Here Come Da Beavs

FOR THE second time in three weeks, Jason Gesser will be facing a team looking for its first pass interception of the season. Like the Cal Bears two weeks ago, Dennis Erickson's 1-2 Beavers of Oregon State have yet to nab a pick. They are just one of seven Division I-A teams without an air theft.

That unto itself is a head turner for a team anointed by Sports Illustrated as the nation's best coming into this campaign. But it's especially shocking when you consider that the Beavers were No. 5 in the nation in interceptions last season, with 24, and that much of the secondary talent is back in black this year, including star corner Dennis Weathersby and up-and-comer Jake Cookus at free safety. Of course, it doesn't help that standout strong safety Calvin Carlyle was lost for the season last week with shoulder woes before the UCLA game.

But still, zero INTs for defensive coordinator Craig Bray's vaunted stop corps that humiliated Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl a mere ten months ago?.

Perhaps the telltale clue to this puzzling lack of ethereal opportunism is that Cookus is the team's leading tackler. It's great to have a head-cracker at safety, but when he's your team's top stopper it means somebody up front isn't pulling their weight. Just ask Billy Newman what it was like in '99 and '00.

Given the top-notch quality of OSU's linebackers, one rightly must assume that Cookus' gaudy 19 tackles --- as well as the Beavers' meager four sacks on the season --- are an indictment of the defensive line. Or, more specifically, the youth on that line. Senior tackle Eric Manning is the only seasoned hoss down low. Two starters are sophomores and another a junior.

A truism in football is that you can hide a lot of warts with speed, but you can't hide a defensive line that can't pressure the quarterback.

Indeed, through three games OSU is surrendering 258 passing yards per outing, with opposing QBs racking up seven TDs and a passing efficiency rating of 151.3 --- that's 16 efficiency points shy of Gesser, but 15 and 37 points, respectively, better than the Pac-10's two most touted signal callers, Broadway Joey Harrington and Carson Palmer.

It's also exactly 46 points better than what senior Beaver QB Jonathon Smith is tossing up these days.

Which brings up another troubling development in Corvallis: The offense isn't clicking like it did last year or the year before. Smith is a four-year starter and running back Ken Simonton is as good they come. But facts are facts and holes are holes: The Beavers lost four starters from the '00 offensive line -- two guards, a tackle and a tight end -- as well two stud receivers.

They're being outscored by an average of 34.7 to 19.3, and have mustered but three points in all of their third quarters put together. Granted, Fresno State and UCLA are no powder puffs, to be sure. But the Beavs didn't even make those games interesting and they managed but a five-point win over New Mexico State.

Clearly, the Beavers aren't as good as advertised in the pre-season. Nor are they as bad as they looked against UCLA a week ago. The key for Erickson will be to vanquish the seeds of doubt that creep into a team's collective conscience when the going gets tough.

Traveling to Pullman, where the crowds are usually modest but vocal, doesn't help matters. Neither does the Cougars' new-found self-confidence after four lopsided victories.

"I hope we can bounce back from this," linebacker Richard Seigler told the Portland Oregonian. "We've got the athletes and the coaches to win out. But if we don't get some heart behind it, we'll just keep losing."

KICKOFF: 2 pm, Martin Stadium

THE LINE: Cougars by 11

THE SERIES: Cougars have a 44-39-3 lead, but the have a two-game winning streak. Dennis Erickson is 2-1 vs. Washington State, while Mike Price is 7-3 vs. Oregon State. Erickson's only defeat vs. the Cougars came in his first game as a collegiate head coach at Idaho as the Vandals fell 34-14 in 1982.

LAST YEAR: The Beavs dominated, winning 38-9 at Corvallis with Ken Simonton racking up 169 yards on 20 carries. He scored 2 touchdowns and averaged 8.4 yards per carry. Jason Gesser completed 11 of 29 passes for 104 yards, but was intercepted twice.

TV: The game will be broadcast live through parts of Oregon, including Portland and Eugene. The rest of the Pacific Northwest will have to wait for a replay on Fox Sports Net NW at 10 am Sunday.

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