Marcus Russell, one of two managing editors for the SB Nation blog Building the Dam, and Marvin Lewis, a staff writer for that same blog, were generous enough to answer a few questions about the Oregon State Beavers and shed some light on the Gophers' season opening opponent in anticipation of Thursday night's game at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Daily Gopher: The Beavers were not good last season. I don't think anyone would dispute that. How improved are you expecting this team to be in Gary Andersen's second year? Is this a bowl team or will the improvement be more incremental than that?
Marcus: Oregon State struggled last season in Gary Andersen's first year, no doubt about it. When Mike Riley took the job at Nebraska he left the cupboards pretty bare in terms of talent. The Beavers struggled to a 2-10 record and weren't particularly competitive in a number of Pac-12 games. This Oregon State team will be much improved in my opinion. Last season, the Beavers did not have a quality quarterback and the offense became very one-dimensional under Seth Collins. Opponents could load up the box and Collins (or any of his backups) weren't accurate enough passers to make the defenses pay. Long story short, Oregon State will be more dynamic offensively and the defense should take a step forward as well. How will that translate to the win column? Well, probably not that much. Oregon State still has a lot of work to do in order to be compete in the Pac-12 and the Beavers have a tough non-conference schedule. Oregon State will be better and won't be blown out of games this year but this is not a bowl team. I don't expect them to win more than three or four games.
Marvin: A lot of Beaver fans have expectations of a six- or seven-win season this year but it doesn't seem realistic to see that much of an improvement from a team that was 2-10 this past season and has a sort of similar roster. After last season there is only room for improvement though, it definitely won't be worse. I think the biggest improvement you will see is the offensive improvement. Last year the Beavers never figured out who their quarterback was and whoever they put in the backfield was not consistent. This year they have reason to be hopeful with Darell Garretson in the backfield. What we have been able to see from him this offseason has been impressive and if receivers Victor Bolden and Jordan Villamin stay healthy they could have big seasons now that they have someone to get them the ball consistently. However I am expecting four or five wins this season. It is a tough schedule and it will take time for the Beavers to get back to a bowl game. They look to be a year or two out from being a bowl team.
TDG: Seth Collins, Oregon State's leading passer and leading rusher a season ago, is now at wide receiver. Enter Utah State transfer Darell Garretson. Will the offense look much different with Garretson under center? It certainly helps that he is familiar with co-offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven.
Marcus: Darell Garretson sat out last year per NCAA rules after transferring from Utah State and as you alluded to is teamming up with former offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven. The basic offensive scheme won't change but the execution should be much improved. Collins, while dynamic as a runner, was not an accurate passer. This season Oregon State will lean on Garretson to distribute the ball to the Beavers' many playmakers. Watch out for Jordan Villamin and Victor Bolden; both are veteran receivers that could cause problems for the Gophers secondary.
Marvin: As I mentioned in the first answer, Darell Garretson changes the look of the offense if he lives up to the hype. He opens up the passing game that Beaver fans have longed for since Sean Mannion left two seasons ago. Last season people were intrigued by the athleticism of Seth Collins but after the first few games they realized that he wasn't a true quarterback, he was just a very athletic player. Garretson is both athletic and can throw the ball accurately. Collins fits in perfectly at the slot receiver because of his ability to run the ball and shake defenders. Last season in the Civil War against the Ducks he looked the best he looked all season, running the wildcat and the slot position. He has a chance to have a very big impact for the team as it gives them another weapon on the ground. It may be a bold prediction here, but I could see Seth Collins rushing for 800-900 yards this season.
TDG: To say that the Beavers' defense struggled last season would be putting it lightly. That unit ranked near the bottom of college football in nearly every defensive category. But new defensive coordinator Kevin Clune has a history of success. Will there be much of a scheme change from last season? And does Clune have the talent he needs to see significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball?
Marcus: Defensively the Beavers will have essentially the same scheme that former defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake instituted before taking the head coaching job at BYU. Do I think there will be an improvement? Yes, I think the defense will show (a slight) improvement. They are still young and could use an infusion of depth and talent but reports are coming in that the players are thinking less and are understanding their role more. But, this will not be an elite unit this year by any stretch of the imagination.
Marvin: The defense is the biggest question mark for the Beavers this season. Everyone knows the offense is going to improve because it can't be much worse than last year, especially with the talent added on that side of the ball. As for defense, it's still up in the air. My gut feeling is that the defensive improvement is going to take a little bit longer than the offensive improvement. I think the Beavers will defend the pass a lot better this season because the secondary is improved, but it seems like the Beavs will still give up quite a few yards on the ground, especially against high-powered offenses. Matching up against teams like UCLA, Stanford or USC is really going to test the defense. Kevin Clune is a great defensive coach and will eventually have a solid defense in Corvallis, but this year I don't think the improvement will be as substantial as people would like it to be.
TDG: Name two under-the-radar players -- one on offense, one on defense -- that Gophers fans should expect to see making plays under the lights at TCF Bank Stadium.
Marcus: Offensively, Beavers running back Ryan Nall might be flying under the radar a little bit. He's a big running back and was affectionately nicknamed 'Wrecking Nall' after a couple breakout performances last year. He's the undisputed #1 running back for the Beavs this year and will get a lot of carries.
Defensively, its hard to single out just one player. Caleb Saulo is the leader of the defense and is the top returning tackler from a year ago. The inside linebacker should be flying all over the field making tackles on Thursday. The Beavers also have a couple of talented members of the secondary. Don't be surprised to see Treston Decoud, Devin Chappell or Dwayne Williams nab an interception at TCF Bank Stadium.
Marvin: On offense the first player the Gophers should watch out for is wide receiver Hunter Jarmon. Last season Jarmon only had 16 receptions for 177 yards, but he averaged 11.1 yards per catch. Those stats do not jump off the page obviously, but with a more capable quarterback to get him the ball, he will be able to be a consistent weapon that the team can use. The other player is running back Ryan Nall. Nall showed flashes of excellence last season but was buried on the depth chart behind Chris Brown and Strom Woods. Once Chris Brown was injured, he got a lot more playing time and was able to total 455 yards rushing last year. With a bigger role this season, that number will improve.
On the defensive end, one player to look out for in the secondary is junior safety Brandon Arnold. Last year when safety Justin Strong got injured, Arnold stepped up and did well. His ability to find the ball and make those touchdown-preventing tackles is his biggest strength. His improvement in playing passes will be on display from the get-go this season just like it has been this offseason. The second player to look out for on the defensive side is cornerback Treston Decoud. He already has made an impact on the defensive end totaling 50 tackles last season. He did not tally an interception last season but is still great in coverage, especially on the deep ball. He had a very scary injury last season after a collision with a Colorado player but there seems to be no lingering effects from the injury. He is also the only Beaver on the Senior Bowl watch list.
TDG: There is no love lost between Gopher fans and Gary Andersen after his brief (but eventful) tenure at Wisconsin. How are Oregon State fans feeling about the direction of the program under their new head coach?
Marcus: I've heard the rivalry between Wisconsin and Minnesota was in full force during Andersen's time in Wisconsin. I wonder how much that will be in play as the teams prepare for week one.
Oregon State fans were taken aback when Mike Riley left the program for Nebraska. But, they are confident in the direction of the program under Gary Andersen. Everyone knew the 2015 season would be a struggle even before Mike Riley left, so Andersen essentially got a free pass in year one. Fans like Andersen's ability to recruit and trust his ability to turn a program around. If Oregon State doesn't start to show improvements next season (in 2017) than Gary Andersen might start feeling some pressure, but for now everyone is relatively happy and on the same page.
Marvin: People are completely sold on him and have high expectations for the program in the coming years. The expectations may be a bit unfair for Andersen as people are expecting him to emulate his success he had in Wisconsin in Corvallis very quickly, but he has total backing from the fans despite a 2-10 season to start. With what he was given you couldn't really expect too much last season and the fact that a lot of fans believe that they can be a bowl team this year shows the belief that they have in Andersen and his coaching staff. I also think the hiring of Kevin Clune helped as well, given his proven success. This team has a lot of potential and the fans know that.
TDG: Alright, let's hear your prediction. Can the Beavers beat the Gophers in their own backyard?
Marcus: First game of the season, wacky things can happen. I think the Beavers will keep it close for at least the first half but the Gophers will win it 35-24.
Marvin: I actually wrote a preview/prediction article for this game a couple of weeks ago before Shannon Brooks broke a bone in his foot. I know it is still possible that he is ready for the season opener but even if he is he will not be at full strength. You guys do have a very talented roster though, last season you guys finished 5-7 in the regular season but were a couple plays from winning games against TCU, Michigan, and Iowa who were all in the Top 15 in the rankings at the time. The Beavers only have their two wins and a stellar performance against Oregon to hang their hat on from last season. The Beavers have a chance to put up points against the Gophers but will still struggle to stop your offense. Can the Beaver beat you guys? Yes, they can. Will they? I'm not so sure. The injury to Brooks is beneficial for them, and I hope he heals quickly, but I still think that you guys are going to pull out the win.
Thank you to both Marcus and Marvin for sharing their knowledge and insights about the Oregon State Beavers! To all of the Oregon State fans who will be in attendance Thursday night, I hope you have a fantastic experience in the Twin Cities and at TCF Bank Stadium! Other than the outcome of the game, obviously.
Also be sure to check out our Q & A over at Building the Dam.