CORVALLIS — After two years of decline, this new season could prove to be a pivotal one for the Oregon State football program and coach Mike Riley.
After finishing 3-9 last year — the Beavers never really recovered from a shocking upset by lower-division Sacramento State in the opener — Oregon State has fallen to depths not seen in Corvallis since Riley's first stint as head coach in the late 1990s. After guiding the Beavers to six bowl games in his first seven years since returning in 2003, Riley failed to get his team to the postseason in 2010 and 2011.
The question is whether the slide is indicative of a downward trend for a team that is not keeping up in the Pac-12 or just a confluence of unfortunate circumstances. The Pac-12 media have cast a vote for the former, picking the Beavers to finish last in the North Division.
For now it's a question without an answer. But following the example of their always-optimistic coach, the Beavers were upbeat early in fall camp.
"I have been really excited with the attitude and intensity of the team," said quarterback Sean Mannion. "Everyone is ready to play every day and I think that shows."
Mannion had a promising rookie year, despite having to shoulder the load due to a sluggish running game. The sophomore was given the honor of being named a team captain this season, something that is unprecedented under Riley.
If the Beavers put together a more balanced attack, then Mannion should see a drop in his 18 interceptions, which were second-most in the country last season, and perhaps even improvement in his 3,332 passing yards and 64.5 completion percentage. Mannion should have some talented targets to throw to in senior Markus Wheaton and sophomore Brandin Cooks.
The search for a running back will likely be a continuing story line into the season, with sophomores Malcolm Agnew, Terron Ward and freshman Storm Woods as the favorites. Woods had the best spring of the three and Agnew had tantalized fans by running for 223 yards against Sacramento State in the opener before suffering a nagging hamstring injury.
"If we want to be what we want to be, we need to run the ball," said Riley, who said he wants the team to rush for 1,700 to 1,800 yards this season.
The biggest factor in Oregon State's anemic running game last year (averaging just 86.9 yards per game) was poor run blocking from the offensive line, which Riley candidly said was his biggest concern entering fall camp. The return of All-American Michael Philipp from injury and arrival of touted freshman Isaac Seumalo should help, but a lack of depth and experience on the line should be a challenge.
While the Beavers' offense had difficulty running the ball in 2011, the defense had serious problems stopping the run. Oregon State gave up nearly 200 yards a game on the ground, which was worst in the conference and among the worst in the nation. Riley has also referenced third-down defense (10th in the conference) and red-zone defense (8th) as specific areas where the Beavers need to improve.
Oregon State should be set at defensive end with the return of Dylan Wynn and Scott Crichton, two playmakers who made a splash as true freshmen. The interior is more the concern. Seniors Andrew Seumalo and 354-pounder Castro Masaniai have experience, but the bench is thin. Depth is also an issue at linebacker, where starters Feti Unga and Michael Doctor return, likely to be joined by sophomore speedster D.J. Welch.
The strength of the Beavers' defense is the secondary, which is anchored by ball-hawking cornerback Jordan Poyer, a second-team all-conference selection last year. Rashaad Reynolds returns to start at the other corner spot and safety Anthony Watkins led the team in tackles last season with 85.
Oregon State returns kicker Trevor Romaine, who hit 15 of 22 field goals and 27 of 28 extra points as a freshman last year. Australian Tim McMullen is in competition with Keith Kostol to take over at punter from Johnny Hekker.
The Beavers kick off the season Sept. 1 with Nicholls State and then host Big Ten powerhouse Wisconsin the following week. After last year's season-opening debacle, don't expect the Colonels of Thibodaux, La., to catch the Beavers napping.
"We know every game is going to be a battle and we can't overlook any team. We overlooked Sac State last year and we're going to learn from that," Poyer said.