- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Almost exactly year ago, Oregon State was suffering total program misery.
First, it opened with a home loss to FCS foe Sacramento State. Then, it got drubbed 35-zip at Wisconsin.
Amid those two dispiriting defeats -- the Beavers would start a shocking 0-4 -- Oregon State made a surprising change at quarterback, benching returning starter Ryan Katz in favor of redshirt freshman Sean Mannion.
Sure, Katz had gone 5-7 as first-year starter, but he'd flashed a huge arm and plenty of promise. Yet a leak that started dripping while an injured Katz sat out 2011 spring practices became a torrent by the end of fall camp. Katz couldn't afford a slow start, and that's what he had. And he lost his job. From the outside, it seemed to happen very quickly, and it surprised even the writers who covered the team every day.
The end result was locker room upheaval, an embarrassing 3-9 finish and Katz transferring to San Diego State, where he is now the starter. Oh, and there are now grumbles that coach Mike Riley, two years ago probably the most secure coach in the conference, is now on the hot seat.
Hot seat talk or not, things feel far more stable now.
"Those are difficult times," Riley recalled this week. "With the young men here, that's not easy. We've managed to avoid those kinds of issues right now."
What's the same compared to last year is a Week 2 game with No. 13 Wisconsin on Saturday. What's different is this year's FCS opener, Nicholls State, cancelled its visit last weekend due to hurricane concerns in the Gulf Coast. There's no QB controversy for the Beavers, as this is solidly Mannion's offense. And the Badgers are making the long trip to Corvallis.
"It's as big a nonconference game as Oregon State has ever hosted," Riley said.
There are two ways to look at last year's game: 1. The Beavers got whipped, as they were outgained 397 yards to 284 and outrushed 208 yards to 23; 2. The Beavers shot themselves in the foot with stupid penalties and special teams mistakes.
Of course, it was a combination. But Oregon State held up physically better than the final tally suggests. Some might recall that Wisconsin's first touchdown came after Johnny Hekker produced the only backwards punt most football fans have ever seen. Or will ever see.
Said Riley at the time, "Just bad football."
This matchup seems far more manageable for the Beavers. While the Badgers have imported another ACC QB, this year's Russell Wilson is former Maryland QB Danny O'Brien, only 11 starters are back from last fall's 11-3 team that lost to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. Further, coach Bret Bielema lost not only his highly respected offensive coordinator, Paul Chryst, now the head coach at Pittsburgh, but also five other coaches.
Last weekend, the Badgers barely escaped with a 26-21 win over Northern Iowa. While they still look like the favorite in the Big Ten Leader's Division, they presently don't look like a top-10 team.
While it's probably a negative that Oregon State didn't get its first game jitters out last weekend, it does have some advantage in having seen Wisconsin play and having the Badgers not get to do the same.
Riley has said over and over the Beavers, in order to get back to where they were in the conference pecking order, need to run the ball and stop the run better. The Badgers and Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball will present an immediate and challenging measuring stick on potential improvement going both ways.
"We'll see a lot about who we are." Riley said.
The Beavers are in a far better place than they were a year ago. But have they improved enough that they can turn a blowout defeat into a "We're back!" upset?
1195dTed Miller and Kevin Gemmell