There are really two opening days to the college football season -- the first game of the season and the first conference game. As great as it is to be 3-0 after wins over Rice, Nebraska and Houston, a disastrous conference season will render the quick start irrelevant.
This Saturday, UCLA kicks off their conference slate with a visit from Oregon St., who are one of the last teams outside the top 25 after a win over Wisconsin in their only game of the season thus far. To get a look at the Beavers and vice versa, I answered some questions for SB Nation's OSU site Building the Dam, and Andy was kind enough to answer some questions on the Beavers.
1) After a rough 2011, what are the expectations for the Beavers this season? Is Mike Riley on the hot seat at all?
Expectations ranged from another 3-4 win season upwards to 6-7 wins, which is crossing over from expectation into hopeful. Then the upset of Wisconsin, a game everyone had marked as an "L" on the schedule, and both expectations and hopes took an uptick.
Coach Riley, and even more so, his coordinators were on some people's hot seats, because many of the losses were also marked by errors in coaching decisions, and a lack of preparation. But Riley never really was on the hot seat this year because the Athletic Director and the University President are squarely behind him, and they are the two people who matter. Plus, being under contract through 2019, the buyout it substantial.
That said, if this year's team falls short of a bowl game, donations to both the athletic department and the university in general, which are already down, will go down further, and that will warm up Riley's chair. Riley has shown he's aware of the issues, having taken back play calling duties. Riley called the plays when Oregon St. was running off those 8-10 win years. He also bolstered the defensive assistant coaching staff, and its already paid dividends. Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker was really overloaded and spread thin coaching the LBs as well, and upgrading his assistants allowed him to refocus at the coordinator level.
2) How has the emergence of Oregon over the last few years changed things in Corvallis?
Not as much as you might think, other than it has helped raise overall awareness of Pac-12 football in the area among the less than ardent fans, which is a positive. The Beavers and Ducks already had a touchy rivalry.
But Oregon's continued rise has debunked the excuse that you can't have and sustain success operating from a small market. The schools and their communities aren't that different, exclusive of the relative level of support from Phil Knight (who actually has also supported Oregon St. more than most people realize).
3) The Beavers have played just one game this season to the Bruins' three. Do you think OSU had an advantage because there isn't much tape on them or does UCLA have the edge because they have worked out some of those early season kinks?
The advantages you sight for both teams are valid. But at this point, I do think the Bruins have the situational advantage. UCLA has had a lot of game experience now to identify issues from and refine things on both sides of the ball. Oregon St.'s defense probably has an advantage, and being 100% healthy is certainly a part of that. But the Beaver offense wasn't spectacular against Wisconsin, and could still be suffering from those kinks. And while Riley did a much better job of mixing up the plays, they are pretty much the same plays Oregon St. has run for years, so tape from last year or the year before is still of use in preparation.
4) There were a lot of questions about Sean Mannion heading into this season, but had a pretty solid game against a decent Wisconsin team. What is different about him this year compared to years past and where do you stand on the Beavers' signal caller?
Mannion appears to have made the progress he needed to as far as improving his accuracy and decision making since last season. His arm strength was never in question, which is why he got the job to begin with. By his own admission, he realized that he needed to really refine his command of the field, and his consistency/accuracy, and seems (based on 1 game) to have done so. We'll know more after a couple more games, especially against an "active" defense that shows him a lot of different looks, but all signs are encouraging so far.
5) Mike Riley is now calling the plays for the fist time since 2008. Did you guys notice any specific differences from the last three years in what you saw against Wisconsin?
Yes. A much better mix of the plays, so that things were not nearly as predictable. Also far fewer pointless calls on third down that had no chance to pick up a first down even if well executed. There is both an art and a science to play calling, and some people have a command of it, and others don't, regardless of how well they may know x's and o's.
6) Oregon St. has turned to a dime defense. How has that changed the way they play, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of it?
That put more speed on the field, and more importantly, allowed for moving CB Jordan Poyer, the best overall football player on the team, around to different places. The weakness of any nickel or dime package is less large bodies to stop the run. But against Wisconsin, which maximized the physical mismatch on the line and against Montee Ball, Oregon St. was still very effective, and that's in large part because the Beavers were able to run safeties up in run support without completely exposing themselves to the pass.
The dime also served to grab and hold the interest of the DBs, who had never played the package before. They found it fun, so they really applied themselves to it.
7) The Beavers shut down Montee Ball in the opener and now they go up against the nation's leading rusher in Johnathan Franklin. How did OSU fare so well against Wisconsin and do you think they can replicate that performance against a UCLA team that is much more spread out and runs the ball very differently?
Speed that Wisconsin couldn't handle was the difference. We already discussed using more safeties in run support, but LB D.J. Welch, and DE Dylan Wynn are also blazing quick, and the Badgers couldn't keep track of them.
The Bruins have better team speed, and playing week in and week out in the Pac, the veterans also won't be in shock when confronted with speed, so it will be a real challenge for Oregon St.'s defense to replicate that first effort.
UCLA's spreading the field out puts pressure on the defense, and Franklin is a beast, so no one expects another 7 point defensive performance. But the Beavers played defense with a mindset of dictating the style of the game against Wisconsin, and will do that again. They have the athleticism to compete, and better coverage schemes thanks to NFL veteran coach Rod Perry, who is the new DB coach, has put the secondary in better position to be effective.
Lots of the problems with the run defense last year traced to problems in the secondary that appear to be fixed. The linebackers are healthy too for a change. Look for the Beavers to be flying to the ball from everywhere.
8) Oregon St. is just 1-9 in true road games since 2010. How concerned are you about the Beavers on the road?
Very concerned. Even in most of the losses the last couple of years, at Reser, the Beavers have been competitive. But the road is a completely different matter. They were completely non-competitive in 5 of their last 6 true road games, and lost the other one by multiple touchdowns. Also, Riley has only ever won 1 road game prior to October as a collegiate head coach.
That is the real challenge for the program, and the single issue that over-rides everything else about this game, including anything the Bruins do. Can the Beavers take their act on the road? We'll know a lot more by mid-afternoon Saturday!