2012 Oregon State Preview: Sugar Daddies And Margins For Error

CORVALLIS OR - DECEMBER 04: Markus Wheaton #2 of the Oregon State Beavers runs against Eddie Pleasant #11 of the Oregon Ducks during the 114th Civil War on December 4 2010 at the Reser Stadium in Corvallis Oregon. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Oregon State doesn't have the billionaire benefactor that its in-state rival does, but Mike Riley was able to patch together a lovely run of success regardless, that is until last year, when the wheels came flying off. Can the Beavers bounce back in one of the country's toughest divisions? Related: Oregon State's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Beavers football, visit Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes.

From 1920 to 1970, Oregon State went to three Rose Bowls, and Oregon went to one. The Beavers had finished in the nation's Top 15 five times to Oregon's once. They had produced the 1962 Heisman Trophy winner, Terry Baker. Oregon State's was far from the most storied program in the world, but since Tommy Prothro's hire in 1955 through 1970, OSU had finished under .500 only once. It had turned into a consistently solid program if nothing else, and a more successful one than what the Ducks from Eugene were producing 45 miles to the south.

In 1971, an Oregon graduate named Phil Knight commissioned a young college student to create a logo for his burgeoning athletic shoe company.

After each program fell apart in the 1970s (especially OSU) and underwent lengthy rebuilding projects, Oregon started feeling the effects of Phil Knight's success with Nike. After donating $25 million for the construction of a new law center in the late-1980s and donating toward the creation of the Knight Library, he shifted his focus to athletics and has quite possibly donated or pledged over $200 million to the athletic department through the years. And to say the least, Oregon's fortunes have turned in a positive direction.

Before 1994, the Ducks had finished in the final AP football poll just once (ninth in 1948). Now they've been there 11 of the past 18 seasons, and they have finished 11th or better in each of the last four. They have done so not just with money, marketing and crazy Nike uniforms, of course; they also hired strong coaches, and they are recruiting better and better in the process.

Oregon State, meanwhile, has at least patched together success rivaling that of the 1960s. Dennis Erickson led them to an 11-1 finish in 2000, and after a 5-6 season in 2001, the Beavers would finish below .500 only once from 2003-09. Under Mike Riley, the Beavers were ranked for at least a portion of every season from 2006-10 and won five bowl games in six years. But their wins came the hard way.

Without a particularly wealthy athletic department, the Beavers have been forced to schedule tough over the years, which adds to your respect level and subtracts from your win total. And when injuries began to take a cruel toll in 2010 -- and especially 2011 -- we began to see what money and fancy facilities can buy: depth. Oregon has it, and Oregon State does not. After winning 36 games from 2006-09, OSU won just five in 2010 and just three in 2011.

College sports are the perfect landscape for what-ifs, especially college football with its pointy ball. What if the ball had bounced this way instead of that? What if Recruit A had chosen School B instead of School C? But one of the bigger what-ifs in recent football history didn't even take place on a football field. What if Knight had pursued a different profession? His father was the publisher of The Oregon Journal, after all; what if he had chosen journalism for his career path? What if he had chosen to stay 45 miles closer to home and attend Oregon State (or any other school, for that matter)?

Phil Knight has directly impacted the game of college football, and it has been to Oregon State's severe detriment in the Civil War rivalry. Oregon State once dominated the rivalry, going 28-7-2 versus the Ducks from 1936-74. But they've gone 6-12 since 1994 and just 9-27 since 1975. Is there a road back for the Beavers in this series? And perhaps more importantly, is there a road back to respectability for Mike Riley's program in general?


Related: Check out Oregon State's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Oregon State last July:

So what exactly is the reward for playing the tough schedule we say we all desire? Oregon State got a pat on the back for taking on TCU and Boise instead of UTEP and Idaho (which would have netted them a 7-5 record and a bowl bid), but they also became a national afterthought, written off as mediocre and forgotten. With the power that human polls still carry in college football, and the general homogenous treatment of wins and losses -- if you win, you move up; if you lose, you move down; opponent matters little -- the respect you earn from building challenging schedules does not equally offset the risk of losing games against those schedules. What we desire and what we reward are very different. […]

I respect the hell out of the job Mike Riley has done in his second stint at Oregon State ... and I'm going to assume he will once again put a Top 40-quality team on the field. But it's impossible to see them as a serious factor in the Pac-12 North with loaded Stanford and Oregon teams, and a complete lack of defensive depth, standing in their way.

The schedule eases up, if only a tad (it still includes trips to Wisconsin, Oregon, Utah, Arizona State and California), but the team's potential is strong enough that bowl eligibility should certainly be back in the cards. I expect the offense to improve enough to offset defensive regression, but the combination of schedule and depth still probably only places their ceiling around eight wins or so.

Okay, so this was a swing-and-miss on my part. But in my defense, I did not anticipate the injuries. Freshman running back Malcolm Agnew exploded for 223 yards in the season opener, then played parts of just five other games because of injuries (and, in fairness, a bout with fumbleitis). Another running back, Jovan Stevenson, missed three games of his own. Star receiver James Rodgers missed three games, and three starting linemen missed time. The defense had it as bad or worse.

In all, only a combined six starters on offense and defense started all 12 games. The defense managed to somewhat hold steady, falling from 60th in Def. F/+ in 2010 to 67th in 2011, but the offense completely fell apart. The Beavers had ranked in the Off. F/+ Top 25 in each of past three seasons, but they fell to a horrid 91st in 2011. The result? A lot of losses, of course, and few of them close. OSU lost to Sacramento State to start the season, lost by an average score of 35-11 to Wisconsin, Arizona State, Utah, Stanford, California and Oregon, and limped to a 3-9 finish and a No. 86 final F/+ ranking.

As I like to say, injuries hurt in the present tense, but will often do you favors in the future tense. Mike Riley returns a team incredibly deep with experience this fall (if it can stay healthy, anyway). But in a surging Pac-12 North, will it matter? If OSU rebounds to even 40th or 50th in F/+ this year, will that even get them to a bowl game?

Offense

Oregon State is never going to be a program that reels in loads of blue-chippers. But longtime offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has found creative ways to build a dangerous offense through the years, and 2011 aside, he has found success in doing so. Oregon State's recent goal has been to put as much speed as possible on the field, size or no size. Neither Rodgers brother -- Jacquizz or James -- was built like a football player, but they each saw quite a bit of recent success.

Beyond that, the current Oregon State receiving corps includes two members of OSU's 4x100 track relay team (Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks; the other two members of the relay team are cornerbacks) and a high jumper (Obum Gwacham). Langsdorf has always been creative in the way he gets the ball to his playmakers -- receivers will take handoffs (over 40 in 2011), running backs will catch passes (over 60), etc., and as mentioned above, it often works wonderfully.

Oregon State has speed to burn, and it occasionally resulted in a quality passing game in 2011. Wheaton emerged as an interesting weapon as James Rodgers fought back from injuries, and both Wheaton and Cooks averaged over 8.0 yards per target. For that matter, so did Gwacham and slot receiver Jordan Bishop. Because of this speed, and because redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Mannion was good enough to take Ryan Katz's job, Oregon State was able to find some decent passing downs magic in 2011; they ranked 50th in Passing Downs S&P+ and 24th in Passing Downs Success Rate+.

The problem, however, was that the Beavers were terrible on standard downs (96th in Standard Downs S&P+). Langsdorf just couldn't find any sort of play-calling rhythm, a problem that was compounded by a complete lack of explosiveness in the running game. Running backs Malcolm Agnew, Terron Ward, Jovan Stevenson and Jordan Jenkins combined to average just 4.0 yards per carry, and the OSU running game ranked 102nd in Rushing PPP+ (explosiveness). Oregon State passed more and more on standard downs, but a quick passing game just didn't really get anywhere.

Almost every player not named Rodgers returns. If you could blame any of OSU's issues on youth -- Mannion, Agnew, Ward, Cooks and Gwacham were all freshmen, Stevenson a sophomore -- then the Beavers should expect solid improvement in 2012, just because.

And peripherally speaking, Mannion could be a lovely quarterback for years to come. He completed 65 percent of his passes in 2011 despite so many coming on passing downs, and he threw for 16 touchdowns. He has clearly earned the team's respect: Mannion became the first sophomore captain in OSU history recently. Still, he did throw 18 interceptions (a problem that evidently continued in the spring), and despite passing downs success, OSU did rank just 84th in Passing S&P+. It is difficult to simply ignore that.

Even with Jacquizz Rodgers in the backfield, Oregon State was a pass-first team. Without him, they became a little too pass-first. If the Beavers can find consistency in the running game -- and to be sure, there is no shortage of competition in the backfield -- that could help Mannion immensely.

The offensive line battled injuries and fell from 27th to 88th in Adj. Line Yards, and to put it lightly, poor blocking doesn't tend to do young running backs many favors. Two linemen who had combined for 79 career starts (tackle Mike Remmers, center Grant Johnson) are gone, but four players with starting experience (50 career starts) do return, including junior tackle Michael Philipp, a former blue-chipper who has started 22 of his 24 career games.

Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Storm Woods, and (potentially) incoming high-three-star freshman Chris Brown join Agnew, Ward, Stevenson (assuming he is healthy; he wasn't this spring) and Jenkins in the fight for carries. This offense has quality speed and has shown potential, but the numbers just weren't there last year.

Defense

While strong offensive players have become the face of the Oregon State program through the years, from receiver Sammie Stroughter to the Rodgers brothers, Mark Banker's defense was doing a lot of the dirty work. Oregon State ranked second in Def. F/+ in 2007, an incredible accomplishment for a team that tends to lack blue-chippers. Since then, however, Banker has produced some incredibly average defenses. The Beavers fell to 52nd in 2008, then 59th, 60th and 67th.

Oregon State's defense hasn't exactly been a weakness, but it's been a while since it was a strength. The story for 2012 is the same as with the offense: to the extent that youth was a problem in 2011, it won't be in 2012.

OSU actually had a stellar pass defense in 2011 -- ranking 33rd in Passing S&P+ -- but run defense was an issue, and opponents knew it. Opponents ran 62 percent of the time on standard downs (national average: 60 percent) and a whopping 39 percent on passing downs (national average: 33 percent), which suggests that teams knew both that OSU couldn't stop the run very well (115th in Adj. Line Yards) and was perhaps a bit too aggressive in attacking the pass.

The two leading tacklers on the line last year were freshmen ends: Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn. Crichton was incredibly disruptive for a freshman -- 14.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, six forced fumbles, three passes broken up. The key for future improvement from both Crichton and Wynn will be down-to-down consistency and the ability to make the NON-disruptive plays as well.

Another key: good health. Incredibly, 14 linemen recorded at least 0.5 tackles last year. Only four played in all 12 games. You want depth, but those numbers suggest that "depth" wasn't the reason for so many players playing a role. A steady, predictable two-deep could work wonders. (So could better play from the tackles, of course.)

The linebackers did reasonably well in terms of cleaning up messes, and four of last year's top five return, including wonderfully-named junior Michael Doctor and middle linebacker Feti Unga. Former star high-three-star signee D.J. Welch and incoming junior college transfers like Cade Cowdin and Dyllon Mafi could make this one of the deeper units in the Pac-12. The question, of course, will be whether the line can get stronger and smarter to take pressure off of the linebackers.

If the run defense improves -- and honestly, it can't get much worse -- the secondary could thrive. Cornerbacks Rashaad Reynolds and Jordan Poyer combined to pick off five passes and break up another 20 last year, and sophomore safety Ryan Murphy should be capable of replicating departed safety Lance Mitchell's production. Oregon State appears to be fast and deep in the secondary, but it won't matter without a better run defense.

Defining Success

After two consecutive seasons without a bowl trip, the bar is pretty clearly going to be set at six wins or better, fair or not. But with a schedule that features three opponents projected in the Top 20, five in the Top 35 and nine in the Top 60, OSU better improve by quite a bit to meet that goal.

Prognosis

If Mike Riley can get both injuries and recent displays of undisciplined behavior under control, recent history suggests that this group of personnel can achieve at a much higher level than it did in 2011. Sean Mannion has a lot of potential, the receiving corps is fast and exciting, Scott Crichton has incredible upside, and the back seven of the defense should be something between solid and good.

But it is difficult to ignore just how far the Beavers fell last year; even with injuries and youth, one would have expected Riley's program to have a higher floor than that. Oregon State will almost certainly improve in 2012, but whether it will be enough to keep up with other North programs (especially if Washington State can quickly get its act together under Mike Leach) is either uncertain or unlikely. Right about now, a sugar daddy would very much come in handy.

For more on OSU football, visit Oregon State blog Building The Dam, plus Pac-12 blog Pacific Takes.

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