Nov. 26, 2008

By Adam Caparell

For Oregon State, it’s pretty clear.

“Everyone in this building knows the residual effects of this game,” Beavers coach Mike Riley said. “So we don’t even need to talk about it.”

What hasn’t been mentioned in the corridors of the Oregon State practice facilities this week is being widely bandied about pretty much everywhere else in Corvallis and the Pac-10.  

That’s because all that stands between Oregon State and the Rose Bowl – yes, Oregon State, the Pac-10 championship and a Rose Bowl berth – is a victory Saturday in their regular season finale. But to earn a trip to Pasadena, Oregon State better be prepared for War.

The 112th installment of the Civil War, the seventh oldest rivalry in college football, kicks off with more on the line for the Beavers than in any game between Oregon and Oregon State in recent memory.

It’s been a long time since the Beavers last played in the Rose Bowl – 43 years to be exact – but thanks to one of the most surprising upsets of the season, Riley has the Beavers positioned to do what few fathomed back in August.

To begin with, expectations weren’t particularly great. Many thought the Beavers were due to regress after last season’s second straight bowl victory. The idea of Oregon State competing for a Pac-10 title would have gotten you laughed out of the bar.  

And just two weeks into the season, Oregon State was proving all the experts right. The Beavers were beaten by Stanford and nine days later were headed east to meet Penn State. The Nittany Lions handed the Oregon State a 31-point defeat in front of a national audience.

It was embarrassing, it was disheartening and it just happened to be the turning point of the Beavers season.

“There were a lot of people questioning why we would go to Penn State,” Riley said, “and so did I after the game.  But maybe, just maybe, you learn a lot from that game and it hardens you. You’ve been through the worst already so what are you worrying about? And I think there was a sense of that with this team.”

After the loss to Penn State, any pressure weighing on the Beavers was long gone. The team’s mentality changed. Forget the future and just roll with the punches. It’s as cliché as it gets, but Oregon State began to take things one game at a time.

“We’ve just been living in the moment for a long time,” Riley said. “In a lot of ways that’s a beautiful thing. I’d rather not start like that (0-2), but it was what it is at the time and then you just go. I said the residual effect of losing early is you stop thinking about anything down the road because your obvious focus and anxiety is about winning a game.”

The next game on the Beavers schedule was Hawaii before No. 1 USC came calling on a Thursday night less than two weeks later.

Oregon State took care of Hawaii and then – to almost everyone’s surprise – took care of the Trojans, the same Trojans who looked like world-beaters against Ohio State. Oregon State had shocked the Trojans, shocked the nation and shockingly has not relinquished control of the Pac-10 since.

So it seems all too ironic that if Oregon State wins Saturday it would face the Big Ten winner in the Rose Bowl, which of course happens to be Penn State. The idea of an Oregon State-Penn State rematch isn’t the sexiest game for the people at the Rose Bowl – despite what they say publicly they’d prefer to have USC who could still find its way to the Rose Bowl with an Oregon State loss and a Trojan win over UCLA Dec. 6 – but don’t discredit the Beavers based on their name.

This is a team, after all, that has played three of the nation’s current top eight, and very nearly has a 2-1 record against them. As it is, the Beavers went 1-2 in those games, but the Penn State loss was easily forgotten with the USC win and the Beavers very nearly knocked off Utah in Salt Lake City late in September.

Since then, Oregon State hasn’t lost.

The change in mentality was a big reason, but so was the fact that the Beavers started playing better team defense, began to gel as a group and the coaches did a great job of coaching up their kids, so said Riley.

Now the man who was given a second chance to coach the team he grew up rooting for finds himself with an opportunity that rarely comes the Beavers way. And it seems all too fitting that for Riley and his team that it’s going to have go through those hated Ducks to get there.

“I’ve often said it’s unusual in our business to be coaching where you grew up and had some ties with,” Riley said. “To be able to do it with a second chance I feel very, very fortunate every day to get to do it. I’ve always loved the Civil War.” 

War is hell, but to the winner goes the spoils. And in the Beavers’ case, those spoils would include plenty of roses.