The phrase “seeing green” to convey envy is never more apropos than analyzing Oregon State’s relationship with rival Oregon. The Beavers have seen a lot of green from Eugene, namely Phil Knight’s monetary investments in the UO athletic program. State-of-the-art facilities and cutting edge facilities, combined with an innovative and exciting style have yielded three straight BCS bowl appearances for the Ducks.
OSU had been the model of consistency in the Pac, but the Beavers are on a decline that directly parallels UO’s rise to national prominence. That’s hardly a viable recipe for Mike Riley to remain at OSU, even if he is responsible for the sustained success the program enjoyed in the decade prior.
OSU is working diligently to re-brand. A third straight losing season might ensure part of that re-branding includes a new head coach. It’s happened elsewhere in the Pac-12: Arizona State unveiled its new identity a summer ago, and made a change in coaches in December. Arizona is expanding Arizona Stadium and adding football facilities, a boon which Rich Rodriguez will enjoy. Washington State’s Martin Stadium is undergoing renovation for the Mike Leach era.
That Riley’s name could be one on the chopping block proves how thankless a job coaching a BCS program can be. When he came on board in 1997, OSU was a perpetual punching bag that had not played in a bowl game in three decades. He left for an NFL opportunity in 1999, in time to see what he started yield the program’s first postseason since 1965 and a Fiesta Bowl. His return in 2003 ushered in something of a golden era: bowl games in six of seven seasons, five seasons with at least eight wins (and three with nine or more), and opportunities at the Rose Bowl.
Those missed Rose Bowl chances are probably the greatest stigma Riley carries. OSU was playing for the conference’s greatest prize come November each season from 2007 to 2009. The ’09 loss might sting the most. Riley’s record from his Corvallis return to Dec. 4, 2009 was 56-31. Beginning with that Rose Bowl-denying 37-33 loss, Riley’s record is 8-17.
The Beavers’ 1-4 finish in 2010 spilled over into an 0-4 start to ’11, including a defeat to FCS Sacramento State and 35-0 rout at Wisconsin. Last season’s struggles can be partially attributed to youth, partially attributed to injuries. Ryan Katz was supplanted by freshman Sean Mannion at quarterback due to the former’s wrist injury, James Rodgers never returned to his prior level from a torn ACL suffered in October 2010, and promising frosh tailback Malcolm Agnew’s availability was off-and-on.
Some good news for the Beavers’ 2012 chances is all the downs played by youngsters last season result in the most experienced team in the conference this upcoming. Riley’s 16 returners are the most among all 12 teams in the league. For all their struggles, OSU finished ahead of three teams in the conference standings (Arizona, Colorado, Washington State) and looked better as the season progressed.
Mannion showed tremendous potential, doling out 3328 yards and 29 touchdowns, while completing nearly 65 percent of his attempts. He was picked off 18 times, the byproduct of his baptism by fire. Limiting the turnovers would translate into Mannion emerging as one of, if not the most productive quarterback in the conference. Returning his No. 1 target, honorable mention All Pac-12 Markus Wheaton won’t hurt.
Youthful backfield mates Agnew and Jovan Stevenson’s production will also go a long way to Mannion’s growth. Agnew showed the greatest potential to succeed Rodgers, but played in just six games. Stevenson and Terron Ward played in Agnew’s stead, each going for a little over 200 yards.
OSU struggled mightily defensively, allowing 30.8 PPG. The silver lining is that Riley returns his top defenders in All Pac-12 cornerback Jordan Poyer and end Scott Crichton. Poyer intercepted four passes and broke up another 12, while Crichton made six sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. The Beavs’ best hope defensively is that experience translates to results, because along with Poyer and Crichton, that side of the ball returns eight starters.
A key to Riley’s future is keeping up with the Joneses. Returning to the postseason is a chief concern for the Beavers, but catching up to UO is a necessity for keeping the fan base. The Ducks face some uncertainty. NCAA investigations into Chip Kelly’s connections to Texas scouting service coordinator Willie Lyles could yield penalties. Even if they don’t, Kelly’s replacing a talented offensive corps of Darron Thomas, LaMichael James, Lavasier Tuinei, Mark Asper and David Paulsen.
With the Ducks coming to Reser for this year’s installment of the Civil War, this might be the time for little brother to curry some revenge for all of big brother’s new toys.