It is tough for me to imagine what it must feel like to be an Oregon State Beaver fan right now.
When I was young and first got interested in college football, both of the programs in Oregon were nationally irrelevant. But I only had to wait a couple of years for the Ducks' magical 1994 season to change things permanently.
Oregon State finally emerged from obscurity in 2000, but there is one thing that all but the most experienced of their fans has been denied during their lifetimes: the Rose Bowl. Now it is within their grasp.
In that 2000 season, the Beavers took the Rose Bowl from the Ducks. I was there at Reser Stadium that fateful day when Oregon’s dreams came crashing down. I remember late in the fourth quarter, the Ducks were trailing by 10, but were within striking distance of the end zone. A touchdown, a three and out, and “Captain Comeback” could do it one more time and send the Ducks to Pasadena in style.
I was sitting in the away section behind the far end zone. Harrington took the snap from center and dropped back to pass. He was looking to his right. I remember seeing a Beaver defender run around the protection on the left side. “Throw it, throw it, throw it!” I said in my head, trying to will Harrington to get rid of the ball before it was too late. But he held on too long.
I remember seeing number three bend backward as he was hit from his blind side. I remember seeing the ball drop to the turf, and hope fade.
Turnabout is fair play.
In stark contrast to the Ducks' spread option attack, the Beavers run what these days can seem like an “old-fashioned” offense. Early in games Oregon State uses power formations to establish the run. After getting the defense thinking run, they will then spread out the opponent a little more and go to play action to gash the defense for big plays.
It may be old-fashioned, but the Beavers make it work and work well, leading the conference in passing offense.
That is not good news for the Ducks, who have the worst pass defense in the conference. Play action and tight ends have consistently been Oregon’s kryptonite, and Oregon State may be the best play action team the Ducks have faced all season.
With three of the conference’s top wide receivers, the tight end has not played as big a role for the Beavers as for, say, Arizona. But Oregon State has the personnel to hurt the Ducks from this position if Oregon does not find a way to shore up the weaknesses in the defense.
With freshman phenom Jacquizz Rodgers out for the game, the Beavers offense changes slightly. Ryan McCants and his compatriots showed last week that they could still produce on the ground even without Rodgers, but Oregon State leaned more heavily on James Rodgers and the fly sweep. This play went for the go-ahead score against the Ducks last year, and Oregon has been trying to simulate it with their scout team to prepare.
Rodgers' absence will be felt, but remember the Beavers won last year without the services of starting tailback Yvenson Bernard.
Oregon State possesses the second-best rushing defense in the conference, but has yet to face a running game like Oregon’s spread option. Even if the Ducks defense plays one of its better games, the matchups simply do not favor Oregon, and the Ducks offense needs to come out strong and keep its momentum throughout the game.
One half of solid production was enough to get by Arizona, but probably won’t be sufficient to beat the Beavers.
The good news is that against the Wildcats Ed Dickson and Jaison Williams came back from the dead. The Ducks cannot afford to be a run-only team and let the Beavers' fierce run defense bring eight or nine players into the box. That means Masoli and Oregon’s receivers need to be able to make key plays in the passing game when the time comes.
For all its intermittent explosiveness, the Ducks' passing game has been maddeningly unreliable all year. If the Ducks struggle to throw the ball, it could be a long day indeed for the Green and Yellow faithful.
Special teams offer an intriguing matchup as both teams possess explosive returners. Walter Thurmond III’s health is questionable after sustaining an injury against Arizona, but if he is able to go, he will need some big kickoff returns to counteract the effectiveness of James Rodgers.
Sammie Stroughter has always been one of the best punt returners in the country, but Jairus Byrd has shown he can break long runs as well.
If both offenses are executing according to the game plan, the winner of the game may be the team with the better performance from their kick coverage units.
Oregon has an extremely difficult task in front of them. With a Rose Bowl berth on the line and a home crowd behind them, Oregon State will be at the peak of intensity, and the Ducks must find a way to match them and shake off any rust from the bye week.
The struggle at the line of scrimmage will be key as the running game is so important to both offenses. These two teams also possess some of the best pass rushers in the conference, and there will be a great deal of pressure on the tackles, tight ends, and backs of both sides to keep the quarterbacks off the turf.
For Oregon to have a chance to win, they must avoid turnovers and penalties, as Oregon State is one of the most mistake-free teams in the Pac-10. In addition, they must match any big plays by the Beavers on special teams.
Third downs on both sides of the ball will be crucial for the Ducks, as Oregon’s offense specializes in quick strikes while Oregon State's normally has long time-consuming drives. If the Ducks defense is on the field for too many snaps, the game could slip away in the fourth quarter.
If Oregon can do all these things and keep up their offensive production throughout the entire game, they can beat the best team in the Pac-10 outside of Los Angeles and avenge that terrible loss from eight years ago.
Can the Ducks pull it off? They absolutely can. Will they pull it off? My heart says yes, but my head... Consider this my heart’s prediction.
MY VERDICT: Oregon Ducks 31, Oregon State Beavers 30