Don Smalley, EDN
Oregon State will look to salvage whatever is left of its disastrous season when it hosts Washington for a 12:30 kickoff (ROOT Sports, Comcast 34) at Reser Stadium.
At one time, this game might have looked like an uphill climb for the Beavers (2-8). The Huskies had won six of their first eight games. But after losses to Oregon and USC, Washington (6-4) has come back down to Earth.
Adding to their problems, it was announced that Husky quarterback Keith Price is going to have to sit this one out due to a couple of balking knees. Stepping up in his place will be redshirt freshman Nick Montana. Washington coach Steve Sarkisian announced that the son of Hall of Famer Joe Montana, via Twitter, would be his starting signal caller. Welcome to 2011.
Courtesy of @CoachSark, “Nick Montana will make his first career start this Saturday. So proud. He has earned this opportunity. Need to get Keith Price fully healthy, he has had a great season.”
Montana has appeared in just four games this season in very limited time. He has one touchdown pass.
Since the Huskies are going with an inexperienced quarterback, the Beavers will most likely be given a heavy dose of tailback Chris Polk, one of the top running backs in the Pac-12 and the nation.
“Defensively, what we have to really strive for is a more disciplined, detailed run defense. That’s going to be a major factor,” said Beaver head coach Mike Riley. “Football can be very simple if you can do a good job on first down and second down, and if you can get in the best third down situation, you’ve got a better chance of getting them off the field. That’s what we haven’t done for a good portion of the year, and particularly the last few weeks.”
Polk is third in the conference in rushing by averaging 113 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns. He’s also known as one of the top receivers coming out of the backfield, something NFL scouts drool over when they watch the 5-11, 222-pounder from Redlands, Calif.
When the Huskies decide they want to throw the ball, Montana will have a couple of very good options downfield in two seniors, Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar. Kearse nearly beat the Beavers by himself last season in Seattle by catching nine balls for 146 yards and four touchdowns in the 35-34 double overtime win. In that game, Riley decided to go for two in the second extra period to win the game. The decision turned out to be the incorrect one as tight end Joe Halahuni, who is usually as sure-handed as it gets, dropped the pass, leading to a mad celebration at Husky Stadium.
“In order to have a good season, you have to win the close games and that’s what the Huskies have done,” said Riley. “They’ve lost to teams that are highly ranked like Stanford and Oregon and USC, but they’ve won their other games and there have been some close ones. That has mirrored a lot of the season we have had.”
If Washington’s offense is a strength, its defense is something less than desired. The Huskies are 10th in the conference in scoring defense (34.1) and 10th in total defense (425 yards per game). Despite those numbers, Sarkisian says the defense is getting better.
“Regardless of who we’re playing this week, our defense is improved,” he said. “Obviously we have a major challenge with (the Beavers) ability to throw the football. But the key for us is to stop the run initially, and then hope we can apply some pressure to the quarterback.”
Since the second half of the first game of the season, OSU has gone with redshirt freshman Sean Mannion as their quarterback, and he has experienced some growing pains in 2011. The Beavers are near the bottom in most of the offensive categories in the conference.
The game will mark the last home game for 17 seniors including James Rodgers and Halahuni. Rodgers, who currently has 218 catches in his career, needs just three receptions to become the all-time leading receiver at the school. He was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA to play this season after blowing out his knee last season at Arizona. Although Rodgers hasn’t had the same speed he once possessed, he still has the ability to get open.
“I think the all-time competitor in James Rodgers is a great story because he wasn’t the same receiver (Mike Hass and Joe Newton) were when they were young,” Riley said. “He worked his way to a record. And quite frankly, it snuck up on me. I hadn’t realized he was as far along in this deal.”
Rodgers and the rest of the senior class has seen a lot more winning than they have in 2011. Oregon State has defeated Washington State and Arizona, and that’s it. The win against the Wildcats cost then-head coach Mike Stoops his job the next day, and Washington State might very well be looking to replace Paul Wulff. If the Beavers should pull out the upset, don’t look for the Huskies to be firing Sarkisian any time soon. But a loss in Corvallis won’t set well in Seattle for a program that looks to be on the rise.