By Zack Hall • The Bulletin

Oregon State seemed on the cusp of an exceptional season last year. After a stunning season-opening loss to FCS foe Eastern Washington, Oregon State rattled off six consecutive wins by relying on a high-flying offense that made the running game seem almost unnecessary. Then the Beavers’ record-setting passing game was slowed by some of the Pac-12 Conference’s best defenses, and a promising season turned mediocre with a five-game losing streak.

Suddenly, the Beavers’ offense was exposed as one-dimensional, particularly in losses against Stanford, Southern California, Arizona State and Washington, when the Beavers ran for an average of just 71 net yards per game.

“It was all fine and good when we were playing against teams that weren’t as good defensively,” reflects Oregon State coach Mike Riley. “But we ran into the top three defenses in the league three weeks in a row, and then you’re trying to pass block all the time against those real good pass rushers from SC and Arizona State. Those guys are special, and if you don’t have any run game to keep them at bay, then life gets very, very difficult.”

For all the buzz about Oregon State’s passing game — with 10,436 career passing yards, senior quarterback Sean Mannion is on pace to catch USC’s Matt Barkley this season and become the Pac-12 Conference’s all-time leading passer — the Beavers have spent much of preseason camp focusing on the run game.

Oregon State salvaged a 7-6 record last season with a 38-23 victory over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl. And to take a step forward in 2014, the Beavers — who finished last season ranked 11th in the conference in rushing offense — know they will have to establish a run game to help ease the burden on Mannion.

“I think it’s the difference-maker,” Riley says of his team’s run game. “It was a difference-maker from us being much better a year ago.”

Riley and new offensive coordinator John Garrett — a former NFL assistant who takes over after Danny Langsdorf left for the NFL in the offseason — do have some material to work with.

Entering last season, running backs Storm Woods and Terron Ward were expected to be a formidable one-two punch. Instead, Ward led the team with just 521 yards on 113 carries, and Woods pitched in 477 yards and suffered a scary concussion against Utah in the season’s third game.

Both runners are back this year and hoping to build on momentum gained in last season’s final two games.

Who will open the holes is another matter. The offensive line is being reworked as the Beavers deal with offseason injuries — including a broken foot suffered by all-conference-caliber center Isaac Seamalo — and the departure of three starters from a year ago.

“Those guys have worked really hard,” says Woods, who is now a junior. “(Sophomore guard Sean) Harlow has taken on a leadership role. He has came a long way. … Of course when Isaac gets back we’ll be better. But we have to work with what we have right now.”

The good news for the Beavers is that Oregon State’s defense, which returns seven starters, should provide a margin for error early in the year.

The Beaver defense is experienced, particularly at linebacker, where seniors D.J. Alexander and Michael Doctor return after injury-marred 2013 seasons to join middle linebackers Jabral Johnson and Rommel Mageo.

Add senior defensive end Dylan Wynn, highly touted Miami transfer Jalen Grimble at tackle, and a secondary that returns three starters, and the Beavers appear to have a formidable unit that could buoy the team.

“Almost all of our guys are returners,” Wynn says. “Our entire linebacker corps, all our D-linemen, have played at some point. It’s looking really good. We’re deep in our positions, and the defense as a unit has come together really well.”

Yes, there is reason for optimism at Oregon State that the Beavers can compete with the upper echelon of the Pac-12.

But first things first.

Portland State is the season opener this Saturday, and the Beavers have struggled enough in recent years against Big Sky Conference teams.

“We need to win our first game, and that’s our goal right now,” Riley says. “I really want to get our team both prepared and fresh for that first game.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7868, .