Know Thine Enemy: Oregon State
First Down: Quick Hitters
Oregon State @ Stanford – August 28
Last Year: Oregon State 23, Stanford 6
Stats listed Opponent/Stanford/Pac-10 Average. All stats Pac-10 only to control for differences in out-of-conference schedule strength.
Yards Per Game: 351/297/382
Points Per Game: 28.1/16.4/26.7
Rushing Yards Per Game: 172/79/144
Yards Per Carry: 4.1/2.3/3.7
Passing Yards Per Game: 179/218/238
Yards Per Pass: 5.6/5.9/6.7
Returning Offensive Starters: 8/7/6
Yards Per Game: 333/473/382
Points Per Game: 25.4/31.1/26.7
Rushing Yards Per Game: 91/193/144
Yards Per Carry: 2.5/4.7/3.7
Passing Yards Per Game: 242/280/238
Yards Per Pass: 6.9/7.8/6.7
Returning Defensive Starters: 3/9/6.3
2007 Record: (9-4, 6-3)/(4-8, 3-6)
2008 Predicted Points Per Game: 26/23/26.4
2008 Predicted Points Allowed Per Game: 27/28/26.4
2008 Projected Record: (6-6, 5-4)/(3-9, 2-7)
2008 Projected Pac-10 Finish: 5th/9th
Second Down: Offense
The Beavers' offense loses its best player, returns just about everyone else, and so, like last year, should be solidly in the middle of the Pac-10.
Yvenson Bernard leaves Corvallis the number-two rusher in school history. He was injured two games last season, but still managed his third-straight 1,000-yard year, putting up 1,214 yards on a healthy 4.4 yards per carry. While Bernard is gone, the roster isn't entirely stripped, with a true freshman (Jacquizz Rodgers), a redshirt frosh (Ryan McCants), and, what's new, a JC transfer (Jeremy Francis) among those looking to be the next feature back in Corvallis.
Still, whomever Mike Riley settles upon will be hard-pressed to match Bernard's production. Just as importantly for Stanford fans, the Beavers may not have yet uncovered their diamond in the rough by week one, and could well be rotating through backs early in the season, until they find their man. Oregon State ran 44 times for 173 yards last season against Stanford, and the Cardinal have to like their odds of improving those numbers this year.
Like at running back, the news from the rest of the offensive position groups is decidedly mixed. The offensive line paved the way for 172 rush yards per Pac-10 game last year, third-best in the league, but loses two of its best starters: right guard Roy Schuening and center Kyle DeVan, First Team and Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 last year respectively.
But Oregon State's Allen Smith is left guard Jeremy Perry. Perry was First Team All-Pac-10 and the league's Co-Freshman of the Year in 2006, but was injured three games into 2007. The Beavers gave up just six sacks with Perry in the lineup and 30 without him (including six to Stanford). This year, though, Perry returns healthy. His presence, coupled with that of some JUCOs (center Brent McNeil and tackles Jon Ioane and Michael Cole) means that while OSU probably won't match last year's 4.2 yards per carry, it could come reasonably close.
If recent history is any indication, however, being Oregon State's quarterback is akin to being W.'s FEMA Director. Interception machine Derek Anderson threw 24 picks his junior year and 17 his senior year. Next came Matt Moore, a high-profile UCLA transfer, who managed 19 interceptions in his first year starting, but just seven the next year, 2006. Last year's starter Sean Canfield, who returns this year for his junior season, continued the proud tradition with 15 interceptions to nine touchdowns, and backup Lyle Moevao did his part with six picks to two TDs.
The good news for the Beavers this season is that Oregon State quarterbacks really do improve with another year under center, as Anderson's picks dropped from 24 to 17 and Moore's from 19 to seven. In fact, Oregon State's team turnovers correlate with the experience of the quarterback, bouncing from -8 to +3 in Anderson's final two seasons, then, remarkably, from -14 to +8 in Moore's two years starting. Oregon State and Canfield were a net 0 in turnovers last year, so if history is any indication, that number should pick up in Canfield's second year under center.
Canfield's top target will be Sammie Stroughter, who played only three games last year while dealing with grief stemming from the death of two family members and the coach who recruited him to OSU. Stroughter should play this season, and if he can return to his 2006 form (1,293 receiving yards), he'll be among the Pac-10's elite with players like Arizona's Mike Thomas, ASU's Mike Jones, WSU's Brandon Gibson and whoever headlines the receiving corps for USC. Behind Stroughter are sophomores James Rodgers (just 5'7"!), Darrell Catchings and Casey Kjos.
Third Down: Defense
A defense that quietly led the nation against the run last year returns just three starters – and none in the front seven. Oregon State won nine games because of its defense last year, and so this year, attrition could cost the Beavers bowl eligibility for just the third time in the last ten seasons.
Oregon State simply led the NCAA with 71 rush yards per game on 2.1 yards per carry last year. Now, the entire starting front seven, five of them All-Pac-10 (linebackers Derrick Doggett, Alan Barlin and Joey Larocque, end Jeff Van Orsow and tackle Curtis Coker) are gone. That's easily the biggest offseason loss any Pac-10 team has suffered, and it alone should cost the Beavers three or so wins from last year. What more can be said?
The one positive is that while the unit was the best in the nation and five of its players were All-Pac-10, only one was drafted, and just barely (LaRocque went to the Bears in the seventh and final round.) Perhaps that suggests that Oregon State's success against the run is more a product of scheme, philosophy or experience than standout talent, and so could be replicated down the line. Unfortunately for Oregon State fans though, there's no way the Beavers will be as dominant next year as they have been over the past six years (where 117 rush yards allowed per game in 2004 was the "worst" mark) – and fortunately for Stanford fans, there's no way Oregon State should be in the same galaxy come week one. On paper, Stanford should be able to run over, around and through an entirely green front seven – and if the Card can't, it is going to be a long season.
Admittedly, the depth chart on the line is not entirely barren, with JUCO transfer Simi Juli, a tackle, and ends Slade Norris and Victor Butler (19.5 combined sacks last year) looking promising, but the linebackers could go from best to worst in the league. Keaton Kristick, Bryant Cornell and Dwight Roberson headline a cast that was all lightly-touted out of high school and is all inexperienced. Not a recipe for success.
In the backfield, the 236 pass yards allowed per game should drop for three reasons. First, 236 is a decently big number considering the strength of OSU's defense year-in, year-out. Second, considering the troubles up front, who's going to want to pass on Oregon State anyways? And, finally, the guys that do return make the secondary the best unit on the team, hands down.
Senior corner Al Afalava is a three-year starter and the team's highest returning tackler (64 tackles last year), and he's on my all-name team to boot. He'll challenge for All-Pac-10 Honors. The other three presumptive starters are all seniors (corners Brandon Hughes and Keenan Lewis and safety Bryan Payton), the corners have 66 combined starts under their belts, and the Beavers allowed fewer touchdowns (20) than interceptions (22) last year. Oregon State doesn't have the star power of their in-state rival Ducks (who could have the strongest secondary in the country) or USC, but they will be stronger in the backfield than anyone else on the West Coast. So if the run defense surprises, the defense as a whole will be fine.
Fourth Down: Extra Points
It's a tale of contrasts for Oregon State since they started winning about ten years ago (snapping a 28-year bowl-less streak in 1999). On the one hand, the rush defense has been consistently outstanding, despite lacking NFL-caliber talent. A perfect example is last year's defense, which had only one NFL Draft pick in the entire front seven (and a seventh rounder at that), yet led the NCAA in rushing yards allowed. The pass defense and the rush offense haven't been quite as consistently dominant, but they too have outperformed their talent level. (How does Yvenson Bernard not get drafted, yet run for 3,862 career yards at OSU?) A lot of credit has to go to the Oregon State staff for designing a scheme that gets more out of their players than most schools across the country.
Then you look at the passing game. Chad Johnson is one of the best receivers in the NFL today, TJ Houshmandzadeh is a solid starting receiver in the NFL, and Derek Anderson, the human interception machine in Corvallis, was last seen nearly leading the Cleveland Browns to the playoffs. (One notable exception is all-time leading receiver Mike Hass, a former walk-on.) Still, considering all the talent that's come through the OSU passing game, and the fact that Mike Riley and Dennis Erickson are both strong coaches, you would have expected OSU to feature one of the Pac-10's leading passing attacks.
Turns out OSU hasn't completed 61 percent of its passes over a season for the past six years. The Washington schools are the only others in the Pac-10 to not hit 61 percent over that timeframe, while USC has done it for each of the past six years. I don't have the interception numbers handy, but I have to think OSU far-and-away leads the conference in picks over the past five or ten years too. Bottom line: if we're going to give the OSU staff credit for getting the most out of their D and their rushing game, it seems only fair they fall on the sword for a pass attack that's woefully underperformed.
I've been called a lot of names in my years reporting on Stanford sports, but never an irrational optimist. Still, I think that OSU's visit is Stanford's best shot this season at pulling a significant upset (and Vegas agrees, posting a line of just 5.5 points) for several reasons:
Stanford returns the most starters in the league. OSU returns the fewest. Never will that experience gap matter more than in the first week of the season.
I think home-field advantage also matters more earlier in the season, when new players have less experience on the road and rattle more easily. Anecdotally, Oregon State has lost its last five road openers, the last three in embarrassing fashion. The Beavers got clobbered 34-3 at Cincinnati last year, 42-14 at Boise State the year before, and 63-27 at Louisville in 2005. (I remember Alexis Serna missing three extra points in Death Valley in 2004, as 17-point favorite LSU hung on 22-21 in overtime. The year before, Fresno State won 16-14, despite being eight-point underdogs.) The last two times Oregon State opened their conference schedule away, they also lost, both times to Arizona State.
Then again, Oregon State is a five-point favorite in spite of the experience gap, their struggles early on the road and Stanford's home-field edge for a reason: they have better talent. Oh, and the Beavers have won their last five versus Stanford.
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