by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We can forgive those of the ESPN Generation who reacted with some shock when Oregon State’s football team slipped to a 5-7 mark and missed out entirely on a bowl trip in 2010. That’s because over the past decade, the Beavers had emerged as postseason regulars under Dennis Erickson and Mike Riley, even coming within one win of Rose Bowl appearances in 2008 & ‘09. No wonder Erin Andrews and her contemporaries were almost incredulous that OSU was out of the bowl mix a year ago.

Perhaps that is a byproduct of youth, or short memories. But there was a time not long ago when the chance of Oregon State qualifying for a bowl game was about as remote as Vanderbilt winning the SEC. Between 1971-98, the Beavers didn’t even record a winning record, much less qualify for the postseason. Along the way was a 10-season stretch between 1975-84 when the Beavers only once won more than two games, and that was a big three victories in 1978. For three straight campaigns between 1990-92, OSU won exactly one game each season. Various well-regarded coaches tried and failed in Corvallis, posting won-loss records that were football equivalents to the pitchers on the 1962 New York Mets. Craig Fertig was 8-36-1 between 1976-79; Joe Avezzano 6-47-2 between 1980-84; Dave Kraghthorpe 17-48-2 from 1985-90; Jerry Pettibone 13-52-1 from 1991-96.

What always fueled longtime Beaver backers during that dark era, however, were distant memories of glory, the last of which coming in the early days of Dee “The Great Pumpkin” Andros’ regime in the late ’60s. Andros, who succeeded Tommy Prothro in 1965, posted a couple of especially memorable teams in 1967 & ‘68, the former now of legendary stature as the famed “Giant Killers” who knocked off a pair of top-ranked teams (Leroy Keyes’ Purdue and O.J. Simpson’s Southern Cal) and tying a number-two ranked squad (Gary Beban’s UCLA) over a four-week span late in the season, relying not as much on finesse but rather brute force epitomized by punishing FB Bill “Earthquake” Enyart and DT Jess Lewis, who would go on to also become the NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion. OSU finished that ‘67 season as arguably the hottest team in the country and was ranked 7th in the polls but was denied a postseason stage by the Draconian bowl rules of the day enforced by the AAWU (forerunner to the Pac-8, 10 and 12), which, like the Big Ten in the ‘60s, limited postseason appearances to only the Rose Bowl for the conference champion. Another rugged Andros team featuring Enyart made noise in ‘68, but three losses by a combined 6 points denied that OSU edition of glory as it finished 7-3 and ranked 15th in the final polls. Prior to Andros, the program had flourished under the aforementioned Prothro, who took two Beaver teams to the Rose Bowl (1956 & ‘64) and another to the Liberty Bowl in ‘62 when the school was campaigning as an independent, the latter also featuring Heisman-winning QB Terry Baker.

The program began to slide under Andros in the early ‘70s, however, and did not recover until Mike Riley arrived on the scene in 1997 and began to rebuild the foundation. After Riley departed for the NFL San Diego Chargers following the ‘98 campaign, the Beavers were ready to emerge for Dennis Erickson, under whom OSU quickly scaled the sort of heights that seemed a fantasy for the previous decades. Erickson’s first team in 1999 broke the 35-year bowl drought and his second team in 2000 emerged as a legitimate power, qualifying for the BCS, where it routed Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl and finished as the fourth-ranked team in the country. Erickson subsequently moved back to the NFL 49ers in 2003, paving the way for the return of Riley, under whom the program continued the momentum, qualifying for bowls in six of the next seven seasons before slipping to sub-.500 status a year ago.

Perhaps it is the fear of a return to the dark era that has OSU fans fretting in the offseason as they entertain the possibilities that 2010 results could foretell further erosion of the program in 2011, although no regional observers seriously expect the Beavers to regress to the Fertig/Avezzano days anytime soon. Indeed, given Riley’s track record, a bounce-back to bowl status would come as no surprise. Although OSU enters the fall with more questions than at any time during Riley’s second tenure, which enters its ninth season in September.

Specifically, catalyst RB Jacquizz Rodgers, the fulcrum of the Beaver offense for the past three seasons when gaining 3877 YR, departed a year early for the NFL Draft, where he was a 5th-round pick by the Falcons. Moreover, brother James Rodgers, a game-breaking wideout, is questionable for the fall as rehabilitation from last season’s serious knee injury (which prompted the NCAA to award him an extra 6th year of eligibility) lingers. Changes on the offensive staff (new RB and WR coaches), serious reshuffling along both lines, and the status of jr. QB Ryan Katz (limited in spring while recuperating from a serious wrist injury) all combine to make 2011 something of an adventure into the unknown for the Beavs.

Those who lament the departure of “Quizz” Rodgers, however, are forgetting that OSU has been able to effectively replace a couple of other top RBs over the past decade, Ken Simonton and Steven Jackson, although with Quizz gobbling up most of the available carries the past few seasons, his replacements are something of unknown quantities at the moment. Punishing 6'1, 237-lb. sr. Ryan McCants has run with some flair in limited carries in the past and reminds some observers of a newer version of Steven Jackson, although there is a growing buzz surrounding “greyshirt” frosh Terron Ward, a 5'7 mini-back like Quizz who wowed ‘em during the spring after starring for the high-profile Concord (Ca.) De La Salle program during his prep days. Meanwhile, James Rodgers’ potential absence into the fall has thrust the pass-catching burden upon jr. Markus Wheaton, who caught a team-best 55 passes LY and has flashed big-play potential in the past and, in James Rodgers’ absence, stepped up to assume a leadership role in spring, which pleased Riley greatly. Wheaton, fellow wideout Jordan Bishop, and reliable H-back Joe Halahuni return after ranking as the top three OSU pass catchers a year ago.

We suspect, however, that OSU will turn into Katz’ team this fall. The wrist injury suffered in last December’s Civil War loss to Oregon should be healed completely by fall camp, and Katz reminded more than a few of a young Drew Brees last season with his maturity and field presence when passing for 2401 yards in his debut as the starter. History also indicates Riley’s QBs often make enormous strides between their first and second years. Indeed, many believe it will instead be upgrades along the offensive line that will be most important if the Beavs are to improve upon their surprisingly-low 94th ranking in total offense last season. To that end, Riley was in adjustment mode during spring, with tackles Mike Remmers and Michael Philipp swapping sides, LG Grant Johnson moving to center, and backup C Josh Andrews moving to Johnson’s old LG position. Meanwhile, three-year starting PK Justin Kahut will be replaced by a well-regarded RS frosh, Trevor Romaine.

The stop unit also sprung a few too many leaks last fall as it tumbled to an 82nd ranking in overall defense. Graduation hit the platoon hard, especially on the DL where three starters, including run-stuffing DT Stephen Paea, a second-round draft choice by the Bears, have departed. In addition, impact OLBs Keith Pankey and Dwight Roberson have also left the scene, and two new starters must be plugged into the secondary. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker is cautiously optimistic, however, that 341-lb. jr. rhinoceros Castro Masaniai, who missed spring work while rehabbing a bad shoulder, can effectively fill Paea’s position at DT if he can stay healthy, while a number of touted juco DEs, Rusty Fernando, Blake Harrah, and Rudolf Fifita, could provide some immediate help. Banker was also experimenting in spring with the lone returning DL starter, sr. DE Dominic Glover, taking reps at DT. Potential playmakers to watch in the fall include OLB Michael Doctor, off of an impressive spring, and sr. DBs Brandon Hardin (CB) and Lance Mitchell (SS).

Despite fading down the stretch when dropping 4 of their last 5 in 2010, remember that Riley’s teams usually close the campaign fast, reflected in their 24-10 spread record from November onward between 2003-09. OSU also continued to offer good value in the underdog role last season, covering 5 of 7 as the “short” and now 19-6 its 25 receiving points since midway in the 2006 campaign.

Summary...Given the many personnel question marks in Corvallis, we can’t project the Beavers any better than a mystery team in the Pac-12 North this fall. Riley’s track record and the suspicion that Katz could blossom into one of the region’s top QBs makes us believe the “O” will weather the departure of Quizz Rodgers and potential absence of brother James and fuel a return to the bowl mix, but we are less convinced about a defense that regressed in 2010 and now must proceed minus its most-impactful presence in DT Stephen Paea. Don’t panic if OSU starts slowly (a tough September slate features road trips to Wisconsin and Arizona State), as Riley’s teams often hit their stride later in the season, but we doubt the Beavs can ascend much beyond minor bowl territory this fall.

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