PREVIEW: LSU v. Oregon State

When the Oregon State Beavers run out onto the field in Death Valley on Saturday evening, 92,000 LSU fans hungry for victory will be stirred into a rabid frenzy with thoughts of a systematic dismantling at the hands of the 2003 National Champion Tigers running through their minds.

To them, the game is over before the ball has even been kicked off.

To Oregon State, however, the equation is not nearly that simple. They did not fly 2,000 miles to Baton Rouge with the intention of returning home to Corvallis, Ore., empty-handed.

While it is true the Beavers are not in the same league as the Virginia Tech Hokies, the team they replaced at the last minute on LSU's schedule, they are far from being a guaranteed victory for the purple and gold.

The Tigers have had to replace several key components on offense in 2004, following the departure to the NFL of quarterback Matt Mauck, wide receivers Michael Clayton and Devery Henderson, and offensive linemen Stephen Peterman and Rodney Reed.

New quarterback Marcus Randall has not started a game in two years. Skyler Green is the only wide receiver with more than one season worth of experience hauling in passes in Tiger Stadium, and he is slowed by an ankle injury. The offensive line now has a redshirt freshman, Will Arnold, at left guard, and 2003 utility lineman Rudy Niswanger at right guard.

How they will come together as a unit under the glare of the Saturday night lights is a question that can only be answered on the field, and one that Oregon State aims to have a hand in answering.

Seven starters are back for the black and orange defensive unit that ranked seventh in the nation in 2003, giving up a shade over 288 yards per game. When Randall drops back to pass for LSU, he will find veteran end Bill Swancutt (6-4, 260) in his face, armed with his résumé that includes 11 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss in 2003 alone.

If Tiger tailback Justin Vincent makes a run at the line, he will find sophomore left tackle Ben Siegert (6-4, 266) waiting for him, the 2003 Pac-10 All-Freshman team selection by The Sporting News who was an integral part of an Oregon State front seven that gave up only 2.5 yards per carry last year.

If that is not enough for LSU to deal with, consider the fact that the defensive line is not even the Beavers' strength on the defensive side of the ball – their secondary is.

If Randall hopes to find any rhythm whatsoever with his young receiving corps, he will have to navigate his way through senior free safety Mitch Meeuwsen (6-3, 2045) and sophomore cornerback Brandon Browner (6-2, 202) to do so.

Meeuwsen, holding down the job as defensive quarterback for Oregon State, picked off six passes in 2003 and will enter Tiger Stadium with 14 for his career – one shy of the school record. Browner intercepted six passes of his own last season and is a legitimate All-America candidate one year removed from being named Pac-10 Freshman of the Year.

While the Beavers' defensive capabilities will rightfully claim the majority of the attention in the Pacific Northwest, their offensive unit is not one to be slept on.

Quarterback Derek Anderson (6-6, 240) enters his senior season poised to claim every major passing record in Oregon State history. He became only the second signal caller in Pac-10 history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in 2003 when he threw for 4,058, and he currently has 7,634 passing yards and 50 career touchdown passes to his credit.

The offensive line in front of Anderson is experienced, boasting the services of three seniors, one junior, and a redshirt freshman, and should combine to drastically cut down on the 33 sacks given up a year ago. While keeping LSU's blitzing defenders out of the backfield will be a mammoth challenge, the unit will back themselves to the fullest, knowing all they need to do is keep Marcus Spears and company away from Anderson long enough for him to let the ball go safely.

Just who will be hauling in Anderson's passes is still a mystery that may take a few weeks, but sophomore flanker Mike Hass (6-1, 210) is one of only two returning players with double-digit reception numbers. Hass hauled in 44 passes for 1,013 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2003, and will likely line up opposite either George Gillett, Cole Clausen, or Josh Hawkins – who combined to haul in 18.

Tight end Joe Newton (6-7, 257) was the second Beaver with double-figure receptions, after catching 13 balls last year.

In the backfield, Oregon State needs to replace new St. Louis Ram Steven Jackson if it hopes to improve on its 8-5 record in 2003, and to do so it will turn to senior running back Dwight Wright (5-9, 196). Wright rushed for 350 yards behind Jackson last year, and if the Beavers' want to remain among the top offensive units in the nation, his ability to add balance to the offense could be the key.

In 2003, the Oregon State offense ranked 10th in the nation for total yards per game, sixth in passing offense, and 22nd for scoring. On the other side of the ball, the defense ranked seventh in the nation in yards per game allowed, fourth for rushing defense, sixth for passing efficiency defense, and 10th for interceptions.

How will they fare in 2004? That is a question that will begin to be answered on Saturday evening, and you can guarantee LSU aims to have a hand in answering that one, too.

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