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August 2, 2012

Season preview: a look at games 1-6

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Looking to bounce back from last season’s disappointing 3-9 campaign, Oregon State opens the 2012 season at Reser Stadium in less than a month against a foe from Cajun Country. After that, they host a heavyweight from the Big 10 before closing out the first half of the slate by hitting the road for three of the next four games. Here’s how the opening six games of the 2012 schedule shapes up:
 
GAME 1: v. Nicholls State (Sept. 1)

No, Nicholls State isn’t the cost of bringing the Colonels all the way from Thibodaux, La. to Corvallis for the season opener. Probably a nice paycheck and a kettle of jambalaya in the visiting team locker room at Reser Stadium prior to the game. In most years, this would be considered a guaranteed win against a lowly Div. I-AA opponent. But last season’s disastrous opening loss to Sacramento State teaches us otherwise. The Beavers simply can’t afford to overlook any opponent.

Nicholls State, one of the worst Div. I-AA programs last season with a 1-10 record, couldn’t throw the football (No. 111 in passing offense) in 2011, which explains the decision to move athletic quarterback LaQuinton Caston to wide receiver. Caston led Nicholls in rushing last season with 707 net yards, but he completed only 52.5 percent of his passes. Second leading rusher Marcus Washington (565 yards in 2011) returns and was a pre-season All-Southland Conference selection along with senior running back Jesse Turner and tight end Nick Scelfo.         

GAME 2: v. Wisconsin (Sept. 8)

Preparing to halt Nicholls State’s rushing attack will bode well for the following week’s clash against perennially one of the top ground games in all of major college football. Quarterback Russell Wilson’s departure after just one season in Madison means Heisman Trophy contender Montee Ball should become the centerpiece of the Wisconsin offense. He carried 307 times for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2011, failing to reach the century mark only four times in 14 contests. He finished third nationally in rushing in the Badgers’ run-based offense. Clearly, containing Ball is essential for the Beavers in order to pull off what would be a momentous win. 

What gives Oregon State a chance to pull off the upset in Corvallis? Three things. First, Wisconsin is breaking in new six assistants and the trip to Reser Stadium marks their first contest together against a school from a BCS conference. The previous week, the Badgers welcome Div. I-AA Northern Iowa to Camp Randall Stadium for the opener. Second, they have a new quarterback (Danny O’Brien), a new offensive coordinator and must replace three starters along the offensive front, so precision on offense might still be lacking in week two.
 
Finally, Wisconsin’s defense was exposed in the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon as dreadfully slow (do you expect anything else from a Big 10 team?) and lacking playmakers capable of applying consistent pressure on the quarterback. As long as the Oregon State offense avoids becoming one-dimensional – which was too often the case last season - quarterback Sean Mannion and the Beavers’ talented wide receiver corps could enjoy some success in the passing game against the Badgers secondary.          

GAME 3: at UCLA (Sept. 22)

The first road trip of the season takes the Beavers to Los Angeles, where the Bruins are trying to recover from the lackluster Rick Neuheisel Era in more ways than one. New head coach Jim Mora, Jr. and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone have brought a fast-paced, no-huddle offense to Westwood. The biggest question, though, is who will actually take the snaps at quarterback. Spring practice didn’t solve the riddle with seniors Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut battling redshirt freshman Brett Hundley. Whoever prevails will spend part of his time handing off to senior Johnathan Franklin, one of the top running backs in the Pac-12. He averaged nearly six yards per carry in 2011, and heads into his final season with 2,669 yards and 18 touchdowns in his career.

In order to avenge last season’s 27-19 loss in Corvallis, the Beavers will look to take advantage of a thin UCLA offensive line, though the return of Xavier Su’a-Filo after a two-year mission will boost the Bruins.

Neuheisel brought some quality players to UCLA, but simply wasn’t able to seize the momentum in the city despite cross-town rival USC dealing with severe sanctions from the NCAA. Mora and his staff brought in a stellar class rated No. 13 in the Rivals.com national rankings and the third highest in the Pac-12. Some of those newcomers might be called upon in 2012, especially five-star defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy.     

GAME 4: at Arizona (Sept. 29)

The Beavers face another first-year head coach in a hostile environment. This week, OSU travels to the desert to face Arizona and new head coach Rich Rodriguez. Like UCLA, the Wildcats will feature a new look offense in 2012. Arizona utilized a spread passing game under former head coach Mike Stoops, who was fired midway through last season after a 1-5 start. Rodriguez, formerly the head coach at Michigan and West Virginia, has brought his spread option attack to Tucson. The run-first scheme, which relies primarily on the shotgun in a spread formation, didn’t work very well in three disappointing seasons Ann Arbor, but helped boost WVU into a national power. Which direction will Arizona go with Rodriguez in control?

Because of the seismic shift in Arizona’s offensive philosophy, the Beavers must prepare to defend the perimeter because that’s where most plays go in Rodriguez’s system. Don’t look for the Wildcats to throw much even though they have some talented wide receivers brought in by Stoops because Rodrigues loves speedy quarterbacks (remember Pat White?) capable of getting out onto the edge and turning upfield for big gains.

Defensively, Arizona will switch to a 3-3-5 stack scheme favored by Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel when they worked together at West Virginia. However, the back eight on defense in very thin and just a few injuries could prove disastrous. Oregon State put 37 points on the scoreboard against Arizona for one of their three wins in 2011. Will they do it again?     
   
GAME 5: v. Washington State (Oct. 6)

Another Saturday, another new coach facing the Beavers. This week it’s the quirky and quotable Mike Leach, who is celebrated around college football (except for ESPN, of course, a defendant in a law suit filed by Leach) for his brutal honesty and willingness to shoot from the hip. Equally idiosyncratic as Leach is his fast-paced, wide-open, quick strike offense that features crisp drops by quarterbacks, countless slants and short passes to give receivers space and the best opportunity  possible to pile up yards after catch. The scheme gave Big 12 defensive coordinators nightmares for a decade when Leach was the head coach at Texas Tech.

Although Leach is expected to take the Cougars’ offense to the next level in terms of energy and entertainment,  he won’t have to start from scratch. Some pieces from last season’s passing offense that finished ninth in the country are still around, including quarterbacks Jeff Tuel and Connor Holliday, who threw for nearly 500 yards against Arizona State last November but suffered a lacerated liver the following week. Because of that, Tuel has the inside track to the starting job. Wide receiver Marquess Wilson had 82 receptions last season, and looks to push beyond the 100-yard reception plateau in 2012. Since Leach is now his head coach, so anything is possible. Don’t be surprised if this game produces a shootout at Reser Stadium.

GAME 6: at BYU (Oct. 13)

Welcome to Year 2 of T.I.E. (TV-Driven Independent Experiment) for Brigham Young. The stretch of three road contests in four weeks concludes with a trip to Provo for the back end of a home-and-home series with BYU. The Cougars survived a 38-28 test last year in Corvallis that was part of a five-game winning streak in the middle of the season. Although BYU went 10-3 a year ago after leaving the Mountain West Conference, the list of victims included UCF, Utah State, San Jose State, Idaho State, Idaho, New Mexico State and Hawaii. Not exactly Murderer’s Row.

The emergence of Riley Nelson, a former transfer from Utah State, at quarterback after a slow start by BYU in 2011 convinced former heralded prospect Jake Heaps to transfer to Kansas. Nelson, who ranked 16th nationally in passing efficiency (57 percent completion rate), will start the season in control of BYU’s West Coast offense. He will still have his primary weapon on offense – running back Michael Alisa and wide receiver Cody Hoffman.

Head coach Bronco Mendenhall serves as his own defensive coordinator and looks for improvement from last season when the Cougars finished 13th nationally in total defense.



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