Oregon State concluded the 2013 season with a convincing 38-23 victory over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. We must wait almost eight months before the next Beavers football game. What are the top five things OSU must work to improve during the off-season?
1. Develop A Reliable Running Game: Somewhere along the way, the Beavers lost their sense of direction with the ground game. Mike Riley has always advocated a balanced pro-style attack, but when the season zipped past the midway point in mid-October Oregon State had fallen overzealously in love with Sean Mannion's powerful right arm and Brandin Cooks' pass catching ability, morphing into a one-dimensional offensive life form, particularly in the red zone.
The Beavers paid a steep price for that predictability in the form of four straight losses to decent defensive teams - Stanford, USC, Arizona State and Washington (three at Reser Stadium) - in which OSU threw the ball 197 times (49.3 passes per game) compared to 88 rushes (22.0 per game). During that four-game stretch, Oregon State threw the ball 69.1 percent of the time. Overall, Oregon State averaged just 94.4 rushing yards per game, one of the worst figures in Division I.
Riley realized the play-calling had to change. As a result, the Beavers focused intently on jumpstarting the morbid running game during the week of practice leading up to the Civil War, and ran the ball a season high 39 times in Eugene. Less than a month later, the run-pass ratio was 33-34 against Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl, a statistic that had Riley engaged in the 'what-if' game during his post-bowl press conference.
"It's almost like what-might-have been had the season started differently," Riley said. "Had we been healthy, we would have had some time to develop this and have some trust in it. It was almost out of desperation we found it late. It's really hard to live for any offensive lineman as much as we were throwing it against very good teams and really good defensive lines. The matchups are hard. We've gotten a real good snapshot of who we'd like to be the last two games."
Clearly, the top priority for the Beavers this offseason by a wide margin is figuring out ways to create running lanes for Storm Woods (many people predicted he would reach 1,000 yards this past season. He finished with 477), Terron Ward (team high 521 yards) and rising sophomore Chris Brown, who spent most of the 2013 season contributing on special teams but could challenge for one of the top two running back spots in the spring.
2. Reboot The Offensive Line: Most of the post-bowl attention focused squarely on Rashaad Reynolds (two fumble returns for touchdowns), Sean Mannion (24-of-33 for 259 yards) and Brandin Cooks (8 receptions), but Riley saved some of his highest praise for three senior offensive linemen - Michael Philipp (48 career starts), Josh Andrews (32) and Grant Enger (31). Replacing three key contributors along the offensive front is never easy, but that's the tough task likeable position coach Mike Cavanaugh faces over the next eight months.
Cohesive offensive line play doesn't magically happen overnight. Oregon State's 2014 offensive front should be built around rising junior center Isaac Seumalo and right tackle Sean Harlow, who made nine starts as a true freshman in 2013. Who will replace the departing seniors? Gavin Andrews (slowed by mono), Grant Bays (three starts at RG), Josh Mitchell (three starts at center), Roman Sapolu (started first two games at RG before suffering season-ending foot injury) and Garrett Weinreich (knee injury in August 2012) should all be in the mix during spring practice, and at least three of them will likely end up as starters.
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Right now, the best odds have Seumalo (underwent surgery to repair a broken foot suffered in the Hawaii Bowl) returning at center, while Harlow and Gavin Andrews earn the starting nods at tackle. OSU loses both starting guards, so the battle will be joined there in spring practice.
3. Find A New Go-To Receiver: In the last two years, Oregon State has been blessed with two elite, NFL-caliber wide recovers in Markus Wheaton (91 receptions in 2012; now playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers) and Brandin Cooks, who set Pac-12 single season records for receptions (128) and receiving yards (1,730) this past year. Who is the next great Oregon State wide receiver? Based on statistics, the answer could be rising junior Richard Mullaney. The 6-foot-3, 194-pounder was a distant second behind Cooks with 52 receptions for 788 yards (team-high 15.2 yards per catch) and three touchdowns.
After Mullaney, you must go nine places down the list before finding the next most productive returning wide receiver - Malik Gilmore (7 receptions for 76 yards). Exceptionally fast Victor Bolden showed promise as a true freshman kickoff returner (20.7 yards per return) in 2013, but he only had six receptions. Will Bolden be able to transfer his skills on special teams to the offensive side of the ball? We'll start getting an answer in spring practice. Three freshmen redshirted in 2013 - Jordan Villamin (still has academic issues), Hunter Jarmon and Walter Jones - and the trio should get long looks in the spring.
4. Settle On A Replacement For Scott Crichton: Crichton, a redshirt junior, declared for the NFL Draft after compiling 165 career tackles, 51 tackles-for-loss and 22.5 quarterback sacks in 38 career games (37 starts). He now ranks third all-time at OSU for tackles-for-loss and fourth in quarterback sacks after collecting 47 tackles, 19 TFL and 7.5 sacks in 2013. In other words, Crichton's level of production could be extremely difficult to replace.
The logical choice for Crichton's successor could be rising junior Lavonte Barnett, but he played sparingly this past season and finished with three tackles in 12 games. Jaswha James is also on the roster, but Akeem Gonzales was granted his release and has left the program. Whoever starts will play opposite Dylan Wynn. The potential shortage at defensive end could be a major reason the Beavers have secured commitments from four defensive ends in the 2014 class.
5. Figure Out The Best Defensive Alignment: Because the linebacker position should be one of the strongest positions on the team in 2014 with standout outside linebackers Michael Doctor and D.J. Alexander, both of whom battled injuries this past season, expected to return, Riley hinted in a recent interview that he could consider schematic changes. Does that mean a chance to the 3-4 as OSU's base defense? Perhaps. But nothing is definite right now.
However, a move to the 3-4 makes sense considering the depth and quality at the linebacker spot. Any offensive or defensive coach will tell you the goal is to get the best 11 players on the field. However, the Beaver players must be given time to grow comfortable with any newly configured defense, so the clock is ticking. Expect hours of meetings between Riley and defensive coordinator Mark Banker following National Signing Day.