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Friday, August 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Bud Withers
CORVALLIS, Ore. It was last winter, a time when a lot of the back-room deals of college football take place. Bob DeCarolis, athletic director at Oregon State, approached coach Mike Riley warily with a proposal.
The Beavers were scheduled for a home game with Temple, but the Owls had called, looking to get out of it. OSU was amenable, provided Temple could locate a replacement.
Word thus got around that OSU might have an available date, and here came a call from gulp Louisiana State. The Tigers were willing to offer a healthy $750,000 if the Beavers would meet them on bayou turf Sept. 4, in front of 91,600 folks high on the 2003 BCS national title, and other things.
Almost without hesitation, Riley told DeCarolis to go for it.
"I just thought it was time for Oregon State to step out there and play somebody a little different from the normal nonleague schedule," Riley says.
LSU is indeed a little different. The Tigers went 13-1 last year, they've got some major pieces in place from a team that shared the national title with USC, and the venue is one of the most dreaded places for a visitor.
There was a time when OSU played games at Tennessee and Nebraska simply for the big monetary guarantee, but this is different. As the program began its revival under Riley and Dennis Erickson in the late '90s, OSU tended toward nonleague games that were automatic wins Georgia Southern, Eastern Kentucky, and last year's yawner, Sacramento State.
"I thought it would be exciting for the fans and also for the team," says Riley of the LSU game. "I plan to be here a long time, and I'm looking forward to a growth in this program and within our team, as far as being tough-minded.
"I don't think there will be any better classroom than 'Death Valley.' Our goal is to win the game and to handle the environment."
Much of the offseason has thus been conducted with the realization that this might be the most demanding opener in the nation.
OSU has gone from playing Sacramento State to probably the most truculent schedule in the Pac-10, at least early. It follows LSU with a Friday night game at Boise State, whose only loss in 2003 was a controversial two-pointer to the Beavers.
"They're going to be ready and roarin'," says OSU receiver Mike Hass.
Riley thus has a fundamental dilemma in fall camp. He leans to long, long workouts, and with a tough schedule and a relatively youthful team, the temptation is to keep the Beavers on the field for hours. But he can't leave their game in Corvallis, rather than having it available in Baton Rouge.
Previewing camp as it began, Riley said, "We'll run upwards of 1,000 plays (in workouts), which is a whole season of plays."
Whether the real plays are positive will depend largely as they have the past two years on the development of senior quarterback Derek Anderson. His career has been mostly unconvincing 50 touchdown passes, 40 interceptions but he showed maturity in the last two games of 2003, throwing for 485 yards amid four picks against USC and adding 322 yards in a landslide Las Vegas Bowl victory over New Mexico.
"I started to understand things better," said Anderson.
The temptation is to say Anderson may have finally arrived. Hass, who surprised with 1,013 yards on 44 catches, helps that maturation, and fellow wideouts like Marcel Love and Sammie Stroughter have impressed in camp.
Gone to the St. Louis Rams is wunderkind back Steven Jackson, leaving the tailback job to 5-foot-9, 208-pound senior Dwight Wright and South Kitsap product Ryan Cole, a 224-pound load who is bench-pressing 390 pounds.
"He's physical, very hard-nosed," said Riley of Cole. "He's conscientious, almost to a fault."
More than Anderson or the tailback spot, the offensive line might dictate the course of OSU's season. Center Matt Brock is experienced and gifted, but there's only one other returning starter.
"It'll key our offensive season, how that thing jells," Riley says.
One who apparently won't be contributing to that process is J.C. Ronnfeldt of Decatur High, a guard who showed up overweight to camp and wasn't allowed to practice the first two weeks.
The defense should be among the best in the conference. End Bill Swancutt leads school career sack artists with 25.5 and might put the mark out of reach.
"I wouldn't want to be the left tackle playing against him," says Riley. "You're going to have a headache by the end of the day."
Jonathan Pollard heads the linebackers, although Swancutt says of Trent Bray, "He might be the best linebacker in the Pac-10 no one really knows about."
The secondary is led by a couple of NFL players-in-waiting, safety Mitch Meeuwsen and cornerback Brandon Browner. That unit, and the team, was rocked by the July death of redshirt-freshman corner Justin Williams in a road-rage incident near Portland.
Media have picked OSU fourth in the Pac-10, but the Beavers may have to rebound from an 0-2 start.
"We're not going down there to keep up," said Cole, referring to the first game. "We're going down there to win. We're a bunch of guys that are hostile and very rough. We want people to understand that."
A defending national champion gets to be the first judge of that.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or email@example.com
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