Last season I looked at 3 big games I thought could define the season for OSU. To me @Arizona St., @Utah and Stanford at home were the Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae battles that Riley needed to get 2 of 3 for a solid showing. It turned out he won none of those games and a 3-9 season resulted. @Utah was the infamous “why didn’t we stack the box” game where we were manhandled 27-8 and Stanford at home was just as bad in a 38-13 defeat. If Arizona St. was my Trebia River battle then key to that loss was losing too many elephants crossing the Alps. That would have been the UCLA loss the week before at home that not many saw coming. One could say the Alps started with the Wisconsin game on the road and the summit of the crossing was where Ryan Katz slipped and fell to his death to never again return to action. Riley was nowhere near a Hannibal last year. Unless of course he skipped the whole European campaign part in history class and just read the African Battle of Zama and drinking of the hemlock in Syria.
So for this year, to not be Custer’s last stand, what will Riley have to do and what are the biggest 3 games that will define the 2012 season? Since we exist in a strange realm where UCLA considered appearing in the Pac-12 Championship sub-mediocre and enough to fire Neuheisel but OSU thought 3 wins was “due to injuries and young players” and not all that bad, and Riley gets a Hitchcockian do-over, let’s take a look. I think early on @UCLA will be very important. Last time we were down in the Rose Bowl taking on the Bruins UCLA got the benefit of getting out of bounds with a second left and then hitting a field goal as time expired to beat the Beavers in a game OSU controlled most of the way. That game played a big part in just a 5 win season in 2010 as did the @Washington loss.
OSU needs to win in LA to help future recruiting and improve our reputation down there that has taken a dent in the last 2 years. Winning @UCLA will help prepare us mentally to try to be ready to to beat Arizona and Rich Rodriguez in Tuscon the following week. That game won’t be easy and we will need the momentum carryover if at all possible. After that is Washington St. at home and I guarantee Mike Leach wants to win that game and try to put OSU in the basement of the NW schools. WSU lately is taking its games in all sports vs. OSU very seriously.
The second big game that will define the season is against Utah at home. Like the earlier game vs. UCLA it is also quite winnable. The theme this year is win games you can win that will make a big difference to the season. If we lose this game the odds are the season will be 5-7 at best and we will not be going to any bowl, no matter how small, for the 3rd straight year. This is a game that could impact the future of Mike Riley. You have to win games like this where you are likely very small favorites. We didn’t stack the box in Salt Lake but will we in Corvallis and can Riley show he can beat Whittingham in the comforting confines of Reser? This is the Lake Trasimene battle for 2012 so Riley better have a trick up his sleeves. He will need the ‘W’.
Following Utah is the game against Washington at CenturyLink field. As tempting as it was to have this be one of the key battles I am trying to find games where Riley has better odds. We can beat UW up there and it would be a big win for OSU but the history is we come up just short in Seattle and with a Justin Wilcox defense I believe the margin of victory will be more like 10-12 points for UW this year. No doubt I would love to win that game though.
The final battle and the biggest for 2012, that will be this year’s Cannae, will be @Stanford. There is no more Andrew Luck. We can now better measure Harbaugh vs Shaw. I do think Shaw is a pretty good coach that has a solid approach to the game and also teaches toughness to his players. Stanford, like Oregon, will still have a strong offensive line. Beating Stanford in Palo Alto is perhaps unlikely but this is a year a couple teams atleast should be able to do it. If Riley wants to improve his image he needs a big road win. @UCLA isn’t of the same level. That is barely a mid-level road win. @Stanford or Washington is another level up and especially with UW making strides into what looks like a rising program. Riley seems like he will never beat Oregon, but less than 4 years ago if he could have gotten a touchdown in the final moments against Stanford we could have chiseled our way into a Rose Bowl despite the Civil War result. That game shows how crucial it is to get early season victories. If Riley wants some serious momentum for 2012 a stunning upset of Wisconsin would get all of Beaver Nation back in good spirits and provide a lift for the entire season. Don’t see that happening, but all these opportunities are out there. Beat Stanford on the road and I say we are going bowling. Maybe New Mexico, maybe a Hunger Bowl but we should be playing in late December.
We finish the season with California and Oregon at home. California is a pretty big game that Riley can’t afford to lose. We have good trends against them for the most part and Riley needs to “Finish Them.” Finally, the Civil War in Corvallis presents that huge carot that OSU must try to seize. Kelly though seems to do his homework too much for that to happen. Alot has to go right to beat the Ducks. You have to cause atleast 2 if not 3 turnovers and score touchdowns and not field goals on many of your own possessions. If you have a bad quarter it is pretty much over. Oregon will likely be running wild with the Black Mamba and let’s just hope Oregon fans don’t bring their lighters this year.
In all, Riley will again get plenty of opportunities to prove he can coach in a dynamic and improving Pac-12 playing field. For 2012 to be 6 wins Riley may need to win both @UCLA and Utah. He certainly will need atleast one and some other minor upset. Those games are perhaps his best bet for a better season though. Winning @Stanford or @UW would lend Riley more credibility. With no big wins last year, Riley needs to prove he can have more than a tiny upset atleast once in 2+ seasons. Fans will be restless if Riley does not reach 6 wins this year. He has more running talent and good passing options as well. Leaders need to emerge. Woods, Mannion, and a more vocal Wheaton would all be good.
Mannion can’t stare down receivers or his picks will remain high and OSU will come up short in too many games. If we get behind we have to keep running. Our percentages were all out of whack and Langsdorf got way too pass happy in those situations last year. The odds prove that will almost never work. You have to keep your balanced attack and get yourself in position to win the game in the late 3rd and then 4th quarter. For Riley’s sake he better be ready to yank playcalling should he sense Langs wanting to be mostly air with little ground attack. I am predicting 5 wins unless we beat both UCLA and Utah. Then I see 6 wins and the New Mexico or Hunger Bowl.
At the end of the season BDC has an important decision to make. We will be getting new branding and if you want an upcomer like Justin Wilcox you have to strike while the iron is hot or you never seize the limited good opportunities that make themselves available. He is already being paid $800,000 and at the end of this year might be the only time he would seriously consider OSU. He is very likely to be a head coach within 2 years and even if he somehow wasn’t he would be up to $1,000,000 a year at UW if they get stronger as is the trend they are on. To get noticed and be relevant you have to take bold action and want to compete with the best. BDC needs to see this not as anything against Riley, but a next logical step that will have OSU relevant and a destination program for the rest of the decade.