can do so hinges almost entirely on the play of the front seven.

Good news, bad news. The good: O.S.U. has two outstanding young ends in sophomores Scott Crichton (74 tackles, 14.5 for loss, 6.0 sacks) and Dylan Wynn (44 tackles, 5.5 for loss). Already a menace, Crichton is a clear all-conference pick and a contender for greater national recognition – and best of all, Crichton is only going to get better. O.S.U. has solid depth at end, if the spring was any indication: Devon Kell, Rusty Fernando and Rudy Fifita join Wynn and Crichton to give the Beavers five options at the position.

The bad: O.S.U. should be worried about the line’s interior. What the defense really needs is a huge final season out of senior tackle Andrew Seumalo (34 tackles, 2.5 for loss), the only experienced interior lineman at Banker’s disposal. With three positions in the books – Wynn, Crichton and Seumalo – who will round out O.S.U.’s starting lineup? Junior Mana Rosa and senior Castro Masaniai are the top two options to join Seumalo at tackle, but don’t sleep on redshirt freshman Desmond Collins, should he make a full recovery from a springtime ankle injury.

Senior Feti ‘Unga (67 tackles) is back at middle linebacker, but O.S.U. needs to get more out of the position. That puts pressure on ‘Unga to produce; if he doesn’t, O.S.U. could turn to senior Rueben Robinson, a valuable reserve both in the middle or the strong side, or perhaps give JUCO transfer Cade Cowdin a look at the position. The outside spots are spoken for: Michael Doctor (78 tackles, 2.5 for loss, 2 interceptions) on the weak side and new starter D.J. Welch, a sophomore, on the strong side. Doctor gives O.S.U. its best shot at a big play – he’s an all-conference candidate – and Welch impressed during fairly limited duty as a rookie. The Beavers are set on the outside but need more in the middle.

Another round of good news, bad news. O.S.U. should get enough from its pass rush to help out the secondary; however, the team’s issues stopping the run should again make things difficult on the pass defense, which was too often burned during Pac-12 play. Good news, bad news. Better news: O.S.U. brings back three starters in the secondary, including both cornerbacks, senior Jordan Poyer (57 tackles, 4 interceptions) and junior Rashaad Reynolds (68 tackles). Poyer is one of the Pac-12’s best cornerbacks, and as such is matched up with the league’s top receivers – battles he’ll win and lose.

Anthony Watkins (85 tackles), last year’s leading tackler, returns for another season at safety. He’ll have a new running mate in 2012, likely sophomore Ryan Murphy (29 tackles), a two-game starter as a freshman. The secondary has enough experience to do a pretty strong job against the Pac-12, though teams with ample depth at receiver – teams like Wisconsin, for example – could give this team fits. The pass rush will help, but can O.S.U. do a good enough job against the run to keep this secondary out of a hole?

Sophomore kicker Trevor Romaine has a huge leg, which should result in the wide majority of kickoffs ending in touchbacks. And while he was hit-or-miss on field goals as a freshman, Romaine should be more consistent in his second go-round through the Pac-12. The Beavers’ return game is spotty, better on punts than kickoffs in 2011 – and given the new kickoff rules, this will play in the team’s favor should that theme continue in 2012.

Position battle(s) to watch

Offensive line The only place to go is up. Unfortunately, O.S.U.’s quest for improved play up front remains in a bit of a holding pattern while Riley and his staff await the arrival – or return – of three key linemen. One is junior Michael Philipp, a two-year starter who was forced to take a redshirt in 2011 due to injuries. The second is former U.C.L.A. transfer Stan Hasiak, a next-level interior linemen who struggled academically in Westwood; he’s at O.S.U. after one season on the JUCO ranks. The third is incoming freshman Isaac Seumalo, who has generated as much buzz as any incoming quarterback. The line has two looks: one without this trio in the mix – as was the case during the spring, by and large – and one with this trio rounding out the two-deep. Without Philipp, Hasiak and Seumalo, O.S.U. has the worst offensive line in the Pac-12.

Let’s say that all three are ready to roll come August. How would this shake up the offensive line? If healthy, Philipp is an option to go back to left tackle, where he started in 2009 and 2010. Or Philipp could reclaim his spot at right tackle and move senior Colin Kelly, last year’s starter at the position, either inside or over to left tackle – though I’m not sure if Kelly could handle the blind side. If Hasiak plays up to his potential, he should take the starting job at left guard away from junior Josh Andrews, making the latter a valuable swing reserve at both guard spots. Seumalo will be given the opportunity to grab a starting role from day one, though it’s more likely that he serves as a backup at guard while learning the offense.

This is in a perfect world. And even in this dream scenario O.S.U. still has holes at left tackle and center – let that illustrate just how large a concern offensive line play is for this team. One factor to consider: O.S.U. has four serviceable guards, with sophomore Michael Beaton joining Hasiak, Seumalo and Andrews, so the Beavers could entertain moving junior Grant Enger out from right guard to left tackle. That’s a Band-Aid fix, perhaps, but it might be Riley’s best option. Unless O.S.U. believes that Seumalo or Hasiak can handle the job, sophomore Roman Sapolu – who has added some weight since last season – will start at center.

Game(s) to watch

Start with the basics: O.S.U. does play another team off the F.C.S. ranks. And like Sacramento State, Nicholls State does come in the season opener. Perhaps the best way to sum up the Beavers’ schedule is to say that all 11 of the F.B.S. teams on the docket believe they should reach bowl play in 2012; another two – Wisconsin and Oregon – have legitimate hopes for a B.C.S. run, if not more. To move back into the bowl picture, O.S.U. must protect its home turf against Washington State, Arizona State and California. To make a move back into the eight-win territory, O.S.U. must also beat teams like U.C.L.A. and Arizona on the road. Of course, the road hasn’t been kind to this program since the start of the 2010 season.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell The portion of the O.S.U. fan base that believes Mike Riley is not the answer for the program’s current woes clearly don’t remember the days when the Beavers were an afterthought’s afterthought – in case you forgot, O.S.U. did once go 28 years without a winning season. In addition, the line of thought that gives Dennis Erickson full credit for building O.S.U. into a winner is so ridiculous as to ignore it completely. Let’s just get that out of the way. Now, as for this year’s team: O.S.U. will be much improved. How much better? At least two wins better, in my opinion, and perhaps in line for a postseason berth if it can take advantage of the holes on another brutal schedule. The Beavers must start strong, for starters. There’s the opportunity to do so: Nicholls State is a win, and U.C.L.A., Arizona and Washington State are breaking in new coaches – O.S.U. plays each before mid-October – so it’s logical to expect some growing pains in the early going. The Beavers must also extend their dominance over Washington and take care of Arizona State at home. There you go: six wins. It won’t be that easy. O.S.U. has some wide-ranging concerns, none bigger than an extremely questionable offensive line. Another year of lackluster line play will lead to more struggles in the running game, which in turn will lead to another year of unbalanced offensive play-calling, which in turn leads… you know where that leads. The defense is weak in the middle of the line and weak against the run as a whole, which could again have a disastrous impact on the secondary. What are the good signs? Mannion will be improved. The Beavers have enough options in the backfield to run the ball effectively, should the line improve. The receiver corps is strong. The two ends are terrific. I like Doctor and Welch at outside linebacker. Poyer is an all-conference candidate at cornerback. A better team – that’s without question. A bowl team? I can see it, but I have a feeling that O.S.U. is going to top out at five wins.

Dream season The most improved position group on the team is the offensive line, which allows O.S.U. to balance out a strong season from Mannion with a healthy running game. The result is the program’s first 400-point season since 2009, which helps the Beavers finish the regular season at 8-4, 6-3 in conference play – second in the Pac-12 North.

Nightmare season The decline continues: 5-7 in 2010, 3-9 in 2011, 2-10 in 2012. The lone wins come against Nicholls State and Arizona State. The worst loss? O.S.U. drops a nail-biter to Oregon, 70-17.

In case you were wondering

Where do Oregon State fans congregate? You can find an independent viewpoint at Beaver Sports Central II, though I continue to be curious as to the whereabouts of Beaver Sports Central I. Recruiting coverage can be found at Beaver Football and Beaver Blitz. For a blog’s take, check out Building The Dam. And you can find great coverage of all O.S.U. sports over at the Web site of The Oregonian. Another option is AngryBeavs.com, which provides “a critical view of Oregon State athletics.”

Oregon State’s all-name nominee DE Rusty Fernando.

Word Count

Through 45 teams 161,124.

Up Next

Who is No. 79? The last head coach to post back-to-back winning seasons at tomorrow’s program went on to lead his next stop through the only winless season in its history.

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Comments

  1. Freakville says:

    Wyoming?

  2. David says:

    Yep, Dana Dimel.

  3. BobJ says:

    College football teams run in several concurrent cycles, and every cycle hit bottom at the same time for the Beavers last year. However bad of an impression you got from Paul’s write-up, it was worse. When I was driving home from the Civil War game, I was thinking, “Did I really just see a football game?”

    I don’t look for Oregon State to do much this year, but it should be a solid rebuild for 2013. I hope they win five or so, or else there will be calls for Mike Riley’s head, which would be the stupidest thing imaginable. No coach in college football gets more out his players than he does.

  4. angrybeav says:

    Real Beaver fans congregate at angrybeavs.com. Duh.

    Paul: Adding it above.

  5. fightingbeaver says:

    Riley believers just don’t get it. Nice guy aside, Mike Riley has a problem taking blame for anything. He always makes excuses for each and every loss. It’s time for an aggressive style coach who can set his and the teams goals higher than a toilet bowl. Sorry guys, but Mike Riley and Bob De Care Less are taking the OSU football program back to the dark ages.

    With the caliber of the Pac 12 today, Mike Riley’s old style of offense, predictable play calling and lack of change and imagination will be OSU demise.

    Finally, anyone like the author of this article, who cuts down Dennis Erickson is totally wrong. Dennis did more for our football program in a few years than we will ever see with the present coach. Erickson at least set his goals to the limit instead of the bottom of the barrel.

  6. cordialduck says:

    There was a base of Riley recruits for the Erickson years, but Dennis brought in big-time jc transfers that were better athletes than most in the conference, then let them play. I don’t think you can sustain a program that way, to say Erickson thrived only because Riley set the table is incorrect.

  7. Joe Beav says:

    Small correction: OSU did, in fact, win the Civil War 3 times in a row between 2006 and 2008. Or was it ’05 to ’07. Can’t remember exactly, but I know they won 3.

    Nice work here Paul. I think you are playing it too safe with the prediction. As, for instance, things are shaping up better in the defensive front 7 than most think. I suppose that’s why they play the games. Still, last season was a dumpster fire of unfortunate events, and I fully expect the lessons learned and the talent returning to get that turned around. Beavs go bowling this year. And, yes, games that are “sure losses” like Wisconsin with a new QB in Corvallis, and BYU on the road are actually winnable games for the Beavs. If OSU finishes the season rated anywhere close to as low as 80th, I’ll eat my hat.

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