CORVALLIS — There was plenty of space Saturday in Reser Stadium. Upper deck. Lower deck. New side. Old side. Lots of empty seats in every section.
But not the ones that mattered most to Jonathan Smith’s program.
Those seats were all filled up.
Oregon State whipped Cal Poly 45-7.
Tickets sold: 33,585. Many of those must have stayed home. But those are not the people I want to focus on today. Because what OSU bought itself was a bargain of a lopsided victory in front of an audience that badly needed to see one.
Devon Williams, a USC sophomore who recently entered the NCAA transfer portal, saw the game up close. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound receiver was at Reser Stadium. He is the former No. 1 athlete in the 2018 recruiting class. He walked the sidelines before the game, escorted by ex-OSU receiver James Rodgers.
Also here on Saturday, university president Dr. Edward Ray.
In the second half, from the press box perch I studied the stadium suites across the way with a pair of binoculars. Dr. Ray was not immediately visible, but I am told he was swimming in the sea of VIP boosters in front of me. The deep-pocket crowd stayed through the fourth quarter, eyes toward the field, maybe just to make sure.
Also at Saturday’s game, my neighbor Ernie showed up. So did my teen-aged daughter. They didn’t drive together. They didn’t have tickets in the same section. They probably didn’t even know, maybe until this very moment, that either of them was at the same game. But those two represent two important factions: A) the die-hard old guard of Beavers’ fans who is always there no matter what; and B) the curious onlooker who shows up on a sunny day and gives a football program a chance.
Ernie’s a lanky, white-haired retiree who has been an Oregon State season-ticket holder since 1981. Basically, he’s here because he’s always been here. My daughter is 16, roots for all the pro and college teams in the state, and wanted to see her first OSU game. She brought her best friend to sit with her.
“We had great practices,” coach Smith said after the win, “and it showed. We were focused.”
The fan base, the players, the Beavers’ coaching staff all needed a runaway victory. Deserved it, in fact. Especially after losing by a field goal at Hawaii last week.
Oregon State did what it needed to do to Cal Poly on Saturday. The back-alley whipping included four Jake Luton touchdown passes, miles of blue sky, and the total annihilation and domination of an FCS opponent by a Pac-12 team.
Lots could have gone wrong, of course. Earlier in the day, Mid-American Conference entry Eastern Michigan beat the Big Ten’s Illinois by a field goal. Eastern Illinois also collected a $1 million check to play the game. By contrast, Oregon State paid Cal Poly $600,000 and left with a crisp victory.
Smith’s program got in the win column. And the key individuals in the stadium, from that potential USC transfer receiver to the VIPs to my senior-citizen neighbor and the teen-aged kid, all got the show they needed to see.
Don’t be surprised if some of them come back.
Williams, the recruit, was also slated to make a visit to Eugene for the Oregon Ducks game later on Saturday. But people in recruiting circles will tell you that a talent that heralded even being in the stadium, curious about Oregon State, was a significant development.
All he did was talk to Rodgers, who scored 28 touchdowns as a player himself, and watch Isaiah Hodgins snare two more touchdown receptions. The ball was in the air plenty. Oregon State looked good.
Oregon State students will return to campus in time for the next home game. And so it is not beyond reason to believe announced attendance for the Stanford home game on Sept. 28 will push above 40,000.
“We’re always excited when the students come back,” deputy athletic director Zack Lassiter said. “Beyond that the attendance trend is driven historically by on-field performance.”
Basically: Win games, and people will show up. That makes sense. Lose them, and people stay home and wash their hair. That also makes sense.
What OSU needs to do right now to bring some of you back to Reser Stadium is string together two more Saturdays of impressive college football. Oregon State is off next week with a bye. Then, it’s the Pac-12 opener at home against a beat-up Stanford team. After that, OSU goes on the road against sputtering coach Chip Kelly and UCLA.
If Oregon State somehow finds it way to a 3-2 record after five games, that might do it, right? And is that an unreasonable ask for a program in its second season under Smith?
“We’ve always been a student-body-driven university,” Lassiter said. “When you capture the enthusiasm of the student body it’s infectious here.”
I watched Smith closely before kickoff on the field.
He prepared his team, but then, he veered off to the sidelines to shake hands and thank people for coming. He shook the hands of boosters, and fellow coaches such as women’s basketball coach Scott Rueck. Then, Smith made his way to media on the field.
“Thank you guys for being here,” the coach said, shaking hands.
Smith improved his overall record to 3-12. Meanwhile, off to the corner of the end zone before kickoff, Rueck said of Smith, “I’ve been exactly where he is.”
Rueck has a Final Four appearance and a team everyone always regards as perennially dangerous, but he went 9-21 in his first season at OSU.
“I do remember,” he said.
So yeah, a victory — any victory — is worth celebrating in the Pac-12 right now. Especially at Oregon State. Oregon State kicked off at 1:15 p.m. and I imagined some of the Beavers’ fans present may have closed their eyes for a couple of series, just in case.
But then, it happened.
Touchdowns. Tackles. Big plays. All of it followed by cheers. Oregon State drubbed a Big Sky opponent on the kind of day that made people want to come back for more.
Said Smith: “We’re happy with any win.”