Bernard, Beavers expect to contend in Pac-10

It takes guts to spurn a tie and go for two and the victory. It's a decision that often requires a coach to reach deep into his playbook for something fancy and unexpected.

Oregon State coach Mike Riley thought about doing that in the Sun Bowl against Missouri after tailback Yvenson Bernard, the Beavers' emotional leader, suggested they go for two during an official review of the touchdown play with 22 seconds remaining that had set the game on the cusp of overtime.

Riley said, sure. And he decided that his fancy-pants, pass-happy Pac-10 team was going to run it right up the middle.

"I just really wanted to give it to Yvenson," Riley said. "You know how in poker you go all-in? Well, we went all-in."

When Bernard twisted into the end zone for a 39-38 victory, the Beavers drew a straight flush on the river card.

It was a fitting capper for one of the best seasons in program history, and Riley is counting on the thrills of a 10-4 finish and a final No. 21 ranking carrying over into spring practice, which begins April 2.

With 17 starters back from a team that ended USC's 27-game Pac-10 winning streak, the Beavers believe they will be in the hunt for the conference crown, even if the Trojans are touted as national title favorites.

And here's something else buoying the Beavers: This experienced group overcame a humiliating nationally televised loss to Boise State -- a 42-14 defeat in which they appeared schematically unsound and emotionally fragile -- and transformed into a team that played its best when the screws tightened. Five of their victories were secured during the waning moments.

"The mental toughness is huge to me," said Riley, whose job appeared to be at risk during the 2-3 start. "We want that to be the standard."

The standard line when assessing the Pac-10 is experience at quarterback is a prerequisite for success, though there are notable exceptions almost annually -- see USC's John David Booty and California's Nate Longshore last season. With the departure of two-year starter Matt Moore, that is an issue for the Beavers. All eyes will be on the battle between sophomores Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao.
The pair couldn't be more different. Canfield, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound lefty, is a touted prototype quarterback who, according to Riley, throws "a beautiful ball." Most fans have penciled him in as the starter.

Not so fast. Moevao, perhaps 6-foot in heels, is a scrappy, 225-pound JC transfer who's a good athlete and leader with a knack for creative playmaking. Think of a more athletic Jonathan Smith.

Canfield remains the favorite. But the job isn't going to be handed to him.

"Quarterback is obviously the key," Bernard said. "It's going to be a tough competition. I feel like Lyle is just as good as Canfield."

If Bernard sounds like he's got coachspeak down, blowing on the fires of a position battle, it shouldn't be a surprise. The first-team all-conference runner owns 2,648 rushing yards, 611 receiving yards and 27 touchdowns as a two-year starter. No one questions that he's the Beaver with the biggest teeth.

"He is a warrior," Riley said. "He is as well-respected a player on a team as I've ever had."

With Bernard, four of five starters back on the line and a strong receiving corps topped by Sammie Stroughter, whoever wins the quarterback job will have plenty of help.

A young tight end will need to step up to replace Joe Newton -- sophomores Howard Croom and John Reese both played last season as true freshmen -- while junior Tavita Thompson is expected to step in at left tackle for the conference's most experienced offensive line.

The defense is strong at linebacker, where seniors Derrick Doggett, Joey LaRocque and Alan Darlin are back. Doggett's the athlete; LaRocque led the team with 98 tackles; Darlin had 12.5 tackles for a loss. OSU's linebacking crew is second only to USC in the conference.

Hot spots this spring are two vacancies on the defensive line and replacing strong safety Sabby Piscitelli. Those voids aren't causing too much concern. The Beavers rotated eight linemen last year, so experience isn't an issue. Senior end Dorian Smith wasn't listed as a starter, but he led the team with nine sacks. The safety spots will be split between senior Daniel Drayton and juniors Al Afalava and Bryan Payton, though redshirt freshman James Dockery could get into the mix.

Oh, and kicker Alexis Serna, owner of the second-most points among active players with 292, is back for his 17th year of eligibility. Kidding. His 12th.

While the school's official spring preview touts the Beavers as aiming for their fifth bowl game in six years, Riley, Bernard and company might have their sights set a little higher. Having bested the Trojans, they aren't yielding anything.

"I feel like the Pac-10 is anybody's game," Bernard said.

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.