CORVALLIS — The coach orders the Oregon State players over to the goal lines on an adjoining practice field, and then the warfare begins in earnest:
A no-holds-barred water-balloon fight.
“Oh, the defense won that, for sure,” safety Anthony Watkins says good-naturedly.
“We all thought we were in trouble,” Watkins adds. “We thought we had to run gassers or something.”
A welcome practice respite over the weekend shouldn’t be mistaken for the 2012 mission at Oregon State, which is dead serious. A word you hear often around here is “urgency.”
In these parts, nobody much refers to last year. OSU went 3-9, on the heels of a 5-7 season in 2010, and it’s not unreasonable to ask: Are those the kinds of years more befitting this program, or are they the 2008-09 seasons, when OSU was a win over Oregon from getting to the Rose Bowl?
“Each team can set its own identity,” insists OSU coach Mike Riley. “It doesn’t have to be like it was.”
The 2011 Beavers were too much like the bad old days of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. They were worst in the Pac-12 in both rushing offense and run defense—a booming 110-yards-per-game deficit—and that gap must close significantly.
“We weren’t a very good running team last year and it really affected us in a lot of areas,” says offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. “It hurt our (pass) protection and it hurt our play-action passing game.”
Backs Malcolm Agnew (5 feet 8, 204 pounds) and Storm Woods (5-10, 202) lead the quest to restore OSU’s tradition of good runners, but it’s the offensive line that draws the most attention as the unit that must make major strides in 2012.
“Put the pressure on us,” challenged Grant Enger, a starting guard. “I like it. I’m excited about the run game this year. I’m pumped for it.”
Newly arrived to add hope to that line is precocious true freshman center Isaac Seumalo, a local product whose dad Joe is OSU’s defensive-line coach. Seumalo, a blue-chip recruit, has been hanging around the program for years, so he had something of a head start. And speaking of starting, he will.
“He’s really a sharp kid,” says Langsdorf. “He’s a true freshman, and he’s handling a lot of directions in protection, handling calls in the run game like a seasoned veteran and he’s been here two weeks. We feel great about him and where he’s at.”
Says Enger: “He’s kind of a freak athlete and he’s really smart.”
Riley wants 1,800 yards from the running game. Last year, it delivered only 1,043. A repeat would put untenable pressure on sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion and a good corps of receivers led by Markus Wheaton (73 catches, 986 yards).
Mannion, who became a surprise starter early last season, threw 18 interceptions, a figure that should drop appreciably. Among other sordid numbers, OSU’s pass-efficiency rating of 124.0 was No. 11 in the Pac-12, ahead of only Colorado.
“I like the way both quarterbacks (including backup Cody Vaz) have been playing,” says Langsdorf.
On defense, the Beavers have a solid secondary keyed by cornerback Jordan Poyer, some questions at linebacker and three of the down front four back. That includes sophomore ends Dylan Wynn and Scott Crichton, who combined for 20 tackles for loss last year and have bulked up.
“Both have improved their numbers dramatically,” Riley said, referring to strength and speed tests.
The weakness that must be upgraded: OSU’s rushing defense, which allowed 196.8 yards per game last year.
The Beavers have a landmark visit from Wisconsin on Sept. 8, which might ordinarily be cause to look past FCS opener Nicholls State. Except last year, OSU was stunned out of the gate by Sacramento State.
“To be honest, I’m not thinking about last year,” says Enger. “I’m thinking about this year.”
It’s what happens when you win three games, in a season the Beavers figure was a rank impostor.