It's time once again to rate Coach Mike Riley using Fanoverboard's patented 5 Beavertail system that we use after the season ends for each of the Beaver's major programs. The fact that we are doing this after the bowl season and not in early December is a good thing, as it means Oregon St. had a winning season, and got to go to one of those bowls.
Is it good enough to earn 5 Beaver tails?
And while the season was the second best in the last 4, and ended with a bowl win for the first time since 2008, it also included a 5 game losing streak, and a couple of the worst losses in the history of the program.
That means that despite the successes the team had, the 1 Beaver tail option can't come off the board.
The 7-6 season represents something of a normalizing of the prior 2 years, which began with a 3-9 disaster in 2011, but was followed up with last year's 9-4 run that ended with an Alamo Bowl trip, which was on the fringe of being one of the 5 best seasons ever at Oregon St.; certainly well within the top 10.
Similarly, Coach Riley got a Below Beaverage rating from just shy of 80% of the readership, with 57% rating it a Beaverbysmal season 2 years ago. The bounce back got the same majority to award 4 Beavertails for what they recognized to be an Above Beaverage season, but only 70% saw it as anywhere above Beaverage, and 21% rated it a Beaverage effort, clearly expecting top 25 finishes to be the norm in the modern era Riley helped create.
Extreme seasons take the opposite extreme rating off the board, but in a season that saw 5 tail performances, some sub-1 tail ones, and several that were a mix of tail slaps in between, all options are on the board this time.
Coming off a top 25 season that happened despite an injury induced quarterback controversy, Coach Riley didn't put an end to that controversy until the eve of the season opener, as both spring and summer ball saw healthy again Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz take turns with the 1s and 2s, making fans and the national media nervous.
Finally, Riley chose Mannion, and it proved to be his most brilliant decision of the season. Mannion, above, would spend part of the year as the nation's leading quarterback, and finished #2 in the nation in in passing yards and yards per game, with 4,662 yards, 358.6 per game, and 4th in touchdown passes, with 37.
Mannion had some help of course, mostly from Brandin Cooks. All Cooks did was lead the country in receiving yards, and catch 16 of Mannion's throws for touchdowns, second most in the country.
That resulted in the best single receiving season ever in the history of the PCC/AAWU/Pac-8/10-12, which has had a fair number of pretty good receivers come through in the last 60 years or so, never mind at Oregon St. Cooks leaves early for the NFL after a season in which he had the most catches, and for the most yards, in conference history, as well as becoming Oregon St.'s career leader in touchdown catches.
As a result, Cooks, above catching a touchdown pass against Colorado, won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's most outstanding college receiver, and was a consensus first team All-American.
Cooks and Mannion as a tandem produced more points than any other QB/WR tandem in Oregon St. history, and Coach Riley's preferred pro-style system gets a lot of the credit for that.
But the Beavers' top 25 ranking didn't make it to the end of the day on opening weekend, as Oregon St. fell 49-46 to Eastern Washington of the Big Sky Conference. The Eagles were a good team, and ran off a dozen wins on their way to the FCS Semi-finals, but they are still an FCS team, and it was the second time in 3 years the Beavers weren't ready to start the season, falling to an FCS Big-Sky team.
It wasn't the offense's fault; 46 points should win almost any game. And Mannion still almost drove the Beavers into position to force overtime, and potentially still salvage a win.
But the defense was a disaster, at least in the secondary, where the departure to the NFL of Jordan Poyer left them confused and out of position, and as a result, often chasing. Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker admitted the scheme installed to try to contain yet another mobile quarterback was too complicated, but it became apparent that the offense was going to have to win shootouts.
The Beavers bounced back to beat Hawaii, a team that would not win a game until the end of November, 33-14, as Mannion threw for 4 touchdowns. The defense showed signs of improvements, but also continued to have its moments of malfunction, a perplexing pattern that would persist all season.
Then it was off to Salt Lake City for the Pac-12 opener, which was the also the start of a stretch of 4 road trips in 5 games.
Oregon St.'s last 2 trips to Rice-Eccles had ended poorly, with crucial coaching miscues a component, but this time, the late night affair (the game started after 8 PM local time, and would be just the first of many late nights for Beaver Nation) turned out to be one of the most thrilling games of the season in the country.
The Oregon St. defense still struggled at times, but their identity as a team capable of picking off opposing quarterbacks was emerging, and they managed to force Utah to settle for a field goal in the first overtime. Then, as midnight came, Mannion cleared the reach of a leaping Utah defender by about an inch, finding Cooks in the endzone for the touchdown that produced the 51-48 win.
The Beavers had to rally from 2 touchdowns down in the 4th quarter in San Diego, with Mannion connecting with Terron Ward with 2:40 to go to make it a 1 possession game. But it was the defense that won this one, on Steven Nelson's pick 6 2 plays later, and the Beavers came home the 34-30 winners.
Oregon St. blew out Colorado 44-17, as Mannion threw for 414 yards and a school record 6 touchdowns, the last of which went to Connor Hamlett, above, and after their second bye of the season, carried a ton of momentum into the Palouse to take on Connor Halliday and the Cougars in what was anticipated to be a real shoot-out, in what would be the first of 6 straight night games (a scheduling gauntlet even the easy going Riley would eventually call out league and television execs for).
Both defenses were better than anticipated on the chilly Eastside night, and a tight game unfolded. Washington St. quarterback Connor Halliday directed a pair of 3rd quarter touchdown drives, and the Cougs took a 24-17 lead late in the period. But then everything changed, and fast.
Mannion found Kevin Cummings for the game tieing touchdown with a minute left in the 3rd quarter, and then the Beavers scored twice more in barely more than 2 minutes, after a bad snap on a punt, and then a Rashaad Reynolds interception on the next play after Cooks scored to put Oregon St. ahead set up another score 3 plays later.
3 plays after that, Reynolds picked off Halliday again, cementing him as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week, and setting up a Mannion to Cooks touchdown.
Nelson picked off Halliday again on the next play, and Mannion capped Oregon St.'s 5th touchdown drive in 9 minutes and 20 seconds with another touchdown toss to Cooks. Cooks, above, had 11 catches for 137 yards, and scored 3 ties, and the Beavers glided the rest of the way to the 52-24 win.
The next week, the Beavers would clear another stadium early, this time in Berkeley. Mannion threw for 4 touchdowns and 481 yards, as Oregon St. opened a 35-3 lead on the first drive of the second half.
Cooks, above, had 13 catches for a touchdown, and 237 yards, which would wind up being the most yards in a game by any receiver in the conference all year.
The Beaver defense was all over the hapless Bears as well, which led to Jared Goff being benched in the 3rd quarter, and a preview of future Beaver to be Zach Kline, who transferred out at the end of the season, with plans to enroll at Oregon St.
The Beavers opened as large as a 39 point lead, and rolled up 570 yards of offense on their way to blowing out the Bears with a 49-17 win that secured bowl eligibility just past mid-October.
It was a good thing, because despite finishing the season with 3 out of 5 games at home, and only 1 trip out of state, Oregon St. wouldn't win again in the regular season. With a gauntlet of bowl bound teams that included Stanford, USC, Arizona St., Washington, and Oregon to come, everyone had known it would be rough sledding down the stretch. But no one anticipated the variety of angst to come.
Oregon St. had their chances to upset Stanford at homecoming, but the Beavers missed out on points early when Mannion missed an undefended Cooks, and Coach Riley would chase those points unsuccessfully the rest of the game.
Three times when the Beavers were in field goal range, Riley inexplicably eschewed points and gambled unsuccessfully on 4th down, leaving 9 points on the board in a game Oregon St. eventually lost by 8, falling 20-12. Against a Cardinal club designed to win games with ball control, the pass-oriented Beavers held a time of possession advantage of over 17 minutes, and still couldn't pull out the win.
Still, Mannion drove Oregon St. into position to still force overtime. But 4 plays from the 7 yard line all failed, the last a pass Cummings couldn't hold on to on the goal line, a result of what turned out to be a broken bone in his hand that would sideline him the rest of the regular season.
It would prove to be a much larger loss than most realized at the time, as Mannion would struggle comparatively without his possession receiver all of November.
Hopes were still high though, as USC came to town for an ESPN Friday night featured game. Oregon St. has played well enough to beat Stanford, and the Trojans, who had lost their last 3 trips to Reser, were operating with an interim coach in Ed Orgeron.
Those hopes were quickly dashed though, as the persistent assignment and communication errors in the Oregon St. secondary that were never corrected led to a 71 yard touchdown pass to Marqise Lee, below, not 3 minutes into the game.
After falling 2 touchdowns behind early, the Beavers did battle back, and Mannion found Cooks for a touchdown early in the second quarter. It would be the last offensive points of the night however, though Ryan Murphy did deliver a pick 6 to tie the game on the next play. Mannion had his worst game of the season to that point, trowing 3 interceptions.
But despite numerous injuries at running back, the Trojans, who had barely enough players to fill out a full 2 deep depth chart, ran over the Beavers. Silas Redd ran for 140 yards, but it was sophomore Javorius "Buck" Allen who was the star of the night.
Allen ran for 133 yards and 3 touchdowns, including the 52 yard scoring romp that sealed the 31-14 USC win, and led to the Trojan band playing "Conquest" in Reser for the first time since 2004.
The Beavers were out-played thoroughly for the first time in 2 seasons, and thoroughly out-coached.
Things didn't improve the following week in Tempe. After Arizona St. had taken a 7-0 lead, the Oregon St. defense did pick off Taylor Kelly on consecutive possessions, but was unable to generate any points off of either turnover.
Mannion did throw for 320 yards and 2 touchdowns, but the Sun Devil defense picked him off 4 times, once in their own red zone, and one in the 4th quarter for a pick-6. The 2 touchdown turnaround on those 2 plays wasn't the whole difference, but combined with a blocked field goal, it was more than enough for the eventual Pac-12 South Division champions to pull away to a 30-17 win.
Hamlett and Cooks both had 9 catches, and Hamlett had a game high 119 yards, but the Beaver rushing game continued to be only a bit player, netting only 70 yards. And while Hamlett had a big game, it all came only after Oregon St. was down 20-0.
Meanwhile, Marion Grice was running for 118 yards and 2 touchdowns through the middle of the Oregon St. defense.
It was the third week in a row where Coach Riley was outcoached, with an ill-conceived game plan that went unexplained, and as a result, the Beavers contributed considerably to their own downfall.
But the worst was yet to come.
The Huskies ran roughshod over a Beaver team that was as incorrectly prepared as any in history, dancing and romping to the 69-27 win that was arguably the worst in the history of the program (which is saying something, given the some of the inept early days, the dark ages, and several of Banker's defenses other defenseless efforts), and no where near as close as the final score indicated.
No team HAD EVER run for as many yards as Washington did against Oregon St. No team HAD EVER scored as many points as the Huskies did against the Beavers. No team HAD EVER had 3 players all run for over 100 yards against an Oregon St. defense, be it a "Banker defense" or any other system.
By the time Washington was done, they had 3 running backs that all topped 140 yards.
Bishop Sankey ran for 179 yards and 3 touchdowns, 2 of them in the first 4 minutes of the game, as Washington jumped out to a 14-0 lead.
Deontae Cooper romped for 166 yards and 2 touchdowns, and when he and Sankey weren't running uncontested through the Oregon St. defense, Dwayne Washington was. Washington added another 141 yards for Washington, and 2 more scores, one that covered 71 yards.
Meanwhile, a hurried Mannion threw 3 interceptions, against only 1 touchdown, to Cooks. Cooks had 10 catches for 117 yards, but that was about it.
Inexplicably, after a career night in the loss to Arizona St., Hamlett didn't have a single catch, and the group of 4 tight ends, easily the strongest unit on the team aside from Cooks, only had 1 on the night, as Coach Riley seemed to have no game plan what so ever.
OSU's defensive and offensive strategies were apparently prepared with some other team in mind than the one UW fielded that night. And our coaches did not respond quickly or effectively to realities during the game. - fanoverboard
And this wasn't exactly a juggernaut of a Husky team; in addition to the absence of Price, they had lost 4 of 6 games prior to putting the beat down on the Beavers.
About the only good thing to come out of the embarrassment was a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Victor Bolden, who had struggled to figure out the return game all season, and seemed to finally see a spark.
Unfortunately, Oregon St. was already down 8 touchdowns at the time.
As it turned out though, there was one other positive to come out of the darkest night in Oregon St. history.
After 4 progressively worse performances, both the players and the coaching staff finally responded, and put forth an effort that should have won the Civil War.
After Oregon opened a 14-0 1st quarter lead, Oregon St. battled back to tie the game at 17 apiece by halftime.
The Beavers took the lead on a Trevor Romaine field goal, and then again, going up 29-24 4 minutes into the 4th quarter, on Mannion's pass to Tyler Anderson. It was the first of what would be 4 lead changes in the 4th quarter.
But not having learned his lesson, and having again eschewed field goals for failed attempts at 4th down conversions earlier, Riley went for 2 unsuccessfully instead of kicking the extra point, and did so again after Bolden's fly sweep, below, put the Beavers up 35-30 with 1:38 left.
As a result, when the defense folded as Oregon drove 83 yards in 1:09, and Josh Huff was allowed to run unchecked in front of the safeties in the end zone, and made his 9th catch of the game for his 3rd touchdown, it gave the Ducks the 36-35 win instead of their having to kick an extra point in order to force overtime.
Cooks had 10 catches, for 110 yards, second only to Huff's 186 yard career best, but the story was that the mostly absent Oregon St. rushing game finally appeared.
Terron Ward had 145 yards on 17 carries, eclipsing Oregon's Thomas Tyner's 140 yard effort for most in the game, and Storm Woods added another 73.
And Mannion finally shook off his accuracy issues, completing more passes for more yards, and with fewer interceptions, than Marcus Mariota did for the Ducks. Mariota did have 1 more touchdown toss than Mannion, though.
The 6th consecutive loss in the Civil War left Oregon St. at 6-6, after 5 consecutive losses, 3 at home and 4 inside the state, and waiting to see if they would even get a bowl invite, as the Pac-12, deeper than ever, had 9 teams bowl eligible, and only 7 guaranteed tie-ins. With no team with fewer than 2 losses, and the ACC in position to cut a deal to deliver Clemson to the Orange Bowl, there would be no BCS at-large berth for the first time in 4 years. 2 teams would have to hope for other "at-large" berths.
Christmas came early for Oregon St. though, when ESPN capitalized on the fact that both Boise St. and Oregon St. were already scheduled to be in Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic, and orchestrated a Sheraton Hawaii Bowl matchup of the Broncos and Beavers.
Oregon St. Athletic Director Bob DeCarolis opted to disregard ESPN's efforts to put on a show (don't expect a lot of relief from this past year's unprecedented run of night games after that), and directed the band to turn in their uniforms for the season the week after receiving the bowl invite. But despite not having much support beyond the basketball squad, the team had a good time before and in the game, and their commitment to not having a losing season, and a few more Christmas presents, put them in position to scoop up the 38-23 win.
Boise St. was working with an interim coach, Bob Gregory, who was also the Broncos' defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, and didn't follow former head Coach Chris Peterson to Seattle and the Washington staff until after the bowl game. Gregory's first major decision as head coach was to send starting quarterback Joe Southwick home after an alleged incident the first day at the hotel in Hawaii.
But the Broncos had an able replacement in Grant Hedrick, who completed just 1 pass less than Mannion threw, for more yards, touchdowns, and yards per pass, and 1 less interception than Mannion.
The difference in the game was a couple of forced fumbles. The first one came late in the first quarter, on a near sack of Hedrick in the Boise St. end zone by Scott Crichton, and the Broncos would have been better off had Hedrick taken the safety.
The next one was midway in the second period, with Boise St. driving deep into Oregon St. territory, when, with new Boise St. head coach Bryan Harsin obliviously talking over the play, Larry Scott forced Troy Ware into a post catch fumble.
In both cases, Reynolds scooped up the loose ball, and went undeterred for touchdowns.
Oregon St. was otherwise playing well offensively, and roared out to a 38-6 lead by the middle of the 3rd quarter, as rushing game was on again. Woods ran for 107 yards and the Beavers' final score, and Ward added 54 yards and another touchdown.
Boise St. continued to battle, scoring 17 points to make the final 38-23, but the Reynolds touchdowns had put the Broncos in too deep of a hole to climb out of.
Good thing too, as Boise St. rolled up 538 yards, including a Hawaii bowl record 85 yard touchdown pass from Hedrick to Matt Miller. Miller also had another 43 yard reception that set up the Broncos' first score of the game, on his way to a career day, with 11 catches for 206 yards. Both big bombs came when safety coverages were blown, leaving a corner in press coverage counting on help over the top that didn't exist after both safeties committed to run support. It was the same problem that first appeared in the first game of the season, and never got fixed.
Following the season, Crichton, above registering 1 of his team leading 7 1/2 sacks, and 1 of his team leading 3 fumbles forced, joined Cooks in opting to leave early for the NFL, but Mannion decided to return for his senior season. It left Riley needing to fill 2 of the biggest pair of cleats, but not the 3rd, in preparation for his 14th season at Oregon St.
So it was an up and down season. The 5 losses leaves Riley, the winningest coach in program history, with exactly a .500 won/loss record in conference, at 56-56. As in some prior years, several of those losses, as well as some of the high profile (for various reasons) non-conference ones, were largely on coaching problems, either on Riley directly, or his almost turnover-proof staff. At the same time, there have also been wins that coaching and preparation pulled out that weren't likely but for Riley, and its reasonable to count the overtime win at Utah, which ESPN selected as the best game in the Pac-12 this year, as far as excitement and entertainment value goes.
As far as entertainment value goes, Oregon St. was involved in 4 of the top 100 games SB Nation picked from the entire year.
The rushing game was a problem until the last 2 games of the year, which not so coincidentally coincide with Riley turning most of the play-calling duties back over to offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. The same Langsdorf whose' previous play calling not so coincidentally coincide with the only 2 years of losing football during Riley's second stint as head coach at Oregon St.
Part of that was the result of a run of illnesses and injuries that had the middle and right side of the offensive line in a constant state of flux. At one point, Oregon St. lost offensive line starters on consecutive plays.
Due to a lack of success in getting JC transfers actually into school, Riley got the 2 for 1 affect, as the loss of a player meant moving another starter as well as inserting a sub.
Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh called it the worst such run he has ever seen. As a result, at least for a while, especially combined with the obvious fact that the Mannion to Cooks connection was one of the best in the country, the conscious decision was made to commit to a compressed, max protect scheme to keep the immobile Mannion upright, and throwing. For a while, it proved to be the right decision.
Subsequent results raised the question of whether the coaching staff stayed with the strategy too long. Still, its important to remember that no one who started a game at any position on the offensive line, including tight end, finished every game he started in.
The defense was equally up and down, as the nickel as a base, at least in most games, proved much more challenging without Poyer. It became a big play defense, with interceptions and defensive scores traded off against allowing big plays the other way, as the decision was to put as much speed as possible in the secondary.
Injuries at linebacker, which ended the season early for Michael Doctor, and impacted D.J. Alexander multiple times, as well as concussion issues involving Joel Skotte, took away a lot of the security blanket for both the defensive line and the secondary.
Jabral Johnson, #44 above, was thrown into multiple assignments, and though he had a few of those breakdowns, he bloomed into one of the came out of nowhere guys Riley and his staff are noted for. Not even a starter at the start of the season, Johnson wound up #2 on the team in solo tackles, assists, and total tackles, and led the linebackers in passes defended.
Special teams were on the roller coaster as well. Long snapper Michael Morovick suffered a torn ACL trying to make a tackle on punt coverage at San Diego St., and as a result, kicker Trevor Romaine struggled with timing the rest of the season. It led to missed field goals and extra points. Some of the issues were to be expected as a result of disrupted timing, but the problem persisted for months.
Kickoff returns were an issue most of the year, and punt returns were even worse, which created field position issues for the offense, offsetting a pretty good year by punter Keith Kostol. These issues, and especially how they persisted, raised serious questions in the mind of some about special teams coach Bruce Read.
The persisting problems with the immobile zone blocking scheme Cavanaugh continues to recruit to and teach, the one that has contributed to some of the most embarrassing November home losses over recent years, don't seem to be being addressed.
The defense, to its credit, did make a number of changes to address a variety of issues, including even breaking out a 3 man front at times, especially after DT John Braun was lost for the season. But then there was the return of a game plan that seemed to be drawn up with Washington's success as the objective, and bad fundamentals against Oregon.
These kinds of problems are never really acceptable, but especially not late in the season, when there shouldn't be any surprises. Defensive planning is complicated, but at least attempting to deter Sankey and Huff would seem to be a good place to start.
Yet Riley says he doesn't anticipate any staff changes. Which prompts the question of what exactly will correct repeated problems in various areas?
With essentially the same schedule in 2014, with Portland St. replacing Eastern Washington, but the other 11 opponents all back, just with the site reversed, and many even in the same slot in the schedule, its going to take something creative to deviate far from this year's results, even with most of the roster returning. Which, by the way, they did this past year too.
So weigh in on how many Beaver tails (or tail slaps) Coach Riley deserves this year, and feel free to add your observations on both the good and the bad in the comments below.
(Photos by Andy Wooldridge)