Five pressing questions and answers on OSU-UW

CORVALLIS -- Has Sean Mannion really and substantially improved from last year? Can the OSU rushing attack avoid (another) face plant against Wisconsin? Can the defensive line hold up against a vaunted Badgers' running game and their Heisman Trophy candidate? Will the Oregon State secondary go big or bust vs. Wisconsin? Our man on the ground in Corvallis delves into those matters and much more...

The Wisconsin Badgers (No.13 in AP & USA Today polls) will set foot in Corvallis for the first time ever this Saturday. All the professional courtesies aside, Oregon State has a chip on its shoulder – at least they should. Last season's 35-0 drubbing at the hands of the Badgers is one many Beavs would like to erase from their memories.

Without a traditional home opener under their belt, questions abound for a young Beaver team. Right after the depth chart, we're going to answer the most pressing ones.

Official Oregon State Depth Chart release for the Wisconsin game:

OFFENSE
Quarterback: Sean Mannion
Tailback: Storm Woods
Fullback: Clayton York
Tight End: Colby Prince
H-Back: Tyler Perry
Split End: Markus Wheaton
Slotback: Kevin Cummings
Flanker: Brandin Cooks
LT: Michael Philipp
LG: Josh Andrews
C: Isaac Seumalo
RG: Grant Enger
RT: Colin Kelly

DEFENSE
DE: Scott Crichton
DT: Castro Masaniai
DT: Andrew Seumalo
DE: Dylan Wynn
SAM: D.J. Welch
MIK: Feti Unga (Taumoepeau)
WIL: Michael Doctor
CB: Jordan Poyer
CB: Rashaad Reynolds
SS: Ryan Murphy
*FS: Tyrequek Zimmerman (the official depth chart lists Anthony Watkins here but with Watkins coming off injury, Zimmerman is our pick to start)


Has Sean Mannion Made Significant Improvement? Really?
Yes, he has. And going up against Wisconsin, Mannion will have two things working for him that were relatively absent from the OSU offensive attack last season – a much more prepared and conditioned front five (Philip, Andrews, Seumalo, Enger, Kelly) and a corps of starting tailbacks that are one year older, one year wiser.

Throughout the fall training session, Mannion was much steadier in the pocket, relaxed even. He displayed more confidence in his offensive line to give him that extra second or two in the pocket to make a decision.

Inaccurate throws from Mannion (he had 18 INTs a year ago) should not be as much of an issue against Wisconsin, provided the O-line holds their assignments. Mannion's accuracy was the chief complaint among fans in 2011 but Mannion worked hard this offseason camp to make more precise throws and quick decisions on the fly. If the Beavs' focus more this season on the short quick throws that move the chains, so much the better – that's right up Mannion's alley.

Mannion has one really tough year under his belt, something that should pay dividends in 2012. Mannion was just a freshman last year but still got much of the blame for last year's 3-9 mark, such is the bane of commanding the key position of prominence on the field. But you can't build a house without the right tools, and Mannion looks to have finally gotten the right tools around him. Look for him to perform well against the Badgers on Saturday.

Can OSU Get More Than 24 Rushing Yards This Time?
Twenty-four yards. That is all the Beavers mustered on the ground the last time these teams faced one another. And Wisconsin is expected to be just as notorious for getting to the tailback and maneuvering their way through opposing offensive lines as they were last year.

Go ahead and criticize Mike Riley's choice to start another freshman right out the gate this year, but Woods is a talent who out-fought sophomore teammates Agnew and Ward for the starting gig, despite water cooler discussion that OSU might once again be running by committee.

Woods has very quick feet coupled with good acceleration and vision, and a juke move that can break ankles. He is capable of outrunning guys in the flat, and is a capable receiver.

But focusing in on Woods would be simplistic – he is likely not going to be the only tailback making plays against the Badgers. Ward and Agnew will see work, perhaps on second and third down, as will the senior Jenkins. Agnew is a strong back who can also break tackles, and he has sideline speed. Ward and Jenkins are both workhorses, and are arguably the two most versatile.

Riley and crew are no longer dealing with wholly inexperienced tailbacks that are going to struggle a lot to "do the right thing." With the exception of Woods, all have collegiate level experience under their belts.

Riley wants to run, and a Wisconsin defense geared to stop the run probably isn't go to deter him, at least early. (The caveat there is OSU in years past has often done the opposite on their first drive before settling in (i.e. throw like crazy on first series or drive, and then run like crazy afterwards). A successful run game would mean Riley could then try to close Wisconsin out with play action wherever possible. If the Beaver offensive linemen can tow the line, OSU will be dynamic on offense.

What a Terrific Segue – Can They Hold the Line?
The offensive line will enter the regular season with one senior and three juniors, as well as a freshman stud in Seumalo who has thus far lived up to the hype surrounding his arrival. Frankly, the starting offensive line is not that big - Only Seumalo (302) and Philipp (315) crest the 300 pound mark. But for what the Beavers lack in size, they make up with speed – and that's the key.

That said, this front five will almost certainly struggle a bit at first against the size and velocity of the blitzers being tossed at them -- that should be pretty evident in the first half. OSU's home opener against a lesser division school was scrubbed and they will be rusty -- perhaps in the same way Wisconsin was rusty against Northern Iowa.

But the Beaver o-line is smart, fast and gave the OSU defensive line a run for their money at numerous junctures during fall camp. Seumalo is displaying leadership characteristics beyond his years and having a smart center on the ball can do wonders. Andrews and Enger are both very strong offensive linemen, with good technique and the ability to open large holes.

Philipp and Kelly are strong too but their ability to get to the second level is the key – they could make or break some major runs, something OSU must do to utilize Wood's speed to the outside. Last year, inconsistency from the offensive line had a lot to do with Mannion's inability to make plays in the clutch and keep the chains moving. That figures to be much less an issue in 2012.

When the Ball Is In Your Court – What Do You Do?
Wisconsin RB Montee Ball is a beast – there is no other way to slice it. He has school records, Heisman recommendations and is currently tied with Barry Sanders for the most touchdowns on the ground in one season (39). Despite replacing three-fifths of their o-line, Wisconsin and Ball will be a supreme challenge for the OSU defensive line.

So can they hold up? From this chair the answer is No, or at best a very wary Maybe. The starting OSU defensive line allowed plenty of big runs in fall camp. So they're going to need help. NIU did a very credible job against Wisconsin's running attack by stacking the box. And the Beavs would figure to do the same. The OSU linebackers must wrap up and take the right angles, something on balance they were inconsistent with in camp.

This is not to say that the defensive line won't live up to some of the expectations. But playing dominant defense in their first full speed game since the end of last season - against one of the premier running backs in the NCAA - will be no easy feat.

Can OSU limit the big plays?
Will the OSU secondary go big or go bust against Wisconsin? If (rather, when) Ball gets into the open field, the secondary unit, lead by Poyer and Murphy, will be called upon to make some big tackles before too much damage is done.

Poyer and Murphy are both very aggressive – quick to the ball and even quicker to make contact with an opponent. But with premier run stopping safety Anthony Watkins questionable, they'll need to be assignment perfect.

Wisconsin is not a passing offense but they'll throw more than you'd think and have some big weapons in WR Jared Abbrederis and TE Jacob Pedersen. Poyer and Reynolds should be able to handle Abbrederis (6-2, 188). The 6-4 Pedersen could present more of a problem.

Abbrederis and Pederson are prominent third down and red zone threats, something Wisconsin excelled at last year. (The Badgers led the country in third-down percentage, converting 93 of their 170 third-down attempts [54.7 percent] / Converted 64 of its 75 red zone attempts to touchdowns, leading the country with a .853 TD percentage.)

Fortunately for Beaver fans, Reynolds, Poyer, Murphy and Zimmerman all play strong defense in the red zone, and did so consistently for the majority of the offseason training sessions. Look for Poyer to be the designated lockdown corner – but the real task for the secondary will be to aid in stopping the run while not falling victim to the play action passes.

In the end, the view from this chair is that too much has to go Oregon State's way and the margin for error is too small against a Top 15 team coming off a disappointing outing. Game Prediction: Wisconsin 38, OSU 28


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