Penalties, special teams must be shored up to beat Arizona

Listening to a late Saturday night national radio talk show on the way back to my hotel from Sun Devil Stadium, I heard the East Coast-based, know-it-all host talking about Wisconsin.

The Badgers 'hadn't played anybody until Nebraska,' Mr. Omniscient was saying. 'UNLV, Oregon State ... that's probably the worst team in any BCS Conference.'

It's true that OSU is 0-4 and joins the likes of Florida Atlantic (0-4), Alabama-Birmingham (0-4), Western Kentucky (0-4), Miami of Ohio (0-4) and New Mexico (0-5) as the nation's remaining winless Division I-A programs.

The Beavers can't use the schedule card, either, after losing to Sacramento State.

It's fair to say, though, that they're getting better. They might even quiet their detractors by beating Arizona Saturday at Reser Stadium.

I'd feel more strongly about that assertion if Malcolm Agnew's hamstring were healthy. Don't know for sure, but signs are that the true freshman tailback has star quality. He might not be right all season, though.

With him, Oregon State's rushing attack holds some promise. Without him, OSU's ground game has been feeble as as Granny's first steps after hip replacement surgery.

Mike Riley hasn't done it often, but Oregon State's 11th-year coach totally eschewed the running game in Saturday's 35-20 loss at Arizona State. The game plan was pass, pass and more pass.

Out of 80 offensive plays, Oregon State's Sean Mannion chucked it 66 times. Sixty-six! Completed 40 for 364 yards, 'and it could have been 50,' Riley says.

If he'd had more time to throw, Riley means. Mannion had four interceptions, and it could have been seven or eight, too. Part of that was the pressure Arizona State's outstanding front seven applied.

'He did a lot of it under duress,' Riley says. 'Most of the stuff was done with a lot of heat on him. Even his completions. He handled it well.

'We knew it was coming. In the second half of the ASU-USC game, (the Sun Devils) got all over (SC QB Matt) Barkley and caused all sorts of havoc.'

I liked that Mannion was unmoved when told after the game he had set school records for pass completions and attempts.

'Under these circumstances, (the records) mean nothing,' the 6-5, 220-pound redshirt freshman said. 'I turned the ball over several times. There were a lot of plays I could have made. You can't feel good about too much after a loss like this.'

I didn't get the impression Mannion was saying that because it was the thing to say. I think he said it because he felt it. That's a good sign.

Mannion's pocket presence is outstanding. He has a sixth sense how to avoid the rush, when to move up in the pocket, when to release the pass.

'He has a lot of poise for a young quarterback, that's for sure,' Riley says.

I'm told Mannion is the only freshman QB starting for a BCS conference team. It's not an ideal situation. It's the first time for Riley since his second year with the OSU program in 1998, when he brought on Jonathan Smith in the second half of the season.

'It's not a position where you normally have a freshman playing,' the OSU coach says. 'We didn't have plans for that, either. It just developed.'

What also has developed is that Markus Wheaton, not James Rodgers, has become the No. 1 OSU receiving threat. Wheaton was sensational against ASU, hauling in 11 passes for 106 yards against his hometown school.

'We're pushing Markus to become one of those elite players in our league,' Riley says. 'He has that stuff in him. He has grown as a receiver, in running routes, with his discipline. And he displayed a lot of toughness' against the Devils.

Jordan Bishop was pretty good, too, with eight catches for 64 yards. Not saying that Rodgers - only two games back from double knee surgery - won't re-emerge, but he has company in the Beavers' receiving corps. That's a good thing.

Rodgers, incidentally, was back to fair catch a punt in the second half Saturday. It's a matter of time before he goes back to return kickoffs. That's a very good thing.

In forming an offensive game plan for Arizona State, Riley took into account Arizona State's rush defense and nasty middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

'They had been terrific against the run,' Riley says. 'We thought we would probably have to throw on these guys to win.'

In 11 running plays not counting three sacks, Oregon State picked up 74 yards. That's an average of 6.7 yards per carry.

'In retrospect, we could have run more,' Riley says. 'Probably should have mixed it in more.'

Riley liked the work of Terron Ward, the true freshman, who rushed five times for 30 yards and scored on a hard-earned 10-yard TD run. Ward blocked well in pass protection, too.

Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf - the brunt of much criticism from Beaver Nation over his play-calling - had a couple of beauties Saturday.

On third-and-2 in the first half, Mannion threw to Wheaton for 19 yards off play-action with ASU's defense sucked in to stop the run.

On fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter, Mannion skirted pressure just quickly enough to hit tight end Joe Halahuni on a throwback for 21 yards.

I don't always agree with Langsdorf's selections - nor do I expect to - but thought he did an excellent job Saturday given the limitations of passing nearly every down.

Oregon State's defense had its best game against the Devils. Riley was in particular happy with his beleaguered secondary. Outside of Gerell Robinson 24-yard touchdown pass from Brock Osweiler, the Beaver back end played well.

'Our secondary played with more confidence than they have all year, and they played soundly,' Riley says. The Devils 'tried a lot of stuff on us - slant-and-go and double pump stuff. Except for the one wheel route where we broke down in coverage, we were good. It helped that our defensive front played like crazy.'

In particular, ends Scott Critchton, Dylan Wynn and Rusty Fernando were active. Critchton and Wynn, both freshmen, have All-Pac-12 potential, and Fernando is a pass-rush specialist with quicks and a nose for the ball.

The 6-8, 240-pound Osweiler completed 24 of 37 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns, but he was sacked three times and hit at least a dozen more. For awhile, it seemed the Beavers had an answer for everything he tried.

'Oregon State schemed us pretty well,' Osweiler said afterward. 'At times, it seemed as if (the Beavers) almost knew exactly what was coming, so that's a credit to them. I was making errors I can't make.

'They ran their base coverages like we expected, but at times they would drop a lineman instead of rushing him. We knew on third down they're a big man- (to-man coverage) team, but they were playing a lot of games, and on third down as well. That was the biggest thing we weren't prepared for. We struggled a little bit with the mind games.'

Jordan Poyer, who jumped ASU's Aaron Pflugrad for first-half interceptions, credits D-coordinator Mark Banker for putting together a solid plan.

'We knew pretty much what they were going to do before they did it,' Poyer says.

Now let's cover the bad about Saturday's Beaver performance, starting with the penalties - 13 for 139 yards, the most penalty yardage by an OSU team since the Beavers had 141 against Arizona in 2003. Four of them were by senior O-tackle Mike Remmers, who had a forgettable night. Four others were for face-mask or horse-collar infractions.

'Some of that was caused by our difficulties blocking against their pass rush,' Riley says. 'The other part was open-field tackling. When (the Devils) are running those bubble screens, it leaves a lot of tackles in space. Guys were scrambling to make a play. Both sides of the ball were stretched.'

Seemed like sophomore linebacker Michael Doctor, in particular, was often in position to make tackles in the flat and missed. In general, the Beaver 'backers tackled poorly. That must improve.

So, too, must Oregon State's special-teams play. It was horrendous Saturday.

There was Poyer's fumbled punt. The 78-yard punt return by ASU's Jamal Miles for a TD. An out-of-bounds kickoff by Trevor Romaine - his second in two games - to give Arizona State the ball at its 40-yard line after Oregon State had scored a touchdown to go in front 13-0 early in the second quarter. A holding penalty on a kickoff return, leaving Oregon State to start its drive on the 12-yard line. A 19-yard Johnny Hekker rugby-style punt to give the Devils the ball at the OSU 38 late in the third quarter. Lousy blocking for Poyer on kickoff returns.

'We had more mistakes on special teams than ever, probably,' Riley says.

Special-teams coach Bruce Read has his work cut out for him this week, for sure.

Saturday's game against 1-4 Arizona at Reser Stadium presents an opportunity for Oregon State. The Wildcats, with a win only over Northern Arizona, haven't beaten a Division I-A opponent since last Halloween.

The Beavers would take a win over anybody right now.

Don't think the ol' ball coach isn't working his bottom off to put the Beavers in position to get one Saturday. His spirits seemed fine on Sunday.

'I'm good,' Riley says. 'I like this team. I've been saying that for awhile, The guys work hard. They work hard in the weight room. They have kept a good attitude and continued an enthusiasm for their work. That's all we need as coaches.

'I see a lot of good things happening in quite a few areas. It looked more like overall good football Saturday. I'm kind of excited about getting back to work Monday and seeing what we can get done.'

Could be a wild one at Reser, with Mannion and Arizona's Nick Foles tossing mortars all afternoon. Maybe the teams will even throw in a run now and then.

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