The Oregon State Beavers suffered a huge shock on Monday when Coach Mike Riley announced starting quarterback Sean Mannion was slated to have surgery on a torn meniscus this week. Back-up junior QB Cody Vaz, who has not played a game since 2010, will jump in for Mannion.
Or try to, at least.
While everyone expected the Beavers' September 2012 schedule to be brutal, no one said anything about their October. Now, however, consider it their crucible.
Dramatics aside, what is really at stake for Oregon State and its fans?
Last year, Oregon State suffered through one of its worst seasons of the last decade, when it finished 3-9. Then-freshman QB Sean Mannion stood at 4-0 with big wins over previously-ranked Wisconsin Badgers, UCLA Bruins and Arizona Wildcats.
Mike Riley and his players have already far surpassed 2012 expectations and confirmed that the Beavers are indeed legitimate threats again.
While they could say, "Hey, we've done well" and rest on their laurels, the Beavers will not go softly into the night. Nor should they. They have something special in their grasp and will not be persuaded to just give it up.
What's that something special? Multiple things:
A validation of their efforts in the off-season.
A thrilling Top 10 AP ranking recently awarded to them, the highest of Coach Riley's career at Oregon State (he tied it once before).
A Top 25-ranked defense in points (as well as first nationally in third down defense and fourth nationally in run defense) with big play standouts like CB Jordan Poyer and DE Scott Crichton.
A revitalized offense that, while not as intimidating as the defense, still features a revamped running game and two of the Top 10 receivers in the country (Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks).
And a shot not only at a bowl game that they missed the year before but the Rose Bowl or (dare we say it?) a championship berth.
This "something special" also included QB Sean Mannion, who regrouped from his freshman trials to average 339 passing yards a game (second in the Pac-12) and led a scoring drive in the waning minutes against Arizona in Week 5 to rescue the season.
Mannion had his knee surgery Thursday, and according to ESPN it went well. He is expected to return to uniform in two to four weeks, though rumors are he tried to practice before surgery and will want to jump in sooner than he should.
That leaves an October during which the Beavers must fight without their trusted quarterback.
No one likes to settle for merely putting on a good show. And the Beavers will not give up on their 2012 season. They must rally around QB Vaz and give him everything they can to face down a daunting challenge: on the road this Saturday against the nation's third-ranked defense of the Brigham Young Cougars. After that, they face the Utah Utes' stout defense at home before battling the Washington Huskies in a stadium known for upsets.
Note that the Beavers only need to win two of these games to still maintain a possible top Pac-12 North finish.
If they can survive their crucible, Mannion might return for the Arizona State game on November 3. A big "if" and "might."
However, crucibles are also opportunities in disguise. Survive it and validate the team's cohesion and poise, and those BCS berths are much more tangible.
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