Coming off the biggest turnaround in school history, Oregon State is looking to take an even bigger step forward this season.
Coach Mike Riley’s team, though, isn’t going to surprise anyone this time around.
The 25th-ranked Beavers try to get off to good start when they host Eastern Washington of the FCS on Saturday.
Oregon State came out of nowhere to win its first six games in 2012, matching its best start since 1907. The Beavers, who climbed their way to as high as No. 7 in the country, finished 9-4 after going 3-9 the previous season.
“I actually think this team learned a lot about what it took to win games,” said Riley, whose team finished third in the Pac-12 North division. “Hopefully, they’ll continue with that growth.”
Despite losing star receiver Markus Wheaton and All-American cornerback Jordan Poyer to the NFL, Oregon State is poised to make plenty of noise again. The Beavers return four starters on the offensive line, as well as several key defensive cogs on a unit that surrendered 20.6 points per game to rank second in the conference.
“Last year a lot of people doubted us, and look what we showed,” said receiver Brandin Cooks, named to the Biletnikoff Award preseason watch list. “We’re still getting doubted. All that does is fuel the fire and makes us work harder. With that being said, I feel like we can go down and win the Rose Bowl and win this conference. That’s something we’re shooting for. We set our standards high.”
After hauling in 67 receptions and finishing seventh in school history with 1,151 receiving yards, Cooks could do even more damage as Sean Mannion’s clear-cut go-to option. Mannion beat out Cody Vaz for the starting quarterback job Monday after sharing first-team reps in camp.
Mannion, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in early October, threw for 2,446 yards with 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 10 games - eight starts. Plagued by a left ankle injury late in the season, Vaz recorded 1,480 passing yards with 11 touchdowns and three picks in eight games - five starts.
“Sean’s attributes are obviously his ability to get the ball just about wherever you want on the field,” Riley said of Mannion, whose 64.7 completion percentage ranked fourth in the Pac-12. “Along with his knowledge about where we’re going and what he should do with the ball.”
The Beavers are also expecting big things from their dynamic running back duo. Storm Woods compiled 940 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last year, while Terron Ward ran the ball 58 times for 383 yards and six scores over the final six games.
Oregon State has taken both matchups against Eastern Washington, most recently winning 56-17 on Aug. 31, 2006.
The Eagles, though, are looking to make a statement after coming up just short against Pac-12 foes in each of the last two seasons. Eastern Washington fell 30-27 at Washington in 2011 before suffering a 24-20 loss at Washington State last September.
The Eagles, who went 11-3 last year, are 0-9 all-time against current Pac-12 teams and 8-20 versus the FBS.
“I love being in those environments competing, fighting and putting it all out there,” coach Beau Baldwin, whose team is ranked third in the FCS preseason poll, told the school’s official website.
“Our players love it. Our guys grew up hoping to get recruited by a Pac-12 school, so when they get a chance at Eastern Washington to play a team from that conference, they want to show that they are right there with them.”
After splitting time with senior quarterback Kyle Padron last year, Vernon Adams is expected to carry the offense. The sophomore averaged 224.1 passing yards and posted a 165.6 passer rating in the eight games in which he attempted at least 15 passes, throwing 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Eastern Washington hasn’t faced a ranked opponent since getting blown out 59-7 at then-No. 10 California on Sept. 12, 2009.