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Toughest call at OSU: Play James Rodgers or apply for medical hardship year?

Weighing in on a few subjects regarding Oregon State football as the Beavers enter a bye week ...

• You might have read today's Portland Tribune Web column on Atlanta Falcons rookie Jacquizz Rodgers and seen his comments about the status of older brother James, rehabbing from a pair of surgeries to his left knee.

Asked if James intended to make his return Sept. 24 at Reser Stadium, Quizz answered, 'That's the plan. His first game will be against UCLA.'

That's surely what James is leaning toward. But it's not a cut-and-dried issue.

In fact, it's a real dilemma for Oregon State coach Mike Riley, who is trying to look out for the best interests of Rodgers but also for those of his team.

There's a real chance that were Rodgers to sit out the year, the NCAA could grant the senior flanker a sixth year of eligibility via medical hardship waiver.

Rodgers, granted a fifth year last winter, underwent the second of two surgeries on the left knee in February. The surgeon told OSU coaches it typically takes 8-12 months to heal. It has been seven months since the surgery. Rodgers has worked his tail off to get back as quickly as possible, and the knee seems stronger than ever. But ...

What if it's not ready for combat? What if he were to hurt it again? An extra year would give the knee a much greater chance to be 100 percent. While Riley would love to have Rodgers back this season, he doesn't want to put the kid's NFL future in jeopardy.

There's another part to it. What if Rodgers were to sit out the season, then have his medical hardship appeal denied by the NCAA?

Riley and OSU compliance personnel feel they have an extremely strong case with Rodgers, but history tells there is no sure thing with the NCAA.

Then Rodgers would be gone, and the Beavers would have wasted the opportunity for a return of their emotional leader and most valuable player for most of the 2011 season.

It's a gamble Riley would rather not have to make.

He'll meet with Rodgers and team medical personnel on Monday and, ultimately, let the player make the decision.

'We're coming to the Rubicon,' Riley says. 'We have to make a choice here.'

I'm sure right now, Rodgers wants to play against UCLA.

For his future, it might be best for him to sit out the year and take the chance that the NFL will clear him for another year of eligibility in 2012.

Glad I'm not making the call.

• The Beavers are likely to appeal for a sixth year of eligibility for cornerback Brandon Hardin, who is out for the season following shoulder surgery.

'We have grounds for an appeal,' Riley says.

The question is whether Hardin will be ready for a shot at the NFL next season. His special-teams work seems well-suited for the pro game.

But Hardin loves college football, was excited for the 2011 campaign and is extremely disappointed to have to miss what would have been his senior year. An extra year of seasoning might make him more prepared for a shot at the NFL.

He may elect to appeal and return if granted another season by the NCAA.

• Other injury information: The strained hamstring of tailback Malcolm Agnew is improving. He'll begin water workouts on Monday, and the goal is to have him running full speed by the following Tuesday. ... Guard Josh Andrews is expected to be out four weeks with an MCL sprain and bone contusion in his right knee. If he recovers on schedule, he would return for the Brigham Young game on Oct. 15. ... Tight end Joe Halahuni (shoulder) will make his season debut against UCLA ... Receiver Jordan Bishop has a sprained ankle but is expected to be ready for the Bruins.

• It's no secret Sean Mannion is the Oregon State quarterback moving forward. The redshirt freshman has been progressing since spring practice, is a more accurate passer than Ryan Katz and does a better job reading defenses than the incumbent junior starter.

That doesn't mean Katz will be banished to the sidelines. He is a much more effective runner than Mannion, and OSU coaches want to have a package ready to exploit Katz's talents if the need arises.

• Riley's explanation for bringing Mannion on after three plays and basically using him the rest of the way against Wisconsin:

'We had a package for Ryan to run the zone read along with some play-action passes,' Riley said. 'We were going to substitute (Mannion) situationally. It wasn't going to be at any certain time.'

After Katz sneaked three yards for a first down, 'we had a different series prepared, so we put in Sean,' Riley said.

The situation was handled poorly. It was a slap in the face to Katz, who put in a lot of hard work in the offseason after starting all of last season. I'm not arguing he is the better QB, but the token start made little sense and became an embarrassment both to Katz and Riley.

I think Riley - who both likes and respects Katz and wants anything but to embarrass him - knows that.

'It's not something we're going to do like that ever again,' is all the coach will say on the matter.

• Saturday's score out of Cedar City - Southern Utah 35, Sacramento State 14 - was salt in the Beavers' wounds.

• Because the prestige of the program has taken such a hit, the UCLA game is as close to a must-win as Oregon State has had in some time.

An early thought: OSU's run offense against UCLA's huge defensive front will be a key matchup. It will be interesting to see how much of a difference Agnew's presence makes, if he is able to make it back in the lineup.

• In the 35-0 loss to Wisconsin, Oregon State's run defense was outstanding until the game got out of hand in the second half. The front four was tough, and middle linebacker Feti Unga had the best game of his career, especially against the run. That was a good sign.

Three other elements - the run offense, the pass defense and special teams - didn't pass muster.

Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson cut up the OSU pass coverage with short routes. Too often receivers were wide open in the flat or over the middle. That can't happen if the Beavers are going to give themselves a chance to win against good opponents.

• The high number of freshmen who are playing key roles - Mannion, Agnew, Brandin Cooks, Connor Hamlett, Scott Crichton, Dylan Wynn, Ryan Murphy, Trevor Romaine among them - is not a great thing for the 'now' of Oregon State football. But it bodes well for the future.

• The season really starts now for the Beavers. Beat UCLA and the opportunity for some momentum exists. Lose and the negativity surrounding the program increases exponentially and makes things harder as the weeks go by.