Oregon State starts the college football season tonight, on “Opening Night” (well, except for California’s adventure in Australia), playing a Thursday night game.
And its an important one, starting off the second year of the Gary Andersen era on the road, against a Power-5 B1G Ten opponent that’s coming off a bowl trip, at Minnesota.
It’s also one of the games that at least on paper, looks like one the Beavers have a chance to pull off the upset in. Or at least it did prior to the line that makes the Gophers 13 point favorites came out.
With a new defensive line, a new defensive scheme, and a new defensive coordinator, Oregon State needs something other than a high octane offense to get things started against, and Minnesota fits the description. The Gophers aren’t a pass-happy program, or a high-tempo team. Further, their preferred run first game is going to be minus one of their two best running backs in Shannon Brooks.
This will also be the first game for Minnesota under new head coach Tracy Claeys, who finished last season up for the departed Jerry Kill, after a lengthy stint as an assistant to Kill. Not being new to the program or the job takes some of the uncertainty away for the Gophers, but first time coaches usually run into some bumps getting going.
The Beavers must capitalize on any such miscues, and the opportunities they present, as they will have to in every game this season. With a lot of new faces on the field (again) to start the season, that’s going to be a challenge, but its one of the keys to competitiveness tonight, in a game the Beavers can’t afford to kick down a Gopher hole.
Oregon State also has to put some points up, but even more importantly, move the sticks multiple times on nearly every possession, to keep the defense off the field for more than a couple minutes at a time, especially the rotation players.
That means minimal penalties, something the offense did seem better at in scrimmages this fall, and a minimal number of failed plays, be they dropped balls, missed blocks, off-target throws, or high risk/low percentage plays. Despite an unsettled preseason for the offensive line, that means a fair amount of (Ryan) Nall-ball.
The kind of game a typical middle of the B1G pack team will probably play might be less exciting than a shootout, but its what Minnesota tends to play, and is a more favorable scenario for Oregon State, which is much more likely to be able to pull out a win at this point in a 24-20 game than a 45-41 contest.
It helps that Andersen has some idea of what to expect from the Gophers, and many of their players, having led Wisconsin to wins over them 2 & 3 years ago. The changes with Claeys, who was there then under Kill, aren’t that major.
And its not a 9 AM Beaver body clock contest, as has so many of Oregon State’s forays to the middle and eastern part of the country in recent years have been. That’s gone very poorly pretty frequently, and not even just for the Beavers (remember Stanford’s and the conferences’ shot at the College Football Playoffs coming to an end at Northwestern last year on opening Saturday morning), so the 6 PM PDT/8 PM CDT start time is a positive for a #Pac-12LongAfterDark accustomed team.
Except for LT Sean Harlow, who is all but sure to sit out the season with a red shirt on, Oregon State is essentially healthy, with no other unexpected names on this week’s depth chart.
It could be an interesting evening for the Beaver secondary though, glancing at the Minnesota depth chart. The Gophers have WRs that are 6’3”, 6’4”, & 6’5”, and a TE that’s 6’10”!
There’s also a potential for the Minnesota crowd to be divided, due to the Rams-Vikings NFL preseason game across town (it’s nothing short of astonishing that one of these games wasn’t pushed to either Friday night or sometime Saturday), which could diminish the Gophers’ home field advantage.
All in all, Coach Andersen couldn’t ask for a much better set of circumstances, though a look ahead at Minnesota’s schedule quickly reveals that the outcome of tonight’s Rodent Bowl could very conceivably determine if the Gophers will go bowling again this season, making it one of their most important games of the year as well, so not one likely to be looked past.
It’s also the kind of game where Darell Garretson can get himself established as the Beavers quarterback, and as their on-the-field leader, without having to have a Pac-12 Player of the Week performance, something more likely to be accomplished by Washington State’s Luke Falk or UCLA’s Josh Rosen. That’s in Oregon State’s favor, both tonight, and in preparation for and down the line as well.
As such, this is not only a game Oregon State should have a shot at winning, its also one in which we should get a fair assessment of what this year’s Beavers are capable of. Whether that’s going to be a good thing or not, no one knows, but I couldn’t be more curious to find out.