With Oregon St. (0-2) looking at the possibility of their worst start since the Pettibone era, and UCLA (1-2) already talking of firing alum head coach Rick Neuheisel, today's Pac-12 season opener has been labeled the "Desperation Bowl." But it could also be the opportunity for the winner to turn the corner.
Oregon St. welcomes back WR James Rodgers, out since midseason last fall after he suffered a severe knee injury, and TE Joe Halahuni, who missed the first two games rehabbing after shoulder surgery. Which will be a big tactical boost for the Beavers, given that the pair of seniors have accounted for 26 career touchdowns. But their return may be an even bigger mental boost for a young squad, and especially a young quarterback, Sean Mannion, who will be making his first ever start. Which will bring the total number of first time starters this season for Oregon St. to 17.
James and Joe coming back should give the rest of the offense a hugely needed confidence boost. Success or failure for the Beavers, both against UCLA and going forward, is about 80% between their ears. And with RB Malcolm Agnew still out, and another change on the offensive line, with the injury to Josh Andrews, Mannion needs a security blanket, and the Beavers need some leadership to come from somewhere else. It's hard to imagine a better pair for the job than Rodgers and Halahuni.
Offensively, I think Oregon St. will do surprisingly well as a result.
Defensively, I sense the Sacramento St. loss is almost ancient history. Even though it was just 3 weeks ago, it seems more like 3 months. And the Wisconsin experience was almost surreal, so I don't sense that it is "bothering" the team. Whether that's a good thing of a bad thing we'll find out today.
It should help that
This is a huge game for both teams, and for all the wrong reasons. But I see the problems plaguing the UCLA defense as something that is going to take quite a while to overcome, and Oregon St., well focused on the gravity of the situation, should be able to pull away. Hopefully, earlier than later, which could cause UCLA to fold. Getting the OSU crowd, which will be right at a sell-out, and especially the student section, which will be present in full force for the first time this season, involved will be a big help.
Oregon St. 27 UCLA 17
The main key today will be shutting down the mobility of UCLA quarterback Richard Brehaut. Like Andy has said throughout the week, the Beaver offense shouldn't have too much trouble moving the ball, so I think Brehaut is the only thing stopping Oregon State from winning this one.
There's no need to bring it up again, but in the past few years Oregon State has been awful against mobile quarterbacks. Whether it's the cream of the crop in Jeremiah Masoli or Darron Thomas, or the bottom of the FCS in Jeff Fleming, we have been awful. Mark Banker better come up with a good plan to stop Brehaut, or I'm afraid we'll have a repeat of last season's debacle in Los Angeles.
I actually think this will be a lot like the Sacramento State game. Oregon State should come out tight, with Sean Mannion, James Rodgers, and Joe Halahuni getting their first starts of the year. I think the same thing will happen with the Bruins though, a team playing in front of a big crowd and trying to save their coach's job.
After playing to a 0-0 tie in the first quarter, the UCLA offense settles in and goes on a 80 yard touchdown drive to put the Bruins up 7-0. The same thing happens on the next drive, putting UCLA up 14-0 and bringing out the boo birds in Reser. Never to fear though, James Rodgers is here. After a 40 yard kickoff return by Jordan Poyer, Rodgers slips behind the Bruin defense and Mannion hits him for a 60 yard bomb. Touchdown Beavers, Touchdown James Rodgers, and everything seems normal again.
Mannion settles in after that, throwing for two more touchdowns in the third quarter to put Oregon State up 21-17. In a surprise appearance late in the fourth quarter, Ryan McCants breaks off a 25 yard touchdown run to put the game out of reach.
No matter what goes on during the game though, I'm going to enjoy it. It's Pac-12 football in the Mid-Willamette Valley on an 85 degree day, and nothing beats that. So even though both team's combine for a 1-4 record, get to Corvallis early, be loud, and stay late. You won't regret it.
Prediction: Oregon State 28, UCLA 17
Going into this UCLA game I really have many of the same questions about team identity, swagger, and on the field leadership that I've had in the previous two games. I am also still concerned/interested with the RB position, and with Agnew still out, who is going to step it up?
I thought the defense started to show some things against Wisconsin overall, especially in the run defense, but still with the lack of pressure on QBs in the first two games, there is a lot of improvement that needs to be shown here.
I guess though, unfairly or not, this game seems to be coming down to two key things:
First is the QB, and Sean Mannion in his first "official" start as an Oregon State Beaver. I think that with the previous playing time it will help calm some of his nerves down, but he has a lot of time to think about this and it is a conference home opener for Beavs. There is going to be a lot of pressure out there in front of the home crowd. Will we see more of the conservative play calling to get him slowly into the whole rhythm? Or will we see a bit more of letting him loose to send a message?
To riff a bit on the Mannion situation and I found Langsdorf 's comment here of interest:
"He can be a very good one," Langsdorf said. "He has a lot of great football ahead of him. The sky is the limit with this kid, with his age, and he's going to get great experience early on, which is unique. The only thing he's lacking is game experience, which we are trying to get to him as fast as we can." (Read more in this Albany Democrat-Herald article)
I find this of interest because it does imply that Langsdorf sees Mannion as the long term solution at QB right now, but also seems to imply that rough edges and a growing experience are in the near future. True, this is my reading of it, but I just found the statement of interest in how it puts a ton of pressure on Mannion's potential, then backs off that pressure a bit for this game, and indeed puts some of the pressure back on the coaches for throwing him in there "as fast as we can." We'll see because the team is already 0 and 2 and Beaver Nation is not really about thinking longer term, it is a tough position to be in right now.
Second is the return of some key players, and specifically thinking about James Rodgers and Joe Halahuni. Will these two have an impact on the game? How limited will their play be?
I can also say I'm pretty anxious for this game. We are only the third game in, and already we have a do-or-die feel to it all. The Beavs have had a good amount of time to think about where things have been so far and where they can go. I have a feeling we are going to get a good idea of the mental makeup of this team Saturday.
Here's the link to Cliff's comments and preview over at the Gazette-Times, and Nestor's surprisingly upbeat outlook from Bruins Nation on a game everyone agrees is a big one for both teams, not despite, but because, of how they have gotten the season started.
BTD will be at the game, and be back afterwards with full coverage and analysis.