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Five things to look for from Beavers

CORVALLIS — Oregon State figures to learn a lot about itself tonight at Memorial Coliseum, where the Beavers haven’t won since 1960. There are a host of story lines in this one, but below are the five key things I’ll be tracking in the OSU-USC matchup.

1. How will young receivers fare against a quality USC secondary?

Victor Bolden’s dislocated pinkie finger had a trickle-down effect on OSU’s receiving corps. Junior Richard Mullaney, who filled in admirably at flanker against San Diego State when Rahmel Dockery left with a hip pointer, should replace Bolden in the starting lineup. Jordan Villamin will start at split end.

Dockery returned to practice Thursday and is expected to play at USC. Still, the Beavers plan to burn freshman Xavier Hawkins’ redshirt today. That means three freshman receivers — Hawkins, Villamin and slotback Hunter Jarmon — should face a Trojans secondary that ranks 19th nationally with just 166.3 passing yards allowed per game.

To have a shot at the upset, OSU will need the young wideouts to contribute. The Beavers’ offense is too predictable when Sean Mannion consistently leans on tight ends Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith.

2. Can the Beavers establish their run game?

With defensive end Leonard Williams leading the way, the Trojans’ front seven earned plenty of preseason praise. After three games, though, a number of questions have surfaced. Boston College steamrolled USC two weeks ago for an eye-popping 452 rushing yards. The Trojans plummeted to 116th nationally in rush defense after the porous display.

USC surely spent its bye week trying to solve issues on the ground. But expect OSU to try establishing its ground game early. The Beavers, after all, have become considerably more balanced since 2013. “Co-starters” Terron Ward and Storm Woods both own 212 rushing yards through three games. Last week against SDSU, all four of OSU’s touchdowns came on the ground.

With Bolden out, the rushing attack will be that much more important. The Beavers have few proven options in the passing game to shoulder the load should they sputter on the ground.

3. Can OSU end its Memorial Coliseum drought?

The last time the Beavers won at the Coliseum, Dwight Eisenhower was president and Terry Baker was OSU’s backup running back. They’ve dropped 22 straight games in Los Angeles, including several close calls. OSU fell by eight points in 1999, three in 2001 and six in its last USC trip five years ago.

This week, coaches and players downplayed the 54-year skid. No added motivation is needed against a perennial power, they regularly explained. But that doesn’t change a simple fact: A victory today would have special significance.

4. Can Mannion prove he can thrive against USC?

Mannion has only played USC once, and that game was a forgettable one. In last November’s 31-14 home loss to the Trojans, the big-armed signal caller was 26 of 45 for one touchdown and three interceptions. He didn’t come close to a touchdown after finding Brandin Cooks in the end zone early in the second quarter.

Of course, Mannion shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. The offensive line struggled with pass protection against an aggressive USC front seven, leaving little time for Mannion to make reads.

He still was inaccurate at times when not facing pressure. Though the Trojans have some new pieces and a new defensive coordinator, they continue to present challenges. Mannion, fresh off setting OSU’s career passing record, likely must string together a quality performance for the aerial assault to stay afloat. He’ll need to make the game easier for his freshman receivers.

5. Is OSU’s defense for real?

A veteran-laden Beavers defense has been elite this season. Through three games, it ranks sixth nationally in total defense. The Beavers surrendered no points and just 140 yards after the first 3:33 of last Saturday’s win over SDSU.

But it’s important to keep such achievements in perspective. OSU has yet to encounter an offense in the same stratosphere as USC, a team riddled with four- and five-star playmakers.

The secondary will deal with the potent Cody Kessler-to-Nelson Agholor connection. The front seven will stare down rugged running back Javorius Allen, who broke out against the Beavers last year with 133 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

So fans should learn much about OSU’s defense. Is Mark Banker’s crew truly great, or was it just the beneficiary of subpar nonconference opponents?

Oregon State running back Terron Ward (28) has gained 212 yards thus far, the same as backfield mate Storm Woods. AP PHOTO