Bolton: The 6-3 record isn't a huge disappointment if you're looking at the schedule with objective eyes but it's the way they got there that's been difficult for Beav fans. OSU came out flat in the opener, they had a chance at the end against Stanford and then they got steamrolled by USC. At the same time, they pulled a win out of their hats against Utah. San Diego State wasn't expected to be a close game but the Beavs pulled a win out of their collective hats there, too.
We know that Mike Riley's contract has many years left on it, but in light of the current season result is the fan base happy with him and could he be on the hot seat this year and/or next?
Bolton: Most people are happy when he wins, and decidedly unhappy when the team loses. It's difficult to imagine Riley being on the hot seat this year or next, although if the Beavs dropped their last four to finish 6-6 and/or had a losing season next year there would undoubtedly be some unhappy alums and fans getting louder. After the USC loss, the discussion had a lot to do with if Riley can get the Beavs to the next level on a consistent basis, i.e. competing for the Pac-12 North title year in and year out. It's an interesting discussion that will undoubtedly continue.
Bolton: Cooks is simply an exceptional receiver who does everything well and works his tail off – a combination you don't always see among the best receivers. The No. 1 attribute that has enabled him to reach that rarified air is his burst, he simply has another gear he can shift into that even some of the best don't possess. This is also a guy who is 5-10, 186-pounds, yet he'll put out some terrific blocks, he'll out leap double coverage and he's stayed relatively healthy. He's a special play. Mannion, when his offensive line gives him time, has had a terrific season and turned the corner. In the previous two seasons, he tried to force too many throws and ended up with high interception numbers.
This season, save for recent games, he was incredibly accurate and nearly always has made the right decision. His leadership qualities, while subtle, have increased immeasurably in his junior year.
Did you sincerely expect both to play at such a high level this year?
Bolton: Cooks, yes, the signs were there. Mannion, I don't think anyone can claim to have predicted the light bulb would turn on and he would lead the nation in passing and TDs. Until the last week of fall camp, Riley had not even settled on a starter between Mannion and Cody Vaz – something that answers that question best of all.
Last season it seemed like running back Storm Woods was a much bigger part of the offense. Why do you think Oregon State has been so unbalanced on offense with a talented player like Woods at their disposal?
Bolton: Woods and Terron Ward simply haven't generated many ground yards and there's not a nice, neat answer as to why. In part, the offensive line has done a mostly great job in pass protection, but not in run blocking. Other times, the lanes have been there, but Woods hasn't found them. Woods suffered a concussion earlier this season but even before that, the Beav run game wasn't clicking. But the passing game was, and so Riley has gone to that.
The Beavs have been one-dimensional, and that they became bowl eligible after seven games is impressive in light of that. But OSU will have difficulty against the better teams who can defend the pass because that's all they need to take away. If Oregon State could have produced a credible run game this season, the sky might have been the limit. As it is, Oregon State isn't even trying to run much and is instead going to their bread and butter in 2013 – the pass.
The only teams that have given ASU trouble this year have been those with superior defensive lines. How has the Beavers' defensive line been performing this year and do they blitz to get pressure on the QB or try to just get pressure with the front?
Bolton: It's been a mixed bag. Oregon State was thin to begin with at d-tackle and starter John Braun is now out for the season. But OSU's d-tackles, Braun and Mana Rosa, have done a credible job, they've performed better than expected, frankly. It may become more difficult from here on out, though. The Beaver defensive ends, Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn, have not been the consistent playmakers on defense most thought they would be, but that also has a lot to do with not having standout DTs. Oregon State has picked their spots to blitz, and to mixed result. They've mostly tried to get pressure with their front four and/or sending one more here and there to try and get heat on the quarterback.
Whether defensive coordinator Mark Banker tries to bring more blitzes against ASU is the million dollar question.
Would you agree that the Beaver secondary is stronger than Oregon State's front seven and if so why?
Bolton: I'd say it's probably a push. The Beaver linebackers have had a rough go of things but they're also learning on the job. The two outside starters, D.J. Alexander and Michael Doctor, have been in and out of the lineup or have missed almost the entire year due to injury, respectively. That's meant playing Jabral Johnson and Caleb Saulo more, two guys that were to be rotational subs. The Beavs were also replacing their middle linebacker and have gone through two starters, with Rommel Mageo now the man in the middle.
The Beaver secondary should be a bigger strength than they have been, but the reality has been different. Corner Rashaad Reynolds and safeties Ryan Murphy and Tyrequek Zimmerman had better 2012 campaigns than they've had this year. They had been slowly rounding into form, and it looked like after the Stanford game, even though it was a loss, that the OSU secondary, including newcomer CB Steven Nelson, were finally ready to play at that high level everyone expected. But they faltered against USC, as did the entire defense. So how they respond after the bye week and against ASU will be key.
Who are some of the defensive playmakers ASU fans should watch for?
Bolton: Crichton is one. He destroyed Utah in the first quarter, and was a huge part of why Oregon State forced three three-and-outs on the Utes' first three positions. But he was rarely heard from the rest of the game. He is capable of taking over a game, but being capable and doing it are of course two different things. Murphy, another junior, has star potential. But the key on defense will probably be to focus in on the d-tackles, which figure to be Rosa and some combination of Brandon Bennett, Siale Hautau and Edwin Delva. They don't have to win the game, but if they can hold their own, occupy blockers and allow some other guys to make the plays, things could go well for the Beavs.
Complete the sentences: Oregon State will win if ____. Oregon State will lose if____.
Bolton: Oregon State will win if the offensive line can provide a solid, consistent pocket for Mannion. Cooks is the star receiver but keep an eye out for WR Richard Mullaney and TE Connor Hamlett. The former has great hands and has moved the chains a lot on their downs, while Hamlett was a key receiving option before he got hurt, he's coming back from injury and the bye week should have helped him get, or at least closer to, 100 percent. ASU is more likely than not to score a good amount of points, but the Beavs can outscore just about anyone if Mannion has time.
But being one-dimensional means it's either feast or famine, and if Mannion doesn't have a consistent pocket, Oregon State will lose and it might not be all that close at the end. OSU on defense needs to play to the level they're capable of against ASU and help their offense out. Better linebacker play and more standout plays from the Beaver d-line and secondary would be a good place to start.