Because make no mistake: next year is critical to the Cougar Nation's heretofore infatuation with Mike Leach.
If you’re charitable, it’s possible to make some excuses for this season. In his third year, Leach continues to build the roster, and there remains youth and lots of it in key areas of the field. There is little room for excuses in Year 4. By then, the team is all Mike Leach. Calling an end to bowl hopes after the first weekend of November will not cut it in 2015.
So without unnecessarily burning a redshirt, let’s try a few new wrinkles under game conditions to see how they work. We’re curious to see Falk play with the preparation of practice with the starting unit. Tinker away, because at this point, is there really much difference between 2-10 and 5-7?
Only a month ago, the Ducks were reeling, the Cougars had their eye on first-place in the Pac-12 North, and the Beavers were 4-1. Fast forward to today. Suddenly, the loser claims ownership of the Pac-12 North basement. Washington State is riding a four-game losing streak. Oregon State has lost three consecutive games, and there’s growing sentiment among some Beavers fan that Mike Riley has worn out his welcome.
Most of the fans wanting Riley’s scalp are Johnny Come Latelys and have no perspective on the history of Oregon State’s program. But it’s a what-have-you-done-for-me lately age in college football, and the Beavers haven’t done much the past few years.
Things have spiraled for the Beavers of late. Three weeks ago, Oregon State suffered a tough overtime loss to Utah. The Beavers responded with a no-show at Stanford, then lost by double digits to California in Corvallis last Saturday in a game they had scored 17 straight points to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
The problems are obvious, but fans don’t want to hear excuses. Oregon State has a battered roster. The Beavers have widespread injuries along their offensive line, and a patchwork defense, especially on the d-line, that was once formidable when healthy.
Before Halliday’s injury, this game shaped up to be a match-up of the Pac-12's two most veteran quarterbacks, each vying to leave their college careers as the most prolific passer in conference history. Now, it’s graybeard Sean Mannion (pictured above), a four-year starter at Oregon State, against newbie Falk. Mannion is having a somewhat disappointing year, but a much of it has to do with the tattered offensive line and a young receiving corps unable to get separation from opposing defensive backs.
Mannion has only three 300-yard passing games this season. Compare that to 2013, when Mannion had nine 300-yard games, and five of better than 400 yards. Mannion is 183 for 294 for 2,018 yards and nine touchdowns this season. Yes, nine TD passes in eight games.
Oregon State’s most productive receiver is Victor Bolden, with 41 catches for 442 yards and one touchdown. But watch for Jordan Villamin, who has 14 receptions over the past two games. Connor Hamlett is a reliable tight end target as is Caleb Smith, but neither has done much this year out in the pattern. Hunter Jarmon is the slot man and can rise up or disappear any given week.
The Beavers are trying to run more this season. Terron Ward leads Oregon State with 499 yards and seven touchdowns, but when healthy, Storm Woods is OSU’s No. 1 option. Woods has 466 yards and three touchdowns, and averages 6.1 yards per carry. Bolden is also used liberally on OSU’s fly sweep.
Defensively, Michael Doctor and D.J. Alexander key a solid, senior-based linebacking corps. Safety Ty Zimmerman leads OSU with 56 tackles but Ryan Murphy, who also returns kickoffs, is the safety star. Steven Nelson is the Beavs' best corner, with Larry Scott having an up and down season.
The Beavers can put some pressure on quarterbacks, as defensive ends Dylan Wynn and Obum Gwacham have combined for eight sacks, (Wynn has played a lot of snaps on the inside since DT Jalen Grimble went down against USC.) Zimmerman, Doctor and Nelson have two interceptions each.
Last year: Mannion passed for 493 yards and four touchdowns to lead Oregon State to a 52-24 rout over WSU in Pullman. The game didn’t have a one-sided look late in the third quarter, when Washington State held a 24-17 lead. But the Beavers scored 35 unanswered points during the final 16 minutes, including three touchdowns by Brandin Cooks, now in the NFL.
Familiar faces: As expected, Washingtonians are prominent on Oregon State’s roster. Some of the most notable are former Cougar Rahmel Dockery, a wide receiver from Tacoma; Hamlett, a tight end from Edmonds and brother of former WSU defensive end Casey Hamlett; Smith, a tight end from Kent; and Kellen Clute, a tight end from Spokane. The most notable OSU coach with Wazzu ties is linebackers coach Trent Bray, who grew up in Pullman as the son of former Cougars assistant Craig Bray.
NOTABLE: This marks the 39th start of Mannion’s career. The Cougars will be happy to see him graduate. Mannion is 3-0 against WSU, and his collective stats are 85 of 127 for 1,139 yards and nine touchdowns.
Read Nick Daschel’s occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel