By Christian Caple The Spokesman-Review
CORVALLIS, Ore. — Two seasons ago, the Washington State University football team found some encouragement in Corvallis amid an otherwise hopeless season.
That game ended with the Cougars beating the Beavers, 31-14, a win that improved WSU’s record to 2-9 but also snapped a 16-game conference losing streak.
And that game started with WSU sending a message in the form of a late-hit by linebacker C.J. Mizell, who set the tone for the afternoon by driving Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers well out of bounds before planting him into the turf.
The Cougars are hoping for a similar surprise — in terms of final outcome, at least — this afternoon when they face the Beavers in a 3 p.m. game at Reser Stadium. OSU is favored by 16 points.
This time, though, the Cougars probably would prefer a whole bunch of early touchdowns instead of a message-sending late hit.
“We’re going to play them like we haven’t played them before,” WSU junior safety Deone Bucannon said. “We don’t want to bring up anything in the past. Because in the past, they beat us last year.”
WSU and OSU were picked by Pac-12 media to finish fifth and sixth, respectively, in the conference’s North Division.
The teams have since headed in different directions. The Beavers (3-0, 2-0 Pac-12) haven’t lost, using upset wins over Wisconsin, UCLA and Arizona to rise to a No. 14 ranking in the Associated Press top 25 poll.
The Cougars (2-3, 0-2 Pac-12), tabbed by many as a team capable of a breakthrough season, are coming off an encouraging-but-lopsided 51-26 loss to Oregon that was preceded by a disastrous loss to one-win Colorado.
“We’ve got a little bit of flash out there and some positive things, but it’s not as tight or automatic as it needs to be,” Cougars coach Mike Leach said. “Some of it is folks just need to work together for a longer period of time.”
If there is one advantage WSU has, it could be in the passing game. The Cougars haven’t been terribly efficient but still rank 12th in the nation in passing offense. OSU’s defense, while stout against the run, showed it still has some kinks to work out in its secondary after allowing Arizona quarterback Matt Scott to throw for 403 yards last week.
“Oregon State’s really physical,” WSU quarterback Connor Halliday said. “They’re big up front, they’re big in the linebacking corps, they’re big on the back end. They’re a big Pac-12 defense. They’ll come around and they’ll hit you. They’re great at stopping the run, so we’re going to have to go out there and throw the ball all over them and hopefully put up some points.”
The Beavers have some star power on the back end — senior Jordan Poyer is the team’s most talented and experienced cornerback, and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection a year ago.
Still, the Beavers allow 312.3 passing yards per game, ranking 113th in the nation — one notch below the Cougars, who will have their own hands full against OSU sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion, the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week.
Nationally, Oregon State’s passing offense is ranked fourth with an average of nearly 363 yards per game. Mannion is ranked 10th with 350 yards in total offense per game, and eighth with an average of 27 completions per game.
Leach is well aware of the problems Mannion poses.
“Obviously, you’ve got to play the pass,” he said. “But on those broken plays when he gets loose, coverage has to hold up because he’s got a real strong arm and sometimes when he gets loose, that stuff’s way down field, and if you don’t attend to it, he can hurt you.”
Items from the Associated Press were included in this report.