Win at Arizona could provide revenge and timely momentum
Every Pac-10 game left on Oregon State's schedule is important, with the drive toward bowl eligibility at stake. But with the Beavers (3-3 overall, 1-2 Pac-10) back on the winning track and second-ranked Southern Cal visiting Corvallis on Oct. 28, Saturday's game at Arizona would qualify in the colossal category.
'Huge,' Oregon State coach Mike Riley says. 'We're in a one-week-at-a-time deal, but this is big.'
Arizona (3-4, 1-3) is coming off a 20-7 victory over Stanford, the conference's one true 98-pound weakling. The Wildcats limited the Cardinal to 52 yards total offense - worst in school history - and minus-six yards rushing.
The biggest question is whether Arizona quarterback Willie Tuitama, who has been knocked out of games with concussions twice already this season, will be in action Saturday.
'We're hearing they're trying to get Willie back for the game,' Riley says. 'We'll prepare our defensive game plan this week with that in mind.'
Tuitama had his coming-out party in Corvallis a year ago as a true freshman. In his first college start, the 6-3, 225-pounder threw for 335 yards and three touchdowns in a 29-27 upset of the Beavers. He went on to start Arizona's final three games, completing 57.7 percent and throwing for 1,105 yards and nine TDs.
It has been rougher going this year. Tuitama suffered a concussion on the first play of Arizona's 45-3 opening loss at Louisiana State and missed the next game. After returning to duty, he suffered another concussion in a 27-7 loss at UCLA on Oct. 8 and sat out the Stanford game.
If Tuitama can't go, Arizona is down to third-stringer Kris Heavner, because backup Adam Austin went down to a knee injury in the second quarter against Stanford. Heavner, a 6-3, 245-pound senior who started eight games as a freshman in 2003, went 4 for 4 for 11 yards in his 2 1/2 quarters as Arizona stayed on the ground against the Cardinal.
'Willie's a good quarterback,' Riley says. 'He can really throw the ball. Against Washington, he battled and made some great throws under pressure. But he's had a lot of heat on him this year. I don't know much about (Heavner), but it's not like they'd be throwing in a guy who hasn't played. He's a talented kid.'
The Beavers have had 11 sacks in the last two games, which must make Stoops feel uneasy, since his line has struggled to protect its quarterbacks. And Oregon State ranks third in the Pac-10 in total defense, with 302 yards per game allowed.
The OSU secondary, thin due to injury in the 27-17 victory at Washington last Saturday, should be replenished against Arizona.
Cornerback Keenan Lewis exited after the first play from scrimmage and was done after aggravating a shoulder injury suffered the week before. Lewis is expected to play Saturday, though his replacement against the Huskies, Coye Francies, is the likely starter. Safety Al Afalava, who missed the UW game with a concussion sustained against Washington State, should be back. If so, he'll reclaim his starting spot from Bryan Payton.
As for the offense, Matt Moore came through with his best performance of the year against Washington, throwing for 241 of his 308 yards to key the second-half comeback. Backup Sean Canfield's first prime-time duty was a negative - his second-quarter pass turned into an interception that set up a Husky touchdown - but he's likely to get scripted duty again against Arizona.
Arizona rushed for 236 yards against Stanford, but that may be more a statement about the opponent than anything. In the Wildcats' previous three games, they rushed for minus-16, minus-seven and minus-13 yards.
The 'Cats rank ninth in the Pac-10 in scoring (12.4 points per game), total offense (254.7 yards), pass offense (176.3) and rushing offense (78.4), ahead of only Stanford in each area. They are 111th among 119 Division I-A teams in total offense.
Their calling card is a defense that ranks fourth in the Pac-10, yielding 306 yards per game. Michael Johnson (6-2, 210 senior) and Dominic Patrick (6-1, 215 junior) are as good a pair of safeties as there are in the Pac-10.
'The whole secondary is good and their (defensive) line is active,' Riley says. 'We have to block their front effectively so we can be balanced with the run and pass. It looks like a tough chore.'
In the fateful loss to Arizona a year ago - it basically cost Oregon State a fourth straight bowl appearance - the Beavers amassed 31 first downs and 654 yards in total offense. Matt Moore completed 43 of 52 passes for 436 yards and had only three incompletions. But six of his attempts went for interceptions, and Moore's fumble as the Beavers were driving for a potential go-ahead score spelled doom.
'It's a new season,' Riley says. 'What happened last year isn't something we've really talked about, but I'm sure the guys remember.'