After losing the opening game to Eastern Washington, Oregon State went on a six-game winning streak fueled (mostly) by the pass-catch combo of Sean Mannion and Biletnikoff Award-winner Brandin Cooks. The tough defense was led by end Scott Crichton, and the Beavers put everyone to the sword. Then, in poster child mode for a ‘tale of two seasons’, OSU struggled in the second, tougher, half of the season, including a gut-wrenching last-minute loss to Oregon, before a bowl win over Boise State restored some confidence. The Beavers have lost some key members of last season, but return plenty of others. The question is, can they come up with the goods when they face the big boys?
Mannion was on fire over the first half of the season, and broke the PAC 12 passing record with 4662 yards. He completed 400 of his 603 passes, throwing for 37 TDs, but he also threw 15 interceptions. While an interception percentage of 2.5 is more than acceptable, Mannion threw 11 of those interceptions in the five-game losing streak, with just 8 TD passes. Compare that to his stats for the rest of the season, and it’s clear Mannion still struggles greatly against the better teams on his schedule, an issue that has seen him in and out of the lineup in the past. Still, he’s a senior now, so more will be expected of him. Perhaps some more balance on offense (625 passes, 355 runs) will help.
Mannion will have to survive this season without the outstanding Cooks, who made his job a lot easier. Cooks was a threat to score at all times, and caught 128 passes for an outstanding 1730 yards and 16 TDs. Richard Mullaney is a good option, but was a distant second in receiving with 52 receptions for 788 yards and 3 TDs, or less than half of Cooks’ production. Can he put up the same kind of numbers? It’s doubtful, but Mannion does a good job of spreading the ball around. Look for a pair of sophomores, Victor Bolden and Malik Gilmore, to step up to the plate this season. They combined for just 13 receptions and 138 yards, but they have talent. Bolden will probably get the thankless task of replacing Cooks. Oregon State also have not one, not two, but three quality tight ends who play a role in the passing game. Connor Hamlett is the star, with 40 catches for 364 yards and 5 scores, but Caleb Smith and Kellen Clute chipped in with a combined 44 receptions for 502 yards and 6 TDs.
Storm Woods was a big part of the running attack in 2012, but was banged up last season and finished with just 477 yards and 6 scores, roughly half of his production from the previous season. Assuming he stays healthy this year, expect the Beavers to lean on him more. He’s also a fine receiver, and pitched in with 47 receptions for 440 yards and a score. Terron Ward stepped up in his absence and had some bright moments, leading the team with 521 yards and 5 TDs. Also a capable receiver, he caught 34 balls for 280 yards and 3 scores. They’ll likely split the carries next season, but it would benefit the play-action passing game if they got a few more.
The offensive line could be a problem again, losing left tackle Michael Philipp and guards Josh Andrews and Grant Enger. All three are multi-year starters. Returning are all-conference center Isaac Seumalo and right tackle Sean Harlow, both juniors. Roman Sapolu started the first couple of games last year before a foot injury ended his season, but he’ll be back in 2014. He should take over at guard or center, but he lacks ideal bulk. No one would say that about 340-pound Gavin Andrews, who’ll take over at right tackle and should add some pop to the running game. Fred Lauina is another strong prospect who should find a home at one of the guard positions. The unit has plenty of potential, but lacks experience.
The defensive line takes a hit with the loss of Crichton and tackles Mana Rosa and John Braun, but should be okay. Dylan Wynn, who was fourth on the team with 67 tackles, 5 for loss, returns at one end, while Jaswha James should take over Crichton. James saw more action as the season went on, and has shown he can get after the passer. In the middle, Miami-transfer Jalen Grimble should be a wrecking ball in the interior, Siale Hautau is almost big enough to blot out the sun, and should tie up a couple of blockers on running plays. If Grimble can live up to his reputation, this could be an outstanding line. Depth could be a concern.
One thing is for certain, this is one of the best linebacker units in the PAC 12. Weakside linebacker Michael Doctor was lost for the year early on, but he’ll be back in 2014, and should be his usual troublesome self. Jabral Johnson switched from the strongside to take Doctor’s place, and did a good job, coming second on the team with 94 tackles. Now he moves to the middle, and he has looked good so far in camp. DJ Alexander took over on the strongside when Johnson switched, and should stay there this season. Joel Kotte and Rommel Mageo split time at middle linebacker and will provide excellent depth, although Skotte may take a redshirt to further recover from neck surgery.
Cornerback Rashaad Reynolds and reserve Sean Martin are the only losses in the secondary, and will be replaced Larry Scott and Dashon Hunt, who will continue their battle for the starting spot into summer camp. Former JUCO Steven Nelson took over for Martin after three games, and never looked back, tying for the team-lead (with Reynolds) with 6 interceptions, and breaking up 8 passes, while also helping out in run support. Free safety Tyrequek Zimmerman is a good tackler with a enough speed to cover the slot. He led the team with 104 tackles. Strong safety Ryan Murphy was a playmaker, making 8 of his tackles in opponents backfields and picking off 3 passes. This should continue to be a solid unit.
Trevor Romaine was a decent kicker last season, hitting 14 of 20 field goals, with a long of 50. He missed a couple he should really have made, but the Beavers will be glad to have him back for one more year. Punter Keith Kostol’s mediocre gross of 40.5 yards per punt was offset by dropping 23 punts inside the 20 (5 touchbacks) and forcing 22 fair catches. Only 13 punts were returned, for 88 yards. Bolden returned a kick for a TD, but had an unspectacular average of 20.7 yards per kick return, while Cooks managed just 5.7 yards on punt returns. Cooks will need to be replaced. The kick coverage wasn’t bad but could stand to improve.
Expect the Beavers to start 3-0 with a relatively easy non-league slate against Portland State, Hawaii (away) and San Diego State, but that’s as good as it gets. Then they head to USC to open conference play. The Beavers also have trips to Stanford and Washington, but get Arizona State and Oregon in Corvallis. Don’t write off Utah, who pushed OSU all the way last season, and Washington State who are both improving. The offense needs to maintain more balance to protect Mannion, who needs to play better in the big games. If Mannion can take another step this year like he did in 2013, the Beavers could compete for the title. If he stays at this level, another seven wins is probably in the cards.