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A Reasonably Anticipatory Assessment of: Oregon State

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A random look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Oregon State...
2006 Record
10-4 (6-3 Pac Ten, 3rd)
Past Five Years
38-25 (22-19 Pac Ten)
Returning Starters, Roughly
17 (8 Offense, 9 Defense)
Best Player
It would have been easily possible for a serious fan based somewhere other than the West Coast to go all of 2006 without absorbing the name Sammie Stroughter, though just about everybody recognizes his lasting contribution to the season in the form of the "oh shit" moment of the USC game, his punt return to put OSU up three touchdowns in the third quarter. That game was Stroughter’s best (8 catches, 127 yards) and that trip to the end zone was his third of the year on a return. Elsewhere: he averaged an all-America-worthy 17.5 on 74 catches, dreams of opening his own Boys and Girls Club, loves his momma and is "the most fun guy day to day" Mike Riley has ever been around. Yes, there’s so much to love about Sammie Stroughter.

Duly acknowledged: Alex Serna, who is still associated mainly with that one game at LSU. A stereotypically tempermental kicker could have melted down after that debut and transfered to somewhere he could be a respectable historian in obscurity. Instead, he comes back as a senior considered the best in the country at his position.

Bizarre Tradition
An idea whose time has come nationwide: in 1999, Oregon and Oregon State began their own mini-Director’s Cup by awarding points for head-to-head wins in the dramatically-dubbed "Civil War" series in all sports – the winner of the football game gets two points, and wins in every other sport count for one point (the schools play twice in every other sport) for a total of 17 points over the entire athletic season. Your friendly Northwest Dodge Dealers sponsor the annual "Civil War Cup," awarded three times to date to Oregon, three times to Oregon State, and shared in 2000-01 thanks to a shocking draw in women’s soccer.
Bizarre Item of Dubious Interest
Before there was Benny Beaver, Oregon State employed something I’ve never seen or heard of before: a human mascot. Not a human dressed up as a mascot, but an actual human, Presbyterian minister and Board of Regents honcho John Richard Newton Bell, whose support for turn-of-the-century Oregon State sports was so intense he appeared in newspapers and yearbooks as the school’s "official mascot" beginning in the 1890s (replacing "Jimmie," a coyote). His ceremonial march/hat toss into the Marys River after each OSU win over Oregon became "one of Corvallis' most anticipated social events" and a local ritual by the 1920s, well after the adoption of "Beavers." The football field was named after Bell until 1951.

What's the Same: If you're very beholden to returning starters, the Beavers are  another above-average-looking West Coast threat returning just about the whole kit (with one notable exception, probably keeping OSU from unanimous top 15 status, which we'll get to momentarily - and for the record, it's not suspiciously white, 4.3-running strong safety prototype Sabby Piscitelli, the team's only first-day draft pick). The offense alone returns a durable runner with consecutive 1,300-yard, 35-plus-catch seasons, three different offensive linemen among four returning starters who appeared on somebody's all-Pac Ten team and another in an emerging line of overlooked, first-class wideouts who act as a one-man Oregon Vortex relative to the solenoidal vorticity of the ball (Sammie Stroughter follows the recent tradition of too-obscure reception magnets Chad Johnson, James Newson and Mike Hass).

The overall rushing stats - 81st nationally, to 24th in passing - betray the balance of the offense, which relied more often on the run and specifically on the short, stout Bernard, who hasn't been properly shut down a single time in two years; in his "worst" game, last year's momentum-killing 25-7 loss at UCLA, he was still good for 54 yards, and he's slugged out an amazing average of 27.5 carries in Pac Ten games. That load puts him outside even Cedric Benson levels of endurance.

No rest for the weary.
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Yet the sheer number of touches is also evidence of Bernard's consistency as a major cog, not the motor - he had two runs all of last year longer than 20 yards (his long carry was a 28-yard sprint in the bowl game), and the Beavers beat USC without him, albeit with a plus-four turnover average and touchdowns on special teams and defense, not a suddenly unburdened, wide-open passing attack. Ron Jaworski uses the NFL aphorism "throw to score, run to win," and this applies pretty well to Riley's pro style approach here: Benson Bernard is a road-grading, chain-moving, short-yardage plowhorse par excellence, but the Beavers are just as beholden to getting the ball downfield to Stroughter and Anthony Wheat-Brown.

What's Changed: Which brings us to the all-important x-factor in this bunched-up league, the acclamation of Sean Canfield to the quarterback role in place of Matt Moore, whose epochal interception-shaving alone - just seven picks last year, down from an NCAA-worst 19 as a junior, and, not coincidentally, only one INT during the 6-1 finish - facilitated the corresponding leap from five wins to ten. The most experienced passer on the roster is senior Ryan Gunderson, but his only extended time resulted in embarrassing losses to Stanford and Oregon at the end of `05, so the backup position last year and starting job this spring fell to `04 recruiting prize Canfield, who has only totally irrelevant mop-up duty to recommend him to date.

Everything around him should be beneficial to Canfield's success in terms of experience and production, but he'll also have to help himself, if the beating Moore took in his pocket-bound tenure is any indication - OSU allowed 32 sacks in `05 and 35 last year. Canfield is alleged to have more mobility, and it'll come in handy.

The Year of Living Dangerously: The defense was no better against the run last year but was one of the most improved in the country in scoring defense (eleven fewer points allowed per game than in '05) because its previously bottom-dwelling pass rush was a mad-blitzing terror, leading the Pac Ten and finishing third nationally with 47 QB takedowns, virtually all of which return along the front seven. The only standout rusher was end Dorian Smith (9 sacks), who is technically not even a returning starter, but the wealth was spread around; linebackers Darrin Doggett and Alan Darlin were next with five apiece.

Getting to the quarterback had two residual effects on scoring, besides the obvious: a) the pass efficiency defense leapt from 107th in 2005 to a respectable 46th, and takeaways shot up from 22 to 35. The corresponding dip in giveaways by Moore led to a nice plus-eight margin. What kind of difference does that shift make in a season?

OSU in One-Score Games, 2006
Result TO Margin
Wash. State L, 6-13 -2
at Arizona W, 17-10 0
Southern Cal W, 33-31 + 4
Oregon W, 30-28 + 1
at Hawaii W, 35-32 + 2
vs. Missouri W, 39-38 0

The five wins the Beavers picked up over their exceedingly generous 2005? Right there: Oregon State is 14-2 the last two years when it falls on the right side of the turnover fence, or even just straddles it, and 1-8 when it doesn't. Extrapolating strictly from personnel, one of the responsible factors in last season's rise - vastly improved pass rush - figures to be a force in OSU's favor again. The other, competent quarterbacking, is an unanswerable void.

What's In a Name? About A Thousand Consecutive Vowels, I Hope: I'm on the record confirming this blog's longstanding endorsement of huge, nasty Polynesian linemen, and based on the Beavers' incoming recruiting class, its defensive front as soon as next year could theoretically consist of Latu Moala, Sioeli Nau, Jesse Fifita, Castro Masaniai, David Paaluhi and, most tantalizingly, Tanu Tuimalealiifano, to say nothing of returning tackles William 'Akau'ola Vea and Taani Fuahala. That is a formidable lineup, for uniform stitchers and Corvallis copy readers, if nothing else.

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter: Canfield is still fighting out of the spring with Lyle Moevao, who is supposedly the athletic one despite his oompa loompa proportions (5-11, 230). But the former had a better spring game, completing 17 of 30 for 224 to Moeva's 13 of 28 (as well as a fumble on a busted play that went the other way for a touchdown) while leading the Black team to a 20-0 halfime lead. Gunderson replaced Moeva and brought the White back to within 20-14 on a pair of touchdown drives in the second half. All very official, of course, very scientific, but Canfield apparently will have to have the position wrested away.

Plus, plenty of extra-practice excitement: Mike Riley, extended, new uniforms that kinda look like sports bras and cuddly sweetness.

Oregon State on YouTube: What do you get when you ask a student filmmaker to produce a promotional ad for his school as a class project? A technically proficient effort with surprising patience...

... and not a single shot of campus or anything related to it. Why Oregon State? You can drive around the mountains and relax toking by the lake instead of going to class, I suppose.

Good job, dude. As far as university promos go, it's a thumb's up.

See Also: A season of serious drama, all of it great for OSU: How do you beat USC? Make those bastards fumble ... How do you beat your hated rival when they line up for a gimme kick to win? Block that shit ... How do you finish an unlikely comeback in a bowl game? Go for it. Risk? Risk? It's the Sun Bowl. What?

Conventional Wisdom: Middle of the pack, where the Pac Ten is concerned, but the magazines like OSU nationally - The Sporting News, Athlon and Street and Smith's all have the Beavers fourth in the conference behind USC, UCLA and Cal, but the latter two rank OSU in the top 25, and TSN has it 29th. Phil Steele is a mild dissenter, seeing five `06 bowl teams on the road as reason enough to drop Oregon State to sixth in the conference, good enough for the Armed Forces Bowl. Steele is alone in his love for Oregon instead, and also the only prognosticator who envisions Arizona State ahead of the Beavers.

Real men, secure in their Beaverdom. They don't have a choice, really.
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Best-Case: The first two games, Thursday nighters against Utah and Cincinnati, are interesting tone-setters for all relevant, ambitious parties; a team with aspirations beyond the Sun Bowl will win both of those, win at Arizona State, handle UCLA at home and go into Berkeley at 6-0. From there, with Cal, USC, Washington State and Oregon on the road, there will be two losses, minimum. Maximum efficiency from Canfield, though, could be enough in a string of close games to win ten in the regular season. That's way optimistic, but aside from the Trojans - last year's game in Corvalis doesn't persuade me a bit where this version of SC is concerned - every conference game seems within reach, and therefore the Holiday Bowl is, too. Aside from the 2000 Fiesta Bowl, that would be by far OSU's biggest prize in decades.

Worst-Case: "Within reach" is one side of the coin, but on the other, virtually every Pac Ten game not involving USC or Stanford is a toss-up, before we even consider dangerous Utah and Cincinnati coming into the picture. A slow start by Canfield or any of the other quarterbacks against the mid-major challenges is bad for morale going into the crucial stretch of Arizona State, UCLA, Arizona and Cal, a very plausible formula for a 1-6 dive by mid-October. If the Beavers are down, they could also lose to someone in the basement-dwelling Stanford-Washington-Washington State triumverate, with no hope at USC or Oregon, and all that ill fortune would good, er, bad enough to produce a 3-9 wreck that may or may not heed certain contract extensions. That may be the widest gap from "ceiling" to "floor" of any team I've looked at since March.

Non-Binding Forecast: Riley's job is not really in trouble, even remotely. Strike that suggestion, strike the notion for now this team might possibly regress that badly. The inexperience at quarterback is strike one against improvement; the unlikely carryover of the fate/maturity that turned so many close games for the Beavers last year is strike two. But this remains a veteran squad that can play defense, should still be able to run the ball, at least, and is outstanding on special teams. If roughly six of the nine conference games are toss-ups, those qualities ought to be worth wins in three of them. I give the Beavers 8-4 or 7-5, depending on what happens in the first two games, and a solid trip to the Insight or Emerald Bowl. I don't see much to suggest a departure in either direction from the norm.

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Previous assessments, reasonable and absurd...

March 12: Tulane March 13: Baylor March 16: UCLA March 20: Kentucky
March 21: Oregon March 22: Arizona State March 23: BYU March 27: Missouri
March 28: Troy March 29: Iowa State April 3: Alabama April 4: Akron
April 5: Cincinnati April 9: UL-Monroe April 10: Army April 11: Syracuse
April 18: Florida April 20: Southern Miss April 25: Southern Cal May 1: North Texas
May 3: SMU May 8: Nevada May 14: Tennessee May 21: TCU
May 24: Notre Dame May 29: UAB May 30: Georgia May 31: Temple
June 1: Houston June 12: Wyoming June 14: Nebraska June 25: Florida International