Pressure? Pressure is your first career start at quarterback -- your first meaningful action, in fact -- coming against the nation's No. 6 team, one that's known for forcing quarterbacks to their backs, where they can look up at the lights and wonder if it's worth it to get up. And that pressure twists even tighter when it's not just a road game against that powerful foe, but it's also inside the palatial Cowboys Stadium, a$1.3 billion, look-at-me showcase of excess from Jerry Jones.
That's what Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz will face on Saturday when his 24th-ranked Beavers try to take down a TCU team with 27 seniors -- tied for most in the nation -- including a fifth-year quarterback, Andy Dalton, who's triumph in 29 career games means his next victory will push him past the legendary Slingin' Sammy Baugh on the Horned Frogs list.
Katz spent his first game week answering redundant questions about whether he was excited or nervous -- nervous or excited -- about making his first start (answers: yes to excited, no to the other). While he clearly seems ready to be done with the hype portion of preparation, he diplomatically insists "it wasn't that bad."
"I'm just going to play it cool and stay focused," Katz said.
We shall see. The biggest difference between these two teams, who are similar in that they are consistently successful without ever signing nationally-touted recruiting classes, is quarterback. Dalton has thrown more than 1,000 career passes and could become a Heisman Trophy candidate. Katz at this point is all projection, though his powerful arm has elicited more than a few "yowzas" during practices.
The good news for Katz is he won't be facing end Jerry Hughes and linebacker Daryl Washington, 2009 All-Americans who were picked in the first two rounds of NFL draft. Dalton and the offense have often had their way during preseason practices, so perhaps the Horned Frogs defense will take a step back this fall.
"Well, a little bit of it has to do with our offense -- they've really got things going with a senior quarterback," TCU coach Gary Patterson said.
Patterson's most obvious strategy is to gang up on Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers and then blitz Katz relentlessly, daring the sophomore to maintain his poise and find an open guy. It would be fair to say that the Beavers -- aware of the obvious -- have thrown every blitz package they can think of at their offense in order to get them ready.
"We've got to stay poised to pick up the right guy and then physically do the job so our quarterback can function," coach Mike Riley said. "But there is no way we can play this game without some balance."
Which means Rodgers gets -- or creates -- space to run. Recall that he did that with great fanfare versus USC in 2008, gaining 186 yards against what is widely considered the best defense of the past decade.
But the other Rodgers -- receiver James Rodgers -- has a secret: Katz seems comfortable with pressure and is capable of punishing a blitzing defense.
"Now, he can throw the deep ball," James Rodgers said. "Whenever we do pressure periods, he gets rid of the ball fast. I think his confidence has really gotten high. It will be pick your poison. You want to stop the run and load up the box, we have a lot of guys at receiver who can make plays. And vice versa if you want to double-up on the receivers. We have a running back who can make plays."
Katz is surprisingly breezy when talking about what he might face.
"The quickest way to get a defense to stop blitzing is to convert some big plays," he said. "There are some really big spaces there when a defense blitzes. There are going to be a lot of open throws downfield, I think."
Those are the basic Xs and Os. But other numbers stack up against the Beavers. For one, TCU regularly takes foes from the marquee conferences to the woodshed. It's 13-3 in its past 16 games against BCS conference teams. Moreover, Oregon State rarely posts Septembers to remember. It won 28 games from 2006-2008, but it started all three seasons 2-3. In 2009, the Beavers went 8-5 after a 2-2 start.
The slow starts have long been a source of "what might have been?" in Corvallis. To cure the ailment, Riley increased the intensity during spring practices and fall camp. There was a lot more full-contact work (though star players, such as the Rodgers brothers and defensive tackle Stephen Paea often took the scrimmages off). Further, other than Katz, this is a veteran team. It shouldn't need a few games to find itself.
All the talk is at an end, though. Katz said he expects to feel some butterflies when he first takes the field and early in the game. And he knows that TCU's vaunted defense is eyeballing him with all sorts of bad intentions.
"We just need to weather the storm and get past those first few plays," he said. "It's Cowboys Stadium, but after that first play, it just becomes football."
And it seems the Beavers coaches and players feel pretty confident that Katz will be just fine handling the football part of the evening.