Cougs vs. Big Mystery Beavs

JUST WHAT THE HELL is it about Oregon State, anyway? Every year it seems they start slower than molasses. And then, improbably, they suddenly take flight and catch fire. So how does their 2013 season jibe with all that recent Beaver history -- and what will WSU fans see on Saturday night (TV: ESPNU, 7:30). Well, I have a theory or two…

And you have to go back to fall camp for its beginnings. OSU had some injuries start piling up in August, so Mike Riley postponed the first scrimmage.

And he never rescheduled it.

Yes, you're reading that correctly. Oregon State never tackled to the ground this fall camp. OSU under Riley doesn't (generally) do tackle-to-the-ground periods either, (in addition to the official full scrimmage practices allowed by the NCAA in fall camps and spring ball.)

And so against Eastern Washington in the opener, OSU played like they practiced -- running up to the ball carrier or pass catcher, somewhat tentatively or having taken a bad angle, and proceeding to give up explosion play after explosion play. The offensive line pass protected well, and have continued to do so, but running lanes have been uncommon. And when the lanes have been there, the Beav running backs, inexplicably, haven't exploited them.

My theory is that this lack of contact at Oregon State in fall camp manifests itself every year for the Beavs, albeit in different ways each season. I'm not alone with this theory, Beaver fans have talking about this ever since the season opening loss.

Remember a few years back, when Oregon State started out 2-3 three straight times, only to go on a tear and win at least at least 9 games each of those seasons? Well, by not scrimmaging much in fall camp, it takes a while longer for OSU to find their rhythm at the start of the season than it does other teams. OSU doesn't always start out slow, last year they ran off six straight wins. So we'll call that the exception that proves the other seven years' rule. (And that everyone had written off the Beavs in 2012 so they caught a lot of people by surprise. OSU went 6-0 to start the season, but finished 9-4.)

THE BAD NEWS FOR Washington State fans is that OSU may have once again turned their proverbial corner with five games and a bye under their belt. They looked better, more polished, in their last game. They've looked better, more polished, it sounds like, in practices this week.

The good news for Washington State fans is that last game OSU played was against Colorado. The Buffs are improved from last year, but they're still a struggling football team and have tons of work to do just to get out of the conference's bottom half.

And nervous Beav fans this week point to the fact OSU could just as easily be 2-3 right now -- they posit that OSU has not in face turned the corner because this team doesn't have all that high a ceiling, despite a heady passing attack. OSU's passing game has been stellar, no doubt about it. But that's about it, they say. The run game has foundered, the defense has been sieve-like at times and the most consistent thing about them is that they've been wildly inconsistent.

CONSIDER THIS: Against San Diego State, the Beavers' defense was outplayed, significantly so, for a whopping 55 minutes. A miracle finish by a Beav defense that suddenly flipped a switch allowed OSU to escape with a shocking 34-30 win. SDSU is hardly a world beater this year, but Oregon State made them look like Ohio State until there were five minutes remaining on the clock. Of course, OSU also got outplayed big-time in the loss to FCS school Eastern Washington, who is now 3-2.

And then there's Utah. OSU on defense thrashed Utah in the first quarter, just came out with guns a' blazin'. Then, they disappeared. It was stunning to see such a Jekyll and Hyde performance in that game. OSU somehow went on to win 51-48 in overtime when it looked for all the world the game was over in the fourth quarter.

The point here is that a strong argument can be made Oregon State (4-1) has done it with smoke and mirrors so far. The problem is that an equally strong argument can be made that Oregon State has rounded the corner and the Cougs are going to get a Beaver team that is suddenly and forcefully on the rise.

BEAV QB SEAN MANNION is going to throw for a lot of yards on Saturday. Receiver Brandin Cooks, who is sensational, is going to get his yards. Those two things are virtual locks. But everything else is up for grabs. Such has been the inconsistent nature of OSU in 2013.

The Beavs could suddenly run the ball effectively. Or they could get hammered on the ground by WSU. The Beaver defense, particularly the veteran secondary, could play smart, sharp football – like they did in 2012. Or against WSU they could look like they hadn't put the pads on in months, just as they've looked in several other games this season.

The real question is this: what Oregon State team is going to show up in Pullman Saturday night? Is it one just finding its groove, or one that's about to be exposed?

And I don't think anyone truly has the answer to that question yet. But it's going to be fun to find out, for at least one of the fan bases.

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