Men in Black just might be back in '06

Both hands locked on his face mask, Oregon State kicker Alexis Serna is jumping and spinning in anguish. He's just missed his third extra point, making him the goat of the Beavers' 22-21 overtime loss at LSU to open the 2004 season.

That's probably the last image most folks east of the Mississippi have of Oregon State, and only because Serna's massive failure became a national story.

Since finishing 11-1 and ranked fourth in the nation in 2000, Oregon State has piddled along anonymously with a series of five- and six-loss seasons and a troika of third-tier bowl berths. Not bad for a program that used to be a national punch line, but certainly not worthy of a visit from the "GameDay" crew.

So whatever happened to Serna? Oh, he won the 2005 Lou Groza Award, which goes to the nation's best kicker.

And the Beavers?

The Men in Black might be back.

They at least look like a compelling dark horse candidate in a Pac-10 conference that appears balanced rather than top-heavy, as it has been the past few seasons.

Consider: five returning starters on an offensive line that averages 305 pounds per man; a tailback who rushed for 1,321 yards last season; experience at quarterback; a secondary that returns intact; and the best kicker in the nation (who, by the way, has connected on 61 consecutive extra points since jumping and spinning at LSU).

There are plenty of reasons for optimism, even if coach Mike Riley is partial to keeping things under wraps.

"I've been able to be quiet about it, at least until [this] article," Riley said. "But we've got a shot. We're quietly optimistic."

That starts with Yvenson Bernard, the most unheralded superstar tailback in the country. After eclipsing the 100-yard mark in six of the final eight games last year, he finished ninth in the nation with 102.1 yards per game. He also hauled in 37 receptions.

The 5-foot-9, 204-pound junior is neither fast nor big. But he's slippery and quick, and his toughness has inspired awe around the team. He recorded the bulk of his impressive numbers while nursing shoulder and knee injuries that sidelined him during spring drills.

"He is a warrior," Riley said. "He's one of my favorite all-time players."

The biggest loss on offense, obviously, was receiver Mike Hass, the Pac-10's third all-time leading wideout and the 2005 Biletnikoff Award winner. But Riley said he's confident in a deep crew that is topped by Anthony Wheat-Brown, Sammie Stroughter and Brandon Powers.

Moreover, the Beavers return 6-foot-7, 260-pound Joe Newton, who sat out last season with a leg injury; he instantly becomes the conference's best tight end. He caught 56 passes for 687 yards with seven touchdowns in 2004.

Newton particularly should help as a red-alert option for quarterback Matt Moore, who was decidedly inconsistent after transferring from UCLA. While Moore completed nearly 60 percent of his passes, he also tossed 19 of the Beavers' 23 interceptions and was the primary victim of 32 sacks, often because he held the ball too long while worrying about throwing interceptions.

Still, Moore is talented and will be running the same offense in consecutive seasons for the first time in his life.

The Beavers shouldn't struggle to score.

And they may have to keep the scoreboard spinning, considering the big losses on defense, including an all-conference troika: linebackers Trent Bray and Keith Ellison and knighted defensive tackle Sir Henry Anderson.

While it's nice to have the entire secondary back, it's less encouraging that it surrendered a mind-boggling 31 touchdown passes, most in the nation.

Here's how Riley described it after a reporter suggested a number of possible excuses, including three freshmen starters: "No, we were just bad."

But Riley means "bad" in terms of mental breakdowns, not ability.

The secondary also suffered because the pass rush was anemic, ranking last in the conference in sacks. That may change with the emergence of athletic ends Joe Rudulph and junior college transfer Dorian Smith, though the high-strung Rudulph was suspended over the weekend for "an on-the-field disciplinary action," according to The Oregonian. Both Rudulph and Smith are listed as backups but should at least earn playing time in passing situations -- which, of course, potentially means all situations in the Pac-10.

Beyond the personnel, the Beavers also have to be smarter and more disciplined (see Rudulph and suspended receiver Marcel Love). It's not just off-field problems or scheme breakdowns or turnovers; it's stupid penalties. Oregon State has finished at or near the bottom of the conference in penalty yards per game in recent years, in large part because of personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct flags.

The Men in Black play with an edge that sometimes gets them in trouble.

"Yeah, I think we do, and it's not a good thing," 225-pound safety Sabby Piscitelli said. "We've got to learn how to control that."

How important is self-control? Consider that the Beavers likely would have played for the national title against Oklahoma in 2000 if not for critical conduct penalties -- including an ejection of defensive tackle Eric Manning -- in the thrilling 33-30 defeat at Washington, their lone blemish that season.

Pac-10 media tapped the Beavers to finish seventh in the conference in this year's preseason poll, exactly where they finished last year after losing four of their last five games.

So the Beavers' potential resurgence has yet to register.

"That's Oregon State for you -- vastly overlooked," Piscitelli said.

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.