A blowout victory over New Mexico in the Las Vegas Bowl sent Oregon State into the offseason on a high. It quieted some of the rumbling caused by the Beavers' inability to challenge for the Pac-10 title and their propensity for penalties in the first year of coach Mike Riley's second stint in Corvallis.
But will the momentum generated by the bowl win carry over into 2004?
The Beavers return just 12 starters and lost both specialists from an 8-5 team that tied Washington and UCLA for fifth place in the Pac-10. "We lost some guys who were huge playmakers,'' Riley concedes. "But we have a great core of veterans to build around and some promising young players who will make an impact. I like our prospects to improve."
One of the more challenging schedules in school history awaits, as the Beavers play both defending national co-champions, LSU and USC. In all, Oregon State plays seven 2003 bowl teams.
"It has to be one of the toughest schedules in the country," said Riley, who encouraged athletic director Bob De Carolis to drop a home game with Temple in favor of the trip to LSU. "But I like our schedule because it says a lot about where our program is. This is a great opportunity and challenge."
OffenseLast fall, Derek Anderson became only the second Pac-10 quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a single season, but he must reduce his staggering total of 24 interceptions and become more adept at spreading the ball around. "The transition from one philosophy to another is the hardest on the quarterback, and I thought Derek grew into the system," Riley said. Over the last five games, Anderson's touchdown-to-interception ratio was 13-to-8.
Senior Dwight Wright, sophomore Ryan Cole and redshirt freshman Yvenson Bernard will vie to replace Steven Jackson, the Pac-10's top rusher in 2002 and 2003.
Junior receiver Mike Hass established himself as a threat in 2003 with a breakout season (44 catches, 1,013 yards, seven TDs). But Anderson's other four primary targets departed, so holdovers Cole Clasen, George Gillett and Joe Newton or incoming wideouts Kevin Swanigan or Marcel Love must make a major impact if OSU's passing game is to remain effective.
The center and right side of the offensive line are solid with returning two-year starters Matt Brock, Kanan Sanchez and Doug Nienhuis, although Sanchez was suspended during the spring and his availability for the fall is uncertain. Anderson's blind side will be protected by two first-year starters.
DefenseSenior right end Bill Swancutt is an All-America candidate, and sophomore left tackle Ben Siegert started every game and made the Pac-10 All-Freshman team. But big questions exist at left end and right tackle. Junior Sir Henry Anderson has been injury-prone and has not yet lived up to his immense potential. Ends Brandon Scales, Joe Lemma and Naymon Frank are quick and game but undersized.
Oregon State's tradition of linebacking excellence could be furthered by senior weak-side backer Jonathan Pollard. He had 50 tackles in 2003 as a first-time starter.
Starters return at cornerback (Brandon Browner and Aric Williams) and strong safety (Mitch Meeuwsen). Browner was the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and a Freshman All-American.
SpecialistsOSU will have new starters at every position and a new coordinator in veteran Bruce Read, who reprises a role he filled in 1997-98. The coverage and return units were sorely lacking in 2003, so he has his work cut out for him. Transfer Sam Paulescu was the country's top junior college punter in 2003. Record-setting kicker Kirk Yliniemi will be succeeded by either junior John Daily or redshirt freshman Alexis Serna.
Final AnalysisIn dropping Temple and adding defending BCS national champion LSU, the Beavers traded a near-certain win for a major uphill battle in one of college football's toughest venues.
The Beavers must develop playmakers at running back, wide receiver, defensive tackle, linebacker, safety and in the kicking game.
Oregon State finished in the top three in the Pac-10 against the run in each of the past two seasons, and if they can keep that streak going the Beavers could be solid defensively
The schedule is demanding, but if the Beavers can hold serve at home and steal two or three road games, an upper-level bowl is possible.