The Badgers utilized a dominating effort in all three phases to pound Oregon State, 35-0, in week two last season. It was a sign of things to come, as Wisconsin went 11-3 overall, won the Big Ten and went back to the Rose Bowl. The Beavers finished 3-9 under head coach Mike Riley, the school's worst record since Riley's first stint as coach in 1997.
What does Oregon State hold in store for the Badgers this season when Wisconsin travels out to Corvallis for the Beavers' season opener? To find out more, Badger Nation reached out to BeaverFootball.com Publisher Barry Bolton to get some insight on the Beavers.
In what areas has Sean Mannion gone through the biggest areas of improvement over the past year?
Bolton: The biggest area is probably leadership. No longer a redshirt freshman, he's more vocal and demonstrative than he was last year. Other areas, it's hard to draw hard-and-fast conclusions. Some days in fall camp he's shown considerable improvement in, for example, read progression and getting the ball out quicker than he did in 2011. And then he might have a lapse in those areas on another day, though he (and the rest of the team) looked to be peaking over the last week-plus. Maybe the best way to say it: He's improved across the board and in a number of areas that he needed to from 2011, but there's some inconsistency in that improvement.
How is the health of this year's team entering into the opener?
Bolton: Pretty good. Prior to Nicholls State being postponed, there was probably only a guy or two in the two-deeps who were questionable or doubtful. Oregon State should be relatively healthy for the game, although they're thin behind the front-line starters at a number of spots.
What do you see as this year's team's biggest strengths and this year's team's biggest weakness?
Bolton: With weaknesses, the biggest one by far is the depth. OSU can on any given Saturday play with anyone when you're looking at their front line guys. (Doesn't mean they're going to do so every Saturday guaranteed, but they're certainly capable of it.) The problem is that beyond those front line guys and at a number of positions for 2012, the depth is young, inexperienced and untested. Areas that have those "consistency question marks" include the o-line, running back, tight end and linebacker. As to strengths, the Beavs do have strength and numbers in the secondary, Mannion is a year older, the two sophomore defensive ends - Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn - are becoming special players and receivers Markus Wheaton, Brandon Cooks and Richard Mullaney are guys who can make big plays in a hurry.
Bret Bielema said the strength of the Beavers was their wide receivers. Is he right and what about this receiving corps makes them so good?
Bolton: I assume he was talking about the OSU offense and I would give the receiver corps the nod as well (if asked about strongest position group overall, offense or defense, I would give the nod to the secondary - they have talent both in the front line guys and in the depth). Wheaton is fast, quick and crafty. He can go post anytime if a defense isn't paying enough attention. Cooks is flat-out fast. He's still putting the polish on some areas. He's just a sophomore, but he is explosive. Mullaney is Mr. Dependable. He's deceptively fast and has a good, strong pair of hands. Kevin Cummings is dependable and while he may not have as much flash as Wheaton or Cooks, he can burn people if they're not careful. Micah Hatfield has been battling injuries but when healthy, he can surprise people and is a solid possession guy who can move the chains on critical third downs. Obum Gwacham is one of the few guys who were questionable for NSU. He's raw (sophomore) but he's tall (6-5) and is expected to become a serious red-zone threat over the course of this season.
Bielema also spoke highly of the Oregon State linebackers. What are your early impressions of them throughout camp?
Bolton: They're fast and quick – and for the most part they're also undersized. Michael Doctor and D.J. Welch can cover a lot of ground and Feti Unga (honoring his mother this year and so jersey will read Taumoepeau) has been coming on the last couple of weeks. When the linebackers have been in sync, they've looked good. When they haven't, there have been times when over-pursuit and not wrapping up properly has been an issue. They're a good group, but they're still developing. Former starter Rueben Robinson is among those to look for in rotation, probably at Mike.
What's the vibe around this team after last year's disappointments, including the 35-0 loss in Madison?
Bolton: I'd say most fans are hopeful but also in a "show-me" mode. The Beavs are definitely improved from last year – but the question remains, is it a lot or a little? And that can't really be answered yet with this team, not until they start playing the games.
How does last week's opener being canceled effect Oregon State's preparation in your eyes?
Bolton: I think it hurts a pretty fair amount. OSU looked to be peaking at the right time, but there's also nothing that can be done about it. Fall camp in college football is arguably a little too long for everyone. There's a point where you hear most every coach say ‘it's time for us to go play' and the Beavs will have to guard against diminishing returns this week in practice. Opening with a top 15 team like Wisconsin also isn't the ideal scenario. It would have been nice for the Beavs to have had a game under their belt. That's the hand they were dealt and they're going to have to go out and hit someone in the face rather than dwell on their bad luck.
From Oregon State's perspective, what's the toughest thing about this year's Wisconsin football team?
Bolton: Good, physical running teams could give OSU more problems than passing teams in 2012, with the strength on defense in the secondary. One good thing OSU has going for them is DT Castro Masaniai is back healthy. He's huge (listed at 346 pounds) but his weight is packaged differently than last year. If he can get a little help on the inside, he and OSU will be that much better off against the run. A physical defense that can negate OSU's speed at certain spots could also be problematic for OSU.
What's the key to Oregon State winning this football game?
Bolton: OSU's margin for error is small against Wisconsin from this chair. The Beavs don't need to be letter-perfect but they need to play at or close to their potential and for all four quarters. OSU getting some big plays early – a long catch and run for score, a turnover early that they convert into points – would be a boon to their chances. They're not going to shut down Wisconsin's running game but they have to take advantage of third down opportunities, hold and get off the field. Mannion needs to play smart and with precision but he also has to stretch Wisconsin's D to open up the running game. And there remains a number of questions about the running game. Starter Storm Woods has to break off some runs to give the o-line and himself confidence.