After playing Sacramento State in the 2011 opener, the Beavers first real test will come against Wisconsin at Camp Randall at 11 a.m. CT on September 10.
Much like the Running Rebels, the Beavers will still be facing serious questions on both sides of the ball, questions that won't be answered when it plays Sacramento State in the opener. The Beavers don't return a single player who earned higher than honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors in 2010, a sign that the school is missing talent when compared to the league's elite programs. OSU will especially miss senior defensive tackle Stephen Paea, the 2010 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, and running back Jacquizz Rodgers, who left for the NFL after his junior season.
The biggest thing for Riley is to get his players healthy. Starting tight end Joe Halahuni is nursing a shoulder injury and his backup Colby Prince missed the spring game with a minor ankle injury. Fifth-year senior James Rodgers is coming off an October knee injury and should be ready by the start of camp but he isn't the only receiver hurting, as No.2 receivers Jordan Bishop (ankle) missed the spring and reserve receivers Darrell Catchings (multiple), Micah Hatfield (hand) Garrett Hall (ankle) and Geno Munoz (hamstring) were all in and out of practice.
Starting junior quarterback Ryan Katz - who started the season with 129 pass attempts without an interception – hurt his wrist and was held out of the spring game, and injuries to tackles Castro Masaniai and Fred Thompson with shoulder injuries, safety Lance Mitchell (groin) and running back Terron Ward (knee) made the trainer's room a crowded place in Corvallis.
"We have to prepare for a lot," said Riley, who ironically fired his head trainer in the spring. "We are not as far along as we've been in the past."
The passing game is expected to be the team's strength, especially with four returning starting offensive linemen who have combined for 91 starts, but Oregon State has found ways to have success running the football. Over the last decade, Oregon State has turned out more than its fair share of 1,000-yard rushers (Steven Jackson and Ken Simonton to name a pair), having a 1,000-yard rusher every year since 2005. The Beavers' have options on their roster, from Ryan McCants to Jovan Stevenson and Malcolm Marable, but none appear to be of the 1,000-yard caliber.
In Oregon State's spring game, McCants (57 yards on 16 carries) and Stevenson (28 yards on 12 rushes and seven catches for 41 yards) got the bulk of the work against the first- and second-team defense. Marable had 102 yards on 13 carries, including the lone offensive touchdown on a 65-yard run at the end of the game. However, the game was really an extended scrimmage because of the amount of injuries.
"It's still a work in progress, we know that," Stevenson told reporters after the game. "Most of the backs do good things, we show good spurts at times but there are times where we took plays off and we know that. It wasn't really a game-time situation, more like a situational scrimmage, but we've still got to go hard."
McCants is the senior of the group while Stevenson is a redshirt sophomore and Marable only a redshirt freshman. With no dominant player of the group, it's evident that it's going to be a committee approach, even if that means Riley plays a freshman.
"It's been proven that a guy can do that," he said. "I think if a runner comes in and he runs and he performs like Quizz did when he was a freshman, then there's no reason why you can't go with a freshman."
Defensively, Oregon State is in the process of replacing seven full-timers, including three on the defensive line. OSU is lucky, though, as lineman Dominic Glover - whose 43 tackles were the third-most of Beavers returning this season - is capable of playing end or tackle. Still, OSU's success will fall on the secondary, which was miserable last season against the pass (16 touchdowns and just four interceptions in the final eight games) and the unit contributed to finishing 109th in the country in third-down stops (47 percent).
When Mitchell is healthy, he is the Beavers best defensive player. Not only is he heading into his third season as a starter, Mitchell has the holy trinity for college DBs: size, speed and ball skills, as he made 74 tackles, three pass breakups and two interceptions last fall. Mitchell can't do it alone, and will need help from the cornerbacks, particularly senior Brandon Hardin who returns from a rough '10 season.
Oregon State isn't the type of opponent UW thought it was going to be when the two schools inked this contract so many years ago. Like Arizona State was last year, though, this is a BCS opponent that Wisconsin will need to execute against to win. The bad news is that Oregon State is a solid fourth quarter team (outscoring opponents 74-43 last year), but the good news is OSU lost the time of possession battle. If UW keeps the ball on the ground and shuts down the passing game, victory should be easily obtainable for the Badgers.
Overall Record: UW leads 1-0-0
Record in Madison: UW leads 1-0-0
Last Meeting: Wisconsin won, 23-20, in Madison in 1961