Mike Riley thought there might be something different about the Oregon State Beavers after they dropped two of their first three games - including a humiliating 45-14 loss at Penn State - only to bounce back and ambush then-No. 1 USC.
TUCSON, Ariz. — Mike Riley thought there might be something different about the Oregon State Beavers after they dropped two of their first three games — including a humiliating 45-14 loss at Penn State — only to bounce back and ambush then-No. 1 USC.
His suspicions grew stronger after they blew a last-second heartbreaker at Utah, then put together a six-game win streak.
If Riley needed further confirmation, it came on a fair night in the desert on Saturday, with Oregon State's Rose Bowl hopes hanging in the balance.
Facing a fired-up Arizona team, the Beavers played without injured starting quarterback Lyle Moevao and lost Pac-10 rushing leader Jacquizz Rodgers to a sprained shoulder on their second possession.
Then they overcame a late dropped touchdown pass and a blown extra point, marching 73 yards in 1:19 without a timeout to pull out an improbable 19-17 victory and move within one victory of their first Rose Bowl trip since 1965.
If No. 17 Oregon State (8-3, 7-1) defeats 19th-ranked Oregon in the Civil War on Saturday in Corvallis, the Beavers will spend New Year's Day in Pasadena, Calif., and have a chance to avenge that blowout loss against Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions.
"When the going is hard, some people shrink and some people rise up," Riley said. "Well, this group is just proving, which is a great thing to have as an identity, they rise up. And there's nothing that happens that is dramatic. I mean, there's no parting of the Red Sea or anything. But it's just there. And I love that about them. I'm humbled watching that with this team. They just don't quit."
All year, Riley has shrugged off questions about the Rose Bowl and told his players to worry about that Saturday's opponent. He stuck to that script as a horde of joyous orange-and-black-clad followers exulted in an otherwise deserted Arizona Stadium on Saturday night.
"I don't know about destiny, but we always believe in one game at a time," Riley said. "Now we just need to focus on Oregon."
The Beavers' dream season has come far from the national spotlight trained on the glamorous, tradition-laden Trojans. Even within in its own state, Oregon State sometimes takes a backseat to Oregon, with its funky uniforms and Nike connections.
But the Beavers are making believers of the Pac-10, one team at a time.
"They're awfully good," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "They're blue collar and don't rely on one particular guy. They don't have any real first-team All-Pac-10 guys, but that doesn't matter. They play as a football team and do everything they need right."
Well, the Beavers have at least one All-Pac-10 guy: Jacquizz Rodgers, whose availability for the Oregon game was uncertain. When he went down against the Wildcats, his brother, James Rodgers, picked up the slack by rushing for 102 yards and a touchdown, all on reverses from his receiver slot.
That's the sort of depth and versatility Oregon State has relied on all season. The Beavers also have a fair amount of grit, and they showed it late against Arizona.
The Beavers appeared headed for defeat when Justin Kahut hooked an extra point after the Beavers cut it to 17-16 on a 7-yard pass from Sean Canfield to Sammie Stroughter. The score came four plays after James Rodgers dropped a sure touchdown pass.
Kahut, a sophomore from Portland, feared his miss would wreck Oregon State's Rose Bowl dream.
"I didn't feel like that was supposed to be the way that our season was going to go down," said Kahut, who had connected on a career-long 47-yard field goal in the first half. "I didn't want it to be where I lost the game for the team."
But when Kahut reached the bench, several teammates, including Moevao, told him to keep his head up because they believed he would have one more chance.
Sure enough, the Beavers' defense forced Arizona to punt from midfield, and Oregon State took over at its 20-yard line with 1:19 to play and no timeouts (the Beavers caught a big break when Keenyn Crier's 56-yard punt bounded into the end zone for a touchback).
After connecting on two passes to Jeremy Francis, Canfield found Stroughter alone behind the secondary for a 47-yard gain, and suddenly Oregon State had the ball at Arizona's 7-yard line.
Riley immediately decided against taking a stab at a touchdown. He bolstered Kahut's confidence by burning the clock, putting the ball in the middle of the field and sending Kahut back out to win the game.
"As a kicker you want to be in that situation," Kahut said. "I was either going to be a hero or a zero, and tonight I guess I was a little bit of both."