MEN OR BOYS?: The Northwest Cup Opener

Rick Neuheisal's annual Northwest Championship begins this weekend as the Washington State Cougars visit Corvallis - and Oregon State fans who are use to a dominant defense and excellent secondary play are left scratching their heads and wondering where things went wrong.

After being outscored 105 - 51 in the last two contests, one can't help but wonder if this is the week that the bleeding finally stops for the beleaguered OSU defense. The front seven has actually performed adequately against the run, propelled by middle linebacker Trent Bray and a solid interior defensive line-- but the secondary has been outright porous against the deep ball and the defensive ends have done a poor job of helping get pressure on the opposing quarterbacks.

A recipe for disaster to be sure, in the pass-happy Pac 10.

Oregon State fans begin to wonder when they might see a change in the secondary-- some possibilities have emerged, including moving star safety Sabby Piscatelli to corner. A more plausible option is playing true freshman dfensive back Al Afalava, who showed some big-hitting moxie in the ASU game last week, and converted wide receiver and redshirt freshman Brandon Hughes, who showed some promise late in the contest last week.

However, if the the battered OSU secondary is looking for some wideouts that are a little easier to cover, they may want to pull the sheets back over their head and hide out for a day or two. Wide outs Jason Hill and Michael Bumpus are arguably as good as any tandem in the Pac 10. And the front seven won't be permitted to pin their ears back and bring the rush, because tailback Jerome Harrison has the speed to break off big runs if given a seam to burst through. The key will be quarterback Alex Brink, who enters the contest with a 61% completion ratio. If he's given time or lanes to run through, Brink can make you pay with his arm or his feet.

Don't expect to see a change in the starting lineup this week though-- the Oregon State coaches have stated that they will stay the course, and stick Lawson and Lewis at the corners. When asked about a possible shakeup in the secondary, Oregon State cornerbacks coach Nigel Burton said, "If we had abandoned Aric and Brandon about the third game into their freshman and sophomore years, where would we ever have been?"

Washington State still remembers the sting of a 38-19 dismantling in Corvallis a year ago as well. "We went down there and got it thrown in our face and we're not used to that," head coach Bill Doba said.

Washington State's secondary may well have their hands full as well, however. The Wazzu secondary has been ravaged by injury so far this year and the bye week couldn't have come at a better time. Cornerback Omwale "Wally" Dada will be counted to cover the nation's leading receiver in Mike Hass, though he's been struggling with a sore knee the last few weeks. Cornerback Don Turner has been battling back spasms and is a game time decision. Compounding the secondary's woes, WSU is thin at defensive end, with Adam West and Lance Broadus sitting the contest out.

The pressure on Oregon State's Matt Moore will be key to WSU's success. When the UCLA transfer has had time to sit in the pocket and go through his progressions, the 6-4, 190-pound gunslinger has been downright surgical. Those moments have come far and few between though, as Oregon State sits currently in dead last in the Pac 10 having given up 19 sacks so far this season.

The Beavers finally seem to have found a running game as the offensive line seems to be jelling and Yvenson Bernard has emerged as the feature back for the Beavers, rushing for more yards against Arizona State last week than any other Oregon State tailback since Steven Jackson. The shifty Florida native is also a dangerous pass-receiving threat and runs the screen well.

Special teams will be a facet to keep an eye on as well, as Arizona State managed to block not one, but TWO Sam Paulescu punts last week.

Oregon State will need to take care of the ball in order to be in this contest. The crystal ball says that ball control will be a key component of Oregon State's game plan - keeping that young defense off the field. If they can succeed in keeping WSU out of a rhythm and getting some pressure on Alex Brink, then a Beaver victory is well within reach. If not... it could be a another long night.

Kickoff is at one - see you there.

Chad can be reached at

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