Even a disappointing ending cannot diminish what Oregon State accomplished this football season.
The No. 15 Beavers were the surprise of the Pac-12 in 2012, rebounding from a 3-9 record in 2011 to a 9-4 finish this season.
The six-win turnaround is the best in school history. Only Ohio State and Middle Tennessee could also boast the same improvement this season.
“I think this was a great team, in all senses of the word," Beaver coach Mike Riley said after Oregon State’s 31-27 loss to Texas in the Alamo Bowl on Saturday night. “This group fought together hard. (They) came back from a real rough year a year ago with just a great attitude, a great offseason. Lots of fun to work with. It was a real team."
It all started with the “world’s longest training camp," as Riley liked to put it.
Oregon State was supposed to host Nicholls State for its season opener on Sept. 1. But officials from both schools became concerned for the Colonels when Hurricane Isaac bore down on the Thibodeaux, La., campus, and the game was postponed until December.
That gave the Beavers an extra week to prepare for the revised opener against then-No. 13 Wisconsin, a team that beat them 35-0 the year before in Madison, Wis. Picked to finish last in the Pac-12’s northern division, Oregon State beat the Badgers 10-7 in Corvallis and then defeated then-No. 19 UCLA 27-20 at the Rose Bowl.
After three straight wins to open the season — matching their victory total for all of 2011 — the Beavers popped into the rankings at No. 14. It was the team’s highest ranking since 2009.
Stanford coach David Shaw said he told people in the offseason that Oregon State would be a contender.
“I got a couple chuckles when I said, ‘You got to watch out for Mike Riley.’ Those players love Mike Riley. They will go to battle for him every single week," Shaw said. “I got a couple chuckles. Nobody’s chuckling now. They look as good as anybody in the nation right now the way they’re playing."
All the while, Riley kept things light around the Beavers. While other coaches closed practices to fans and reporters, he encouraged visitors on the practice field in Corvallis. On the road, Riley would treat the entire team to In-N-Out burgers after victories — a typical order was 255 double-doubles and 150 orders of fries.
In his way, Riley took the outside pressure off the players so that they could just play.
Sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion started Oregon State’s first four games, averaging 339.5 yards passing per game, which at the time ranked him sixth in the nation. But the 6-foot-5 quarterback suffered an injured left knee and required arthroscopic surgery, and that meant that junior Cody Vaz would make his first start since high school.
Vaz competently stepped in and won two games, giving the Beavers their best start since they also went 6-0 in 1907. Oregon State climbed to No. 7 in the AP’s Top 25, its best ranking since 2001.
Mannion passed for 2,446 yards and 15 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions in 10 games. Vaz, who was hampered down the stretch by an injury to his left ankle, passed for 1,480 yards and 11 touchdowns, with three interceptions in seven games.
The Beavers’ first stumble was a 20-17 loss to Washington in Seattle. Oregon State’s only other losses came to Stanford, to rival Oregon in the Civil War, and, ultimately, to Texas in the Alamo Bowl.
Oregon State has been known in recent years for its prolific running backs, like Ken Simonton, Steven Jackson, Yvenson Bernard and Jacquizz Rodgers, but a pair of receivers sparked the Beavers’ offense this season.
Senior Markus Wheaton caught 11 touchdown passes and averaged 95.7 receiving yards per game, while sophomore Brandin Cooks caught five touchdowns and averaged 88.5 yards a game. Wheaton’s total of 1,244 yards this season ranks sixth in Oregon State history, while Cooks places seventh with 1,151 receiving yards.
Senior cornerback Jordan Poyer had seven interceptions and was an All-American.
A win over Texas would have sent Wheaton and Poyer off with the third season with 10 wins or more in Oregon State history.
“We would love to have been the Alamo Bowl champions," Riley said. “We had a great chance to do that. We didn’t get that done, but this team did a great, great job for Oregon State fans."