Greatness for Beavs could begin tonight

CORVALLIS - Almost every year, it seems like the Beavers are on the verge of something special. They’ll win most of their games in the early part of the season, and tease the nation that they are an elite team. But as the year goes on, they almost never make the leap into greatness, the 2000-01 Fiesta Bowl campaign notwithstanding. So this season …

Over the past 12 seasons, the Beavers’ best record was in 2006 when Matt Moore, Yvenson Bernard, Sammie Stroughter and Co. led Oregon State to a 10-4, 6-3 conference record.

In 2007, 2008 and 2012 they went 9-4.

In 2002 and 2003 they went 8-5.

In 2004 they went 7-5.

In 2013 they went 7-6, and you get the idea.

Good, but a step or two from greatness.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the Beavs are trending that way again this year. They’re sitting on a 4-1 record, (1-1 Pac-12) in a conference where every team has at least one Pac-12 loss.

The same is true of their opponent tonight, as No. 20 Utah is also 4-1, (1-1) and they’ve got national attention with a No. 20 ranking. A victory for either team would be go a long way for their season, as tonight’s game is a showdown between two potential contenders for the Pac-12 crown.

Looking at the players on this OSU team and all the seniors that the Beavers have, this could be the last, best opportunity to make some noise for a few years. By the time this season is over; Sean Mannion, Terron Ward, Connor Hamlett and almost the entire starting defense will have played their last game in a Beaver uniform – nine defensive starters on this week’s official depth chart are seniors.

In other words, the pieces are in place for a spectacular season not next year or the year after that, but this current one. If a strong season is in the cards for OSU, it’s going to start tonight against Utah.

Even with the experience on the field for OSU, the Utes still pose several threats, as Utah’s team identity is one that lines up with OSU’s weaknesses.

For example, Utah has a long history of formidable defensive lines, and this year’s group is no different. Headlined by defensive ends Nate Orchard (9 TFL and 8.5 sacks) and Hunter Dimick (5.5 TFL and 5 sacks), the Utes average more sacks per game (5.6) than any other team in the nation.

As is no secret, senior quarterback Sean Mannion is as pure a pocket passer as you will find. He had the fewest rushing yards in the nation last season (-223), and he has -91 rushing yards through five games this season. Granted, those totals include sack yardage, but Mannion scrambles so rarely that he still ends up significantly in the red.

As a pocket passer, Mannion doesn’t extend plays with his legs, and he depends on his offensive line to give him enough time to operate. When that protection doesn’t hold for long enough, it usually spells doom for the Beavers. It might not necessarily show up in the box score in the form of sacks, as Mannion typically has the wherewithal to throw it away, but it can disrupt Mannion’s timing with his receivers that he’ll throw more incompletions than he typically would.

That was part of the problem against USC earlier this year, and it was a problem against Stanford, USC and Washington last year. Although when I asked offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh this week if he thought protection was part of the problem against USC, he thought they did a pretty good job for the most part.

Regardless, Utah will test that group. In their most recent game, a 30-28 upset win over then-No. 8 UCLA, the Utes sacked Brett Hundley a total of 10 times, four of which were courtesy of Orchard. They will no doubt try to replicate that performance tonight.

Also working against the Beavers is Utah’s quarterback, whomever that will be. If they start Travis Wilson, the Beavers are hoping he can’t replicate what he did last year against OSU. Wilson threw for 279 yards and two touchdowns, while running for 142 yards and three more touchdowns.

If the Utes go with Kendal Thompson, the Beavers are hoping they can limit his rushing ability. In his first major playing time of his college career, Thompson racked up 91 rushing yards against UCLA.

This just in: Running quarterbacks have given OSU trouble in the past, and either one of Utah’s quarterbacks could do the same. If not, the Beavers will be one game closer to a great season. With how close they’ve been to greatness over the past decade, a truly great season is overdue.

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