TUCSON, AZ - OCTOBER 09: Wide receiver Markus Wheaton #2 of the Oregon State Beavers runs with the football after a 6 yard reception against the Arizona Wildcats during the college football game at Arizona Stadium on October 9, 2010 in Tucson, Arizona. The Beavers defeated the Wildcats 29-27. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Though its trophy case was bereft of Pacific 10 Conference championship titles, Oregon State could be counted on to pull off an upset and make a bowl game for much of the Aughties. Mike Riley's Beavers pulled off two of the most high profile shockers in recent Pac history, ending USC's three-year run of conference perfection in 2006 and scoring a season high 27 on the 2008 Trojan defense that ranks among college football's all-time best.
The Beavers bowled every season from 2000 through 2009 but two (2001 and 2005) and won at least eight games seven of those 10 campaigns. Last season's 3-9 finish, however, was the program's worst since 1997.
"It left a bad taste in our mouth and it hurts," said defensive back Jordan Poyer at Pac-12 Media Day. "We don't want to feel that again."
The Pac-10 making way for the Pac-12 coincided with OSU slipping to doldrums not experienced since before Riley's tenure began -- the first one. Since the conference brass announced Colorado and Utah merging in June 2010, OSU has gone 8-16. And here's a kicker for Arizona fans: 25 percent of those wins have come against the Wildcats.
Last season in Reser Stadium, UA fell behind by big before its furious rally fell short and sealed Mike Stoops' fate as head coach. The Beavers visit Arizona Stadium on Sept. 29 in the Wildcats' home conference opener. UA has not beaten OSU in Tucson since 1997.
When the two meet in 2012, it will pair two defenses that allowed more than 30 points per game last season and face questions now. OSU has a talented secondary starting with Poyer. Fellow cornerback Rashaad Reynolds had a pick and nine pass deflections. All told, OSU allowed 214.4 passing yards per game -- a respectable total, particularly in a conference with five of the nation's top 25 aerial offenses (OSU played four of them).
But the Beavers struggled mightily against the rush, allowing close to 200 yards per game on the ground. In a conference that has arguably the best collection of running backs in the nation, that's a
OSU's offense had mirroring struggles. Jacquizz Rodgers left a void much larger than his 5-foot-6 frame -- a void that three players couldn't fill. Malcolm Agnew, Jovan Stevenson and Terron Ward all had at least 57 carries; none reached the five yard per carry barrier.
The lack of a stable rushing game forced quarterback Sean Mannion to wing the ball around the field to the tune of 3328 yards on 473 attempts. The youngster Mannion elevated the Beaver passing attack into the nation's top 20, but as youngsters are wont to do he was inconsistent, throwing 18 interceptions.
A stable running presence -- whether it's Agnew, Stevenson, Ward or any combination of the three -- would allow Mannion to operate without throwing into multiple coverage.
"We're going to be able to throw the ball, we have good receivers...[O]ne of the main keys to our team is our ability to run the football. It keys everything we do, throwing play‑action passes, things like that," Riley said.
The Beavers get to test the ground game against FCS Nicholls State, a team that allowed 155 yards on the ground per game. After last season's overtime loss to Big Sky member Sacramento State, don't expect the Beavers to take the Colonels lightly. But from there, OSU's schedule gets brutal: the Beavers host Wisconsin, travel to UCLA and UA, host Washington State and go on the road against BYU.
Returning the postseason might be contingent on opening 4-2 in that stretch with Stanford, Oregon, Utah and a road trip to Washington looming on the back half.