An absurdly premature assessment of the 2010 Beavers.
What's Changed. With seasoned seniors Sean Canfield and Lyle "Crackback" Moeavao both moving on after alternating over three solid, yeoman's seasons under center, the only quarterback listed on the spring depth chart was redshirt sophomore-to-be Ryan Katz, a former three-star prospect with a decent set of offers as a recruit but zero meaningful snaps in an actual game. Late season blowouts in both directions gave Katz a chance to get in a little garbage-time duty, but his general lack of experience opens the door for former Virginia starter Peter Lalich, a big (6'4", 222), formerly hyped recruit with almost two years in OSU's system since showing up out of the blue on the recommendation of his old coach, Al Groh, after he was booted from UVA against Groh's wishes two games into the '08 season.
Either way, the offense is likely to be less pass-oriented than it was last year under Canfield, who emerged as easily the most accurate and one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the Pac-10. Mike Riley's teams always live and die with the success of the zone running game (see below), not so much the quarterback, and the leash should be significantly tighter on the new starter until he's found a comfort zone.
What's the Same. Katz and/or Lalich will inherit a pretty good situation on offense, namely the opportunity to distribute the ball to one of the Flying Rodgers Brothers on almost every play: Either James or Jacquizz wound up with the ball on more than 50 percent of the Beavers' offensive snaps last year, together accounting for almost two-thirds of the team's total offense. With his contributions as a return man and occasionally lethal running threat on his patented speed sweeps, James Rodgers not only led the Pac-10 in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, but in all-purpose yards, as well, for which he set a single-season school record with 2,328.
As dependent as the offense is on establishing the run between the tackles, though, getting four linemen back who started every game last year -- and have a combined 72 career starts, not including another 20 by frequent blockers Brady Camp and Joe Halahuni at tight end and H-back, respectively -- is just as essential to keep Quizz on the steady, prolific pace of his first two seasons. His success opens up the rest of the offense.
Pressure, under pressure. If anything has defined Oregon State defensively in Riley's second go-round, it's pressure: With a steady, diverse pass rush led by ends Dorian Smith, Victor Butler and Slade Norris, the Beavers finished in the top five nationally in sacks per game and in the top 10 in tackles for loss three years in a row from 2006-08, and subsequently led the nation against the run in 2007; Butler and Norris alone brought down opposing quarterbacks more than 40 times between them in 2007-08. That burgeoning tradition ran into a reinforced wall last year, when significant attrition from the '08 defense left the front seven without any reliable pass rushers (tackle Stephen Paea led the team with just three sacks), especially over the first half of the year -- OSU registered all of four sacks in the first seven games, and not coincidentally gave up at least 28 points in all four against winning teams, shootout losses at the hands of Cincinnati (28-18), Arizona (37-32) and USC (42-36) and a home win over Stanford (38-28).
That picked up a little over the second half of the season, when the Beavers logged four sacks against both UCLA and Washington and dropped Oregon backs for a loss on 10 different occasions in the regular season finale. But the usual trouble from the outside was almost wholly absent, and OSU desperately needs senior Gabe Miller -- once the top-ranked recruit in the state out of high school in 2006 -- to finally live up to the hype as a consistent presence in the rush, or yield the role to a younger player. The top candidates: Sophomore Taylor Henry or incoming JUCO transfer Dominic Glover. Five-star defensive end recruit Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who spurned the Beavers for UCLA on signing day, could have made an instant impact here.
Quizz du Soleil. Only one moment could have possibly topped a lamé-clad luchador crashing the BCS title game for sheer absurdity during the bowl season, and the Rodgers Brothers, as always, delivered in spades prior to the Las Vegas Bowl:
Don't ask for an explanation. Don't try to figure it out. Just let it exist.
Overly Optimistic Mildly Disconcerting Spring Chatter. Two notable departures from the defense prior to the start of spring practice next week: Cornerback David Ross, a former four-star recruit who transferred to Portland State in search of more playing time after three years toiling on special teams, and linebacker David Pa'aluhi, a returning starter who left the team last month to join the military. Pa'aluhi finished second on the team in tackles last year and leaves an obvious hole at middle linebacker; Ross, despite his lack of playing time, was ostensibly one of the most talented players in the secondary and had a chance to compete with Brandon Hardin for the vacant right cornerback job. On the bright side, that leaves more reps for sophomore cornerback/safety Jordan Poyer, a special teams standout as a true freshman, who spurned the Beaver baseball team to be a part of spring practice.
Best-Case. Along with the Rodgers Brothers, the veteran line gives the offense a chance to be pretty good without an outstanding contribution from the quarterback; if Katz or Lalich is able to keep defenses honest by approximating Canfield's production as a passer, the Beavers should be in every game. The Pac-10 schedule is backloaded, with all of the likely league heavies -- USC, Stanford and Oregon -- coming in the last three weeks. OSU can very plausibly get to that stretch at 5-1 through the first six conference games, setting up a genuine shot at the Rose Bowl with a split in the USC and Oregon games in Corvallis. Even if the chips fall against them, tiebreaker-wise, a nine-win season and Holiday Bowl berth would still be the best finish since Riley resumed the helm in 2003.
Worst-Case. It will likely take another better-than-average effort from the new QB to keep the Beavers in a lot of games, because the defense badly lacked playmakers last year and doesn't have any obvious candidates this time around, either. So far, Jacquizz Rodgers has had the benefit of a respectable passing game to keep defenses from zeroing in on him; if Katz/Lalich can't provide that, the entire attack could grind to a halt. Somehow, OSU wound up on the hook for road trips to both of last year's Fiesta Bowl upstarts, TCU and Boise State, in the first three games, with a non-gimme against Louisville in between. An admirable opening month, but also one that threatens to knock the Beavers on their heels -- a 1-2 start seems more likely than not -- before the start of Pac-10 play, where the usual parity could exploit a weak link under center (or on defense) to drop them below .500 for the first time since 2005.
Non-Binding Forecast. The questions about the quarterback and the overall talent level on defense figure to keep the Beavers from seriously competing for the Pac-10 title, but this team has been far too competent and consistent for the last four years to expect anything less than the standard sweep against the bottom half of the conference and at least one valiant strike at an upset against the top. The stock answer -- 8-4 on a collision course with the Emerald or Sun Bowls -- seems more than appropriate again for another stock edition off the assembly line.