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Oregon State heads into year three of the second Mike Riley era with a renovated stadium, plenty of questions to answer on both sides of the ball and a sense of momentum after back-to-back blowout bowl victories in Riley's first two seasons.
But the Beavers also must re-establish a sense of stability after an eventful offseason that saw several players get arrested for off-the-field incidents that, while minor in legal terms, put the program in a bad light nationally.
"We've made big strides but there is much work to be done," said Riley, 15-10 in his second stint with the program.
The Beavers won six of their final seven games in 2004 to recover from a 1-4 start. They defeated Northwest rivals Washington, Washington State and Oregon in the same season for the first time in 30 years and capped the comeback by destroying Notre Dame 38-21 in the Insight Bowl.
But many of the top producers from that squad are gone, players who combined for 296 career starts. So even though 16 of 24 Insight Bowl starters are back, there are plenty of areas of concern.
OSU is unproven at quarterback, cornerback and defensive end, three areas of strength during a six-year run that has seen the program advance to five bowls and end a litany of failure that saw it suffer through 28 consecutive losing seasons from 1971-98.
"A year ago at this time we discussed how many starters, yards, tackles and so forth we lost, and [the 2004] team found a way to make up for those losses and have a good season." Riley said. "That's just the nature of college athletics.
"You will always lose good players. The hope is that you've recruited and developed players who can fill those voids and keep the program moving forward."
Sophomore Ryan Gunderson and junior Matt Moore are the top candidates to succeed three-year starting quarterback Derek Anderson, who set virtually every school passing and total offense record. Both have some Pac-10 experience. Gunderson played sparingly as Anderson's backup in 2004, and Moore appeared in 13 games, starting five, at UCLA in '02 and '03, while dividing time with Drew Olson.
OSU experienced an anticipated drop-off at tailback in '04 after seven years of tremendous production by Ken Simonton and Steven Jackson. However, it wasn't expected to be quite so severe -- the Beavers ranked last in Division I-A, with a meager 70.7 rushing yards per game. Whoever starts -- Yvenson Bernard and Florida transfer Jimtavis Walker are the top candidates -- will be untested.
Split end Mike Hass (86 catches, 1,379 yards, 7 TDs) established himself as one of the top receivers in the country, earning third-team All-America honors from The Associated Press. Senior wideout Marcel Love (40 catches, 523 yards, 4 TDs) and sophomore flanker Anthony Wheat-Brown (33 catches, 400 yards, 3 TDs), first-year starters in 2004, were especially effective in the second half of the season. The Beavers are also stacked at tight end with junior Joe Newton, the Insight Bowl offensive MVP.
The Beavers have three returning offensive line starters (Adam Koets, Josh Linehan and Roy Schuening) and a host of young talent ready to step in.
Three-year starting junior tackle Ben Siegert and senior tackles Sir Henry Anderson and Alvin Smith give OSU an excellent three-man interior rotation.
Senior middle linebacker Trent Bray, a three-year starter, anchors one of the deepest and most talented units in the conference. Senior Keith Ellison returns at strong linebacker and senior Chaz Scott is back at wide linebacker. They are both very quick and physical, and often act like safeties.
OSU has made its secondary reputation of late with shutdown corners. That shouldn't change if redshirt freshman Keenan Lewis and incoming junior college transfers Aaron Miller and Edorian McCullough pan out as anticipated. Junior safety Sabby Piscitelli tied for the team lead with five interceptions in '04. He'll be joined by sophomore Lamar Herron, the heir apparent to graduated four-year starter and career interception leader Mitch Meeuwsen.
OSU had the best kicking game in the conference in '04 with placekicker Alexis Serna and punter Sam Paulescu. Sophomore Sammie Stroughter and Herron beefed up an underachieving return game and the coverage units showed great improvement over '03.
OSU must improve its anemic running game. It must also find successors to departed Pac-10 all-stars at defensive end, cornerback, safety and offensive tackle, and have either untested Gunderson or Moore provide consistency at quarterback.
The schedule is again formidable, with non-league games against Louisville and Boise State. But the Beavers skip powerful USC and close with Arizona, Washington and Stanford -- three very winnable games -- before heading to Eugene for the Civil War.