GUT CHECK TIME – Homecoming in Corvallis

As the Pac 10 picture comes into focus, two programs find themselves at a critical juncture. Oregon State needs a win badly to keep bowl game hopes alive and momentum moving forward for a rebuilding program, while Arizona needs desperately to turn the corner and prove that their program is heading in the right direction.

As the Pac 10 picture comes into focus, two programs find themselves at a critical juncture. Oregon State needs a win badly to keep bowl game hopes alive and momentum moving forward for a rebuilding program, while Arizona needs desperately to turn the corner and prove that their program is heading in the right direction.

One and six is surely not what the UA athletic department had in mind for 2005 when they ran Dick Tomey out of town after the 2000 season, just two short years ago from a 12-1 campaign in 1998. Hindsight, it seems, is 20-20. Even Tomey’s worst season was a 5-6 campaign—a record which would leave most Cat fans jumping for joy this year.

To be fair, Arizona’s biggest hurdle is overcoming the disastrous and destructive two and a half years under John Mackovic, and it’s difficult to pin much blame on head coach Mike Stoops. The Cats have been tough under Stoops, a toughness that was sorely lacking over the previous three years. No longer the recipient of four-touchdown beatings, Arizona is struggling to find success and re-establish a tradition of winning in Tucson. But the task has been difficult. Of the Wildcats’ six losses, four have been by a touchdown or less.

The Beavers have a different story to tell—if Corvallis were a city in ancient Rome, it would be Latium, where the patron deity was Janus, the two-faced god. It’s been a tale of two seasons for the Beavers with gritty performances against Washington State, Boise State, and California, with shocking blowout losses to Louisville, Arizona State, and UCLA.

Accurate passers and big plays have been the gremlin haunting the Beavers, and a young secondary bears most of the blame in post-game discussions, but Oregon State coach Mike Riley isn’t ready to throw the defense under the bus just yet.

"I like our defense,” Riley said. “I feel like we’ve made some strides. We had a great game against Cal. I’m not going to go overboard with my criticism. We played some very good defense for a good portion of the game against UCLA, but mistakes cost us on several critical plays. And the defense was given poor field position several times.”

The defensive line has been sporadically efficient in getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, with the most productive player early in the season being Sir Henry Anderson. But late in the season defensive ends Joe Lemma and Jeff Van Orsow have stepped up and started to make plays. The defensive end duo had their biggest impact against California, but were virtually silent against UCLA.

Senior linebacker Trent Bray is the engine that makes the defense tick, with 73 tackles on the season. The fastest way to tell if the defensive line is playing well is by watching Bray’s production. If he’s having a big game, it’s because the defensive line is doing their job up front controlling their gaps, and the All-Conference middle linebacker has room to roam—so keep your eyes peeled, Beaver fans.

While Bray is the heart and soul of the defense, Senior OLB Keith Ellison is the spark that lights the fire. His speed and range combined with spectacular hitting ability make him a lethal force. He will play a big part in keeping Arizona’s freshman sensation signal caller from making plays. If the front seven can produce some pressure, then freshmen cornerbacks Brandon Hughes and Keenan Lewis can pull their weight as well.

Despite struggling early, both have emerged as serviceable young cornerbacks, and when they handle their own, Sabby Piscatelli can patrol the secondary and make game-changing plays. The junior safety is the vocal leader of the defense, but he’s best in attacking mode from the middle of the field, not providing a safety blanket for young corners. The defense will also welcome back star freshman safety Al Afalava to the mix. Afalava’s speed, instincts, and non-stop motor were sorely missed in the contest against the Bruins last week.

Arizona’s offense features first and foremost a talented back in senior Mike Bell. The 6-1, 218 pound player has electrifying speed and good power, as he showed in a 50 yard touchdown scamper against Oregon last week. Unfortunately for the Wildcats Bell has also shown a marked tendency to fumble as well. Two very costly fumbles last week helped seal the loss in perhaps the Cats’ best overall effort of the season.

At signal caller, a changing of the guard has been signaled. After a brief and unhappy period with third year sophomore Richard Kovalcheck, Stoops has anointed a new Jesus In Cleats: Freshman phenom Willie Tuitama. Never one to mince words, Stoops commented on the change as follows. "It got to the point we were not going to take it any longer, enough was enough. I got totally frustrated with some of the decision making with Richard."

Tuitama entered in the second period against the Ducks and played well for the Wildcats, with uncommon poise and presence for a true freshman. He also brought a new dimension to the quarterback position for the Cats: Mobility. Tuitama gives Arizona an additional ability to mix in rollouts, designed quarterback runs, and the threat of scrambling when the play breaks down, plus a stronger arm than Kovalcheck. Unfortunately for Tuitama, Arizona’s best offensive lineman is expected to miss the start on Saturday with an ankle injury. Senior guard Kili Lefotu has been the rock of the UA offensive line, and his presence will be sorely missed.

Oregon State’s offense has slowly reinvented itself as a running team after finding an every-down back in surprising sophomore Yvenson Bernard, currently ranked 12th nationally in rushing.. The 5-9, 208-pound tailback is averaging 114 yards per contest, highlighted by a season-high performance of 194 yards on 42 carried at California. The real pleasant surprise has been Bernard’s durability – he seems to run harder and harder as the game wears on.

The offensive line also deserves a great deal of credit for the Oregon State rushing revival, opening big holes and finishing blocks in the latter half of the season, and playing with a real chip on their collective shoulders. The star of the offense is All-Conference and likely All-American receiver Mike Hass. The former walk-on wide receiver leads the nation in receptions and receiving yards, has ten100-yard games out of the last 11 contests, and is the first player in Pac-10 history to record three 1000-yard seasons.

Quarterback Matt Moore, after getting off to a fast start, has settled into a bit of a funk and will look to snap out of it against the Wildcats. He will need to spread the ball around, and the emerging play of tight end Jason Vandiver should give Moore a reliable target and check-down option that may help him get back into the rhythm of the offense.

Arizona’s defense features one of the best corner tandems in the conference with sophomores Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot. The pair have combined for five pass break-ups and three interceptions. The linebackers have been hit hard with injury all season long, but the picture finally looks to be getting clearer and a leader has emerged in Spencer Larsen. After playing musical chairs, the Wildcats' lineup at linebacker has been solidified with their heady-and hard-hitting sophomore in the mix. They’ll need a top performance from Larsen, because leading tackler Dane Krogstad is still out for two more weeks with a knee injury.

Defensive End Copeland Bryan is the leader up front with five sacks and four pass break-ups. In Arizona’s zone-blitz happy defense, Bryan is a key playmaker and will need to have a big day. The 6-4, 240-pound senior has surprising range and great instincts, and Moore will want to know where he is before he releases the ball on every passing play, because he is a difference maker.

Special teams will likely play a factor in the game on Saturday as well. While sophomore Oregon State kicker Alexis Serna has been brilliant, going 14 of 16 and perfect under 40 yards, Arizona kicker Nick Folk has been decidedly mediocre on the season, going three of six on field goals. While Folk did manage a long of 51 versus Purdue, the junior kicker has missed from 27, 37, and 50 yards as well.

Folk will also be taking over punting duties for the injured Danny Baugher, the nation's No. 1-rated punter with a 47.5 yard average. Baugher tore an MCL in his right knee while returning a blocked punt during the 28-21 loss to Oregon, and the Wildcats will certainly miss him. Oregon State punter Sam Paulescu will likely get a fair amount of work thanks to the Cats’ stingy defense, and while a performance similar to the one against Cal (Two punts downed inside the California one yard line) is probably unrealistic, a big game out of him would go a long way towards a Beaver victory.

Kickoff is at 1 p.m. and the forecast is calling for showers and a high around 61. The game will not be televised.

Chad can be reached at orangeattack@beaverfootball.com.


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