Unless you are a Duck fan, it is hard not to be impressed with the football program at Oregon State. An $80 million-dollar stadium renovation, complete with luxury seating and the largest video screen in the Pac-10 has turned what was the worst stadium in the conference to one of the best gameday experiences in the west. Head coach Mike Riley has carved out a heck of a spot in Corvallis, leading the Beavers to a 47-38 record in his 7 seasons, including 19 victories over the last two. Not only have they done well overall, but while they toil with an arrogant, blow-hard cousin in the state of Oregon, they have more than held their own. Against the green-n-gold, Oregon State is now 4-2 in their last 6 Civil War showdowns. But the most impressive thing is not just the 19 wins over the last two years, but it's the manner in how those wins have occurred that makes you realize what they have is pretty unique in Mike Riley.
Case in point - in 2006, OSU got off to a lousy start, sitting at 2-3 after a 13-6 loss to our Cougs in Corvallis. They were faced with having to go to UW the following week, and there were rumors of Riley getting canned mid-season if the losing continued. There was even a well-publicized incident of a fan challenging QB Matt Moore to a fight at the end of the WSU game! Things were headed south in a hurry. But what happened? Riley took his kids into Seattle and they controlled UW, winning 27-17. From that point forward, they circled the wagons, winning 8 of their last 9 to close the season with a legendary come-from-behind Sun Bowl win over Missouri and getting to 10 wins in the process.
2007 was basically a Xerox of 2006. They started - you guessed it - 2-3, including an ugly 40-14 loss to UCLA at home. They suffered injuries to their vaunted offensive line, and they lost the top offensive playmaker in the Pac-10 next to Cal's DeSean Jackson in Sammie Stroughter with some off-the-field issues. When Stroughter did finally return, he immediately suffered a lacerated kidney and was done for the year, making 2007 a completely lost season. Yet what happened? After that horrible 2-3 start, they once again circled the wagons. Riley pulled the team together when it was again on the verge of falling apart. And suddenly, they closed out the season winning 7 of 8, including another Civil War and then the Emerald Bowl over Maryland to finish with 9 victories.
Pretty amazing. When the going gets tough and everyone writes them off, these guys are just getting started. They somehow dig deep and find a way to thrive with tons of adversity. That said, it's a whole new year, and questions abound. Here's a post-spring practice look at the Beavs:
2007: 9-4, including 6-3 in the conference, good for 3rd place.
Offensive Scheme: They are balanced with Danny Langsdorf as the OC, and will throw multiple looks at their opponents. They aren't another read-option shotgun offense, however, much more of a traditional one-back/west coast offense hybrid. The ground game is the focal point of the offense. All-everything RB Yvenson Bernard is finally gone, and they will miss his production on the field as well as his presence in the locker-room. New faces like Ryan McCants and Jeremy Francis will carry the load in '08.
McCants should be the starter, and is built like a mack truck at 6-1, 236. He reportedly had a very productive spring where he established himself as the man at tailback. They'll also mix in a speedy true frosh named Jacquizz Rodgers, a heralded recruit from Texas and the brother of last year's speedy frosh WR sensation, James Rodgers. Both McCants and Francis are green, however, with neither player touching the ball in a game last year.
The QB's were really up-and-down last year. Sean Canfield was given the job out of camp, but split time early in the year and never did live up the hype. He's a huge 6-4, 230 lb. lefty who was billed as the next big thing, but he had that nasty little habit of throwing interceptions. Try 15 of them in 11 games played last year, with only 9 TD's. Obviously it was his first shot at starting, and the sophomore was bound to make mistakes as he learned the ropes under constant fire. But he finished far below even the most modest expectations. Lyle Moevao took over for Canfield in the UW game, and things went OK as the victories piled up to close out the year, but his numbers weren't much to be excited about either. He threw just 2 TD passes while tossing 6 INT's, completing only 52% of his passes along the way. Seems all the more remarkable that these guys went 9-4 when their top two QB's combined to throw nearly twice as many interceptions compared to TD's!
Moevao had a strong spring session where he claimed the #1 job. Canfield missed the spring with a shoulder injury, so it's Moevao's job to lose heading into the fall. And the fans? They love him, and for good reason. He's the anti-robo-QB in every way, built like an outside linebacker or safety at 5-11, 230. But not only does he look the part, but he plays with reckless abandon. He made YouTube fame with his huge hit vs. UW's Greyson Gunheim last year. Check it out:
You can see why they love him down there.
Defensive Scheme: An aggressive, attacking 4-3 defense with linebackers and safeties that swarm to the football. The Beaver D was NUMBER ONE in the nation last year against the rush, giving up only 70.6 yards per game on the ground. They crushed our Cougs in Pullman last year in maybe the most forgettable game in the Bill Doba era, and that was all about their pressure defense forcing Brink into the worst game of his life. But that was last year. The dire news for OSU is that they lose 8 starters off that fantastic defense, including the entire front 7, which was one of the top front 7's in the nation. It could be a tough start to 2008 without all that senior leadership and experience on D this fall.
Top Offensive Player: Sammie Stroughter was expected to be all-everything as a senior last year, but was derailed with some family matters off the field and injuries on it. He received a medical redshirt, and all reports are positive based on how he looked this spring. In '06, he had a huge season, catching 74 balls for over 1200 yards and 5 TD's. He also took back 4 punts to the house:
If healthy and focused, he will be a huge asset to the offense and probably the TOP big-play guy in the Pac-10 for 2008
Top Defensive Player: Only 3 starters will be back next year, as the entire front-7 will be new. But there is a pass-rushing force back in '08. DE Victor Butler came off the bench for 12.5 tackles for loss last year, including an impressive 10.5 sacks. The speedy end is built like a linebacker at 6-2, 235, but gets after the QB with quickness and energy. His pass-rush ability, body type and speed reminds me a lot of WSU pass-rushing great D.D. Acholonu. He made the most of his opportunities last year as a pass-rushing specialist, but this year will see him as a starter. We'll see what he has in the tank as an every-down d-end.
Top Spring Questions:
1) We know about the QB job and the new faces on defense, but what about the special teams?
Groza Award winner Alexis Serna is gone, and he will be missed. But he really had a down senior year, hitting just 18-of-27 field goal attempts, including just 5-of-9 from 40-49 yards. For whatever reason he wasn't as effective as prior years. The new face is Justin Kahut, a Serna-like 5-8, 160 lbs soaking wet. Kahut played well this spring, including a pair of field goals from outside 50 yards in the spring game, so he'll likely be the starter by the opener.
2) With the D thinned out by graduation, beyond Victor Butler, who or what is left on that side of the ball?
Besides Butler, they also bring back another pass-rushing force in DE Slade Norris (great name!), who logged 9 sacks as a backup end last year. But like Butler, Norris wasn't a starter either in '07, as he came off the bench in passing situations. He has good juice on the outside, and teamed with Butler should give the Beaver front a fierce look against the pass. But all that said, the secondary looks the strongest. Three out of four starters are back, led by senior corner Brandon Hughes and his 57 tackles, as well as a couple of picks and a team-high 12 pass-breakups.
Hughes will join returning starter Keenan Lewis at corner, and safety Al Afalava is back as starting free safety. The Beaver secondary should be right there with USC and Oregon as the best in the conference this season.
Bottom Line: The schedule looks fairly tough to start the year, opening at Stanford and then going to Happy Valley to face Penn State in the second game of the season. After playing at home vs. Hawaii, they have a biggie vs. USC on 9/25. Then they go to Utah for a Thursday night game before hosting the Cougs on 10/11. They'll have 5 games under their belts by the time we get to town, so most of the new faces will have settled down by then and we'll get an idea of who these guys are. But right now it's pretty tough to tell how they will do in '08.
They are familiar with Wulff's schemes, throttling EWU in 2006 52-17. However, that was pre-Todd Sturdy and the no-huddle shotgun offense.
So, will this be the year that Riley's magic touch runs out? Is there enough here to circle the wagons if they get off to another slow start? There are so many faces gone from last year's team. They really will miss Bernard on offense, and all that talent is gone from the top rushing defense in America. But the cupboard isn't totally bare, and Riley has put together a strong program. I wouldn't put them up in the group with USC, ASU or even Oregon at this point, but they are squarely in the bowl-eligible pack of teams like Cal, UCLA and Arizona. We'll see!
ENJOY YOUR WEEKEND!