For OSU, the victory in Las Vegas is something to build on
The same four words echo time and again as Oregon State's players speak about the future: 'A better bowl game.'
Taking nothing away from the Las Vegas Bowl Ñ great host city, if a bit of a rinky-dink venue and a terrible date Ñ but the Beavers aspire to something higher.
With a dozen starters departing, including place-kicker Kirk Yliniemi and punter Carl Tobey, there are some question marks for Oregon State next year. But one thing is for certain: The 55-14 undressing of the New Mexico Lobos left a good taste in every Beaver's mouth.
'No question about that,' coach Mike Riley says. 'I told the players before the game, 'This is the end of one season and the beginning of the next.' '
After regular season-ending losses to Oregon and Southern Cal, the Beavers couldn't fathom going into 2004 on a three-game losing streak.
'That just wouldn't have been acceptable,' says receiver Mike Hass, a sophomore this year. 'We lost the Insight Bowl last year, and we -didn't feel very good the whole offseason. The way we won (in Las Vegas) felt great. And it gives us a little momentum, which is good, too, because we want to get to a better bowl game next year.'
Oregon State loses several impact players from its 2003 squad that finished 8-5 overall, 4-4 and tied for fifth in the Pacific-10 Conference. Foremost are Steven Jackson, the junior tailback who will declare for the April NFL draft; wideout James Newson, who set every school receiving record during his career; and middle linebacker Richard Seigler, whom Riley calls 'the heart and soul' of the OSU defense.
Those three players, plus Yliniemi, all-Pac-10 tight end Tim Euhus and second-team all-Pac-10 defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, could all be wearing NFL uniforms next season.
Holes up the middle
Riley is most concerned with the loss of Edwards, Seigler and safety Lawrence Turner, who anchored the group that finished first in the Pac-10 in total defense.
'It's like in baseball, they talk about how important things are defensively up the middle, with your catcher, shortstop and center fielder,' Riley says. 'That's what we will be missing in Dwan, Richard and Lawrence.'
With Edwards, Jayson Jean-Baptiste and probably Dan Rothwell departing, the front four will return career sack leader Bill Swancutt at end and Ben Siegert, who started all season as a redshirt freshman at tackle. Brandon Scales, a talented redshirt freshman who backed up Swancutt, will move over to left end. The other tackle spot will be shared by veterans Alvin Smith and Sir Henry Anderson, who played often in backup roles behind Siegert and Edwards this season.
Sophomore Trent Bray, who played outside linebacker with Seigler in the middle, will return to his natural middle spot next season. Bray will be flanked by Jonathan Pollard, who started all year as a junior, and Chaz Scott, who saw plenty of action as a sophomore, including a start in the USC game.
Brandon Browner, the Pac-10's freshman of the year, and junior Aric Williams return at cornerback. Standout safety Mitch Meeuwsen also will be back. Sophomore Harvey Whiten, redshirt freshman Sabby Piscatelli and freshman Anthony Wheat-Brown will vie for Turner's starting spot.
New era on offense
The Beaver offense will most miss Newson, who finished his stellar career seventh on the all-time Pac-10 list in receptions (213) and third in receiving yardage (3,572) behind Stanford's Troy Walters (4,047, 1996-99) and Washington's Reggie Williams (3,598, 2001-03).
'James was our playmaker, a great clutch receiver for Oregon State,' Riley says. 'He and Richard, they made practice fun for their teammates and coaches.'
Newson (1,306 yards this season) and Hass (1,013) were two of the Pac-10's six 1,000-yard receivers and formed one of two 1,000-yard tandems in conference history. The first was Mike Williams (1,265) and Keary Colbert (1,029) of Southern Cal in 2002.
Hass, who started the fall as Newson's backup at split end before moving to flanker, probably will return to split end. Returnees Cole Clasen, Josh Hawkins and George Gillett Ñ none of whom distinguished himself Ñ will be left to battle for the other two spots along with freshmen Phil Ghilarducci and Brandon Powers and JC recruit Kevin Swanigan.
Then there's Jackson, who Beaver fans will remember as the greatest running back ever to don the orange and black.
'You just don't replace a Steven Jackson,' Riley says, 'but we have good backs returning. It will be a new era, but I'm confident we will have a good running game.'
Junior Dwight Wright was Jackson's backup the last two years. He will get the first shot but will be pushed by redshirt freshman Ryan Cole, who saw some duty this fall, and freshman Yvensen Bernard, who redshirted.
Oregon State is in good shape at tight end with freshman Joe Newton Ñ 'the kid has a world of talent,' Riley says Ñ sophomore Dan Haines and junior Pat Loney.
Senior linemen Brian Kilkenny (tackle) and David Lose (guard) are gone, but the Beavers return starting center Matt Brock, right guard Kanan Sanchez and right tackle Doug Nienhuis. Freshman Roy Schuening is the favorite to win the left guard job, and JC recruit Chris Miller will battle returnees Josh Linehan, Adam Koets and Jake Pratt for the left tackle position.
OSU coaches consider sophomore John Dailey and freshman walk-on Alexis Serna capable of handling the place-kicking, though it is unlikely they will match the production of Yliniemi, who made 37 of 43 field-goal attempts in his career and was 5 of 6 from beyond 50 yards. JC recruit Sam Paulesco will take over the punting chores.
The most promising thing about next season's offense, Riley believes, is the development of quarterback Derek Anderson this season. The Moose from Scappoose put up the second 4,000-yard passing season in Pac-10 history, engineered the team that ranked No. 1 in the conference in total offense and gained command of Riley's system.
The 6-6, 235-pound junior must cut down on his interceptions Ñ a school-record 24 this season Ñ but his progress during the second half of '03 has Riley predicting he will be the all-Pac-10 QB as a senior next season.
'Derek feels better about what he's doing than at any time in his college career,' Riley says.
Another positive: Anderson will have a legitimate backup next season in redshirt freshman Ryan Gunderson, his heir apparent in 2005.
Anderson knows a lot will be riding on his shoulders, and he says he's fine with that.
'I've improved a lot, but I still have a long way to go,' he says. 'Good thing is, we have a lot of good players coming back. We lose some great seniors along with Steven, and I love those guys, but we have some young guys coming in (who) you are going to hear great things about Ñ guys like Roy Schuening, who are going to step up and fill in some gaps.'
The Las Vegas Bowl was Riley's first postseason game as a head coach, and the result was important to skeptics who questioned his ability to lead after the Beavers stumbled in some of their toughest games during the regular season. Riley had his team superbly prepared against a New Mexico team that had won seven of its last eight games, lost only 23-13 at Washington State and beat a Utah team that defeated Oregon. 'We were ready for anything and everything they (the Lobos) threw at us,' Anderson says. 'Our coaches did an unbelievable job.' Adds Euhus: 'We picked their defense apart with throws over the middle, just like (Riley) said we would.' É Riley even used a trick play, a flea-flicker in which Jackson flipped back to Anderson, who threw a 42-yard TD strike to Hass to end the first quarter. -Riley put the play in specifically for the bowl game. 'It was the only one (trick play) we didn't have in our repertoire through the regular season,' the OSU coach says.
This is an NCAA 'dead period' for recruiting, with coaches limited to phone contact with prospective players. Most of Riley's staff will attend the NCAA Coaches Convention, Jan. 3-7, in Orlando, Fla., then begin the process of home visits. OSU will play host to more than 20 recruits on the weekend of Jan. 9-11. National high school letter-of-intent day is Feb. 4.
The Beavers will sign as many as 28 players, with verbal commitments from 13 already in the bank. Among the 13 are six prep quarterbacks, but only two Ñ Brian Hilderbrand of Corona, Calif., and C.J. Bacher of Carmichael, Calif. Ñ are likely to stay at QB. Oregon State coaches project Jefferson High's T.R. Smith as a cornerback, Michael Perri of Covina, Calif., as a safety, Nate Johns of Redlands, Calif., as a receiver, and Stadford Brown of Washington, D.C., as a defensive back or receiver.
For next season, Riley is exploring the possibility of going more often to a two-back, double-tight-end pro set that he used at times this fall with Cole at fullback. That would be ideal for a player such as Jesuit's Mike Jones, a 6-1, 225-pound bruiser who has verbally committed.
OSU coaches hope to land several key recruits who have not committed, including Banks lineman Cole Linehan; defensive end Eugene Germany and wide receiver/cornerback Keston Cheatham, both out of Pomona, Calif.; receiver Todd Watkins from Grossmont JC in San Diego and linebacker Keith Ellerson from El Camino (Calif.) JC. Germany and Cheatman are said to be deciding between Michigan and OSU. Watkins is believed to be picking between Hawaii and OSU. Linehan, who has visited Oregon, will visit Corvallis Jan. 9-11. He is Josh Linehan's younger brother.
No word yet on the status of the four OSU recruits from last year who didn't qualify academically Ñ tailbacks Charles Burnley of Valencia, Calif., and Clinton Polk of Phoenix, defensive end Keith Robertson of Lake Oswego and tight end Zach Hagermeister of Lebanon. None are scheduled to be enrolled at OSU for winter term but may qualify for spring term. Their letters of intent are no longer binding, but Riley is holding a spot for each of them and says none of the four has given an indication of intentions to play elsewhere.
Steven Jackson will move from Corvallis to Miami on Jan. 5 to begin training for the draft, according to his mother, Brenda Jackson. She says former Olympic great Michael Johnson will help in Jackson's preparation. Jackson's sister, Rhonda Pullens, is sifting through candidates who want to be his agent. É Hass, on Jackson: 'He proved in the Las Vegas Bowl he is too good a player for this (college) level. But we have some running backs you haven't seen yet. We'll be all right at that position next season.'
If there is a Hass for OSU next season Ñ a player who springs from nowhere into a prominent role Ñ it might be Dallas Buck, the former Newberg standout who played some special teams as a true freshman this past fall. Buck, a baseball pitcher in the spring, will be in the mix for playing time at either safety or wide receiver next fall. É Rothwell, a redshirt senior defensive end who missed all of last season because of a knee injury, has appealed to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility. Riley says he has had no word on a ruling.
After a bowl drought that stretched 35 years, OSU has been in four bowl games the last five years. Seniors Euhus, Edwards, Kilkenny, Lose, Newson, Seigler, Tobey and Rothwell were on each of those teams. 'It's a great feeling to be a part of that,' says Euhus, ticketed for duty in the East-West Shrine Game. 'We came out of it with two bowl victories and back-to-back eight-win seasons. Given the school's history, I'd say we accomplished quite a bit. Pretty sweet.'
Las Vegas Bowl officials, disappointed with the in-house attendance of 18,000 this year, say they are shooting for a Dec. 23 date next year.