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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Oregon State

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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What’s Changed. From the school’s spring prospectus, a quick summary of the Beaver defense against the run:

That's, uh, pretty good: for the season, opposing offenses averaged about 83 yards less than their season average on the ground, and only UCLA, Cal and Oregon – strong running teams to begin with, and the latter two close Beaver wins – had any success at all trying to pound away. That’s how you get to be the number one run defense in the country (see the YouTube section below).

Here’s the other thing about the defense, again courtesy the spring prospectus:

That's one unusually healthy, monolithic starting lineup: the eleven regular first-teamers yielded only eight starts all season to backups, and every one of those regulars started at least ten of thirteen games. Now, print that out, take a red pen, and cross through all 89 starts by the front seven starters, as well as all ten by the strong safety, Drayton. What’s left is the corners, Lewis and Hughes, and the free safety, Aflava, and that’s all that returns from the second-best total defense (behind USC) in the Pac Ten. Smith, Van Orsow, Doggett, Darlin and LaRocque were all multi-year starters who were voted first or second-team all-Pac Ten as seniors.

The least you should know about Oregon State...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 9-4 (6-3 Pac Ten; 3rd)
2003-07: 39-24 (24-18 Pac Ten)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*-
2004-08: 26 • 46 • 47 • 47• 52
Returning Starters, Roughly
11 (8 Offense, 3 Defense)
Best Player
When I previewed the Beavers last year, this box went to Sammie Stroughter, so it might seem a little unfair to drop Stroughter – who earned an extra year after a knee injury in the fourth game – in favor of guard Jeremy Perry, who was hurt in the opener and also wound up with only three starts. What can I say? That’s what tipping the scales at 330 pounds (and not temporarily wigging out before the season) will get you. Perry was all-Pac Ten in 2006 and is still considered a first or second round pick in ‘09 despite the injury and despite playing a position that rarely lends itself to the big money rounds.
In Other News...
Oregon Agricultural College is the proud alma mater of Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling, but orbital hybridization, the tetravalency of carbon and the formation of the concept of electronegativity are small potatoes next to the fish Corvallis let get away: feted animation guru Brad Bird attented Corvallis High School, only to bolt for a design school in California. Anyone who’s more down with the X-ray crystallography that made possible the discovery of the double helix in DNA than with The Iron Giant is just un-American, man.
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* According to Rivals.

That leaves a huge learning curve. There are two guys on the defensive line, rising seniors Victor Butler and Slade Norris, who have a lot of playing time off the bench the last couple seasons and who actually finished 1-2 on the team in sacks last year (Butler had 10.5, Norris had nine). It’s clear why they were pass rush specialists, though – where Dorian Smith and Jeff Van Orsow each weighed in the 260-265 range, Norris is listed at 245 and Butler at 235, suggesting they’ll have a tougher time holding up against the every-down pounding of non-spread running games. I don’t know of any team as good as OSU was up front the last two years that could lose two all-conference ends and three all-conference linebackers and not expect a major drop off.

What’s the Same. Say what you will about OSU’s two-quarterback system, but you have to concede this for ‘08: it has to be better. Really, it has to be, since Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao threw more than twice as many interceptions as touchdowns against defenses other than Idaho State and combined for the highest interception percent, lowest touchdown percent, lowest yards per attempt and second-worst passer rating in the conference. Excluding the aforementioned scrimmage vs. Idaho State, Canfield threw an astounding 13 interceptions in his first five games, five in the loss to Arizona State alone; Moevao managed to win all four of his starts late in the season, but Canfield returned from a shoulder injury in the second quarter of the bowl win, played most of the game and finished with better numbers across the board.

 

Their struggles were reminiscent of Matt Moore’s mistake-prone debut in 2005, when he generally moved the offense but sabotaged the Beavers’ season by lobbing up 19 interceptions, most in the nation. He cut that number by almost a third in 2006, and OSU’s wins doubled, from five to ten. Given the attrition on defense is likely to put more pressure on the offense (last year, it was usually vice versa), they’ll need the same kind of improvement from Moevao and/or Canfield for the same effect.

 

The Greater the Stroughter, the Greater the Glory. It takes a really bizarre set of circumstances to constitute an even bigger unknown than an entirely new front seven, and so I give you Sammie Stroughter: from full-time return man his first two years to all-purpose receiving star in 2006 to preseason no-show to injury casualty to fifth-year senior whose jersey number is scheduled to be replaced with a big question mark. Stroughter came out of his self-imposed hiatus to play in three games last year, in which he came up empty against Cincinnati, predictably dominated Idaho State and played well against Arizona State (6 catches, 102 yards) before going down for the season with a knee injury. 

 

There are no other playmakers on the offense: two other veteran receivers, the deliciously-named Anthony Wheat-Brown and Brandon Powers, graduated, as did three-time 1,200-yard workhorse Yvenson Bernard at running back. The quarterback situation being what it is, the only standing in the way of a cloud-of-dust fest with the new running back is Stroughter’s belated return to form.

 

Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. With Canfield’s shoulder still giving him problems, viva la Moevao!:

Canfield had surgery on his left throwing shoulder in January and won't participate in contact drills this spring. He is expected to be ready for the 2008 season.
[...]
"The doctor told me he could play another year like it was, but it was better to get it done for the long term," coach Mike Riley said.

With Canfield out, Moevao has a chance to solidify his hold on the starting job. [...]
"Lyle finished the season starting and he's going to enter spring with all the turns," Riley said. "He's going to enter fall camp taking the snaps. The only real thing I can say is he's our starting quarterback."

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Take heed, young Lyle: many fortunes have been made by default: Lou Gehrig, Calvin Coolidge, Hitler’s interest in politics after rejection from art school. All of them ended splendidly. There is no shame in ‘I guess.’ 

Oregon State on You Tube. You know how you know the "number one rushing defense" thing wasn’t a fluke? In a crucial spot in a crucial game against then-undefeated, No. 2-ranked Cal last October:

Either the Bears need to get a bigger short-yardage back, or Justin Forsett needs to do a few more squats. For the Seahawks, I mean.

See Also: OK, so Oregon State’s golf teams clinched last year’s Civil War Series for the Beavers, yeah? Type in "Oregon State golf," and the result is so, so much better than golf ... Incompetent officiating at the end of the Washington game ... And really, "Civil War" fans, you call this a fight? This is a fight.

 

Best-Case: Slow and steady finishes somewhat respectably in the race. OSU does not look like a contender for the Pac Ten title in any way, but it has finished toward the bottom of the AP’s top 25 the last two years, and teams used to winning a little don’t go away easily. The question is whether, amid so many departures, this is really the same team. Most of the schedule still looks lke a toss-up, which is nothing new, and the Beavers have proven extremely adept at winning those either-or games when they win the turnover margin. More maturity at quarterback and a veteran, run-friendly offensive line bodes well for that number, and for keeping the defensive noobs off the field, which puts seven wins squarely in reach. If they keep their head above water long enough, a late season upset or another bowl win could get them to eight wins for the third year in a row, which has never happened in school history.

 

Worst-Case: No...No, those Beavers are dead. I watched them die! The fact is, this year could get really ugly, really fast: in the first five games, Stanford is a strong upset threat, Penn State and USC are likely losses and Hawaii and Utah are potentially two of the toughest outs in the mid-major ranks. A 1-4 start is not at all out of the question for a team with so many holes, and who knows where the spiral goes from there with the meat of the Pac Ten schedule ahead. Riley’s worst season in his second go-round in Corvallis is 2005, when the Beavers were 5-6, 3-5 in the conference. Things have come a long, long way since the 1998 team in Riley’s first stint considered finishing 5-6 a breakthrough, but for the sketchy quarterbacking and defensive youth alone – not to mention the lack of proven skill talent on offense – the bad old days are very much a reality, temporarily.

 

Non-Binding Forecast: Avoid Complete Collapse or Bust. Bowl eligibility is about 50-50 unless there is some spectacular secret in the wings Riley saw fit to keep sheathed last year. Stroughter may be something like that, but even if he is, pessimism abounds for the rest of the skill positions on offense – quarterback foremost among them – and for the front seven on defense, which can’t possibly match last year’s success. Whatever good things can be said about the prospects here amount to the fact that Oregon State has been a solid program the last two years and Stanford, Arizona, Washington and Washington State haven’t. Very little separates any of them on paper, though, and if OSU has turned a corner in the long-term, that probably only means struggling to 6-6 this year when things could be much worse.