After five losses and numerous injuries, Beavers down to attitude
There's no argument that, at 1-5 at the midway point of the season, Oregon State football is down.
The question: Are the Beavers out?
Will they lay down and finish the season with a whimper? Or will they continue to fight and make the most of the six games left on the schedule?
'It's a week at a time for the Beavers right now,' OSU coach Mike Riley says. 'We have nothing else to look at. We need to make the most out of this week and try to get a win.'
Riley's reference is to Saturday at Seattle's Safeco Field, when Oregon State faces Washington State (3-3) in a contest that matters a bunch only to the teams involved.
The Cougars will be trying to take another step toward positioning themselves for their first bowl appearance since 2003.
The Beavers have no realistic hopes of bowl eligibility, not after their 38-28 loss to Brigham Young Saturday at Reser Stadium. They just want a victory against anybody, at any place.
Riley delivered a message to his players during Sunday's team meeting.
'Everybody is frustrated, disappointed,' the OSU coach told the group. 'Your level of commitment will be one way or the other. You'll be committed to being a better player for this team, or you won't be. And (if you're in the second group), you'll stand out.
'Because the room is full of a bunch of guys who will go out to practice on Tuesday and work their tails off to get ready to win a game on Saturday. The most important people are in this room, and it's no time for babies. It's a great time in your life to make sure you do everything you can to make a positive contribution.'
Riley also convened his coaches on Sunday for a reminder.
'Our attitude means everything to these kids,' Riley told his staff. 'Let's point out what they can do, and let's help them. They're working hard.
'We have to keep our eye on the seniors. Make sure they're setting a good example for the young guys. A lot of them are good players, and we have to keep going.'
This may sound hollow to doomsayers who believe the program is on a beeline for the basement in the Pac-12.
The late Al Davis' mantra was 'Just win, baby,' and the Beavers haven't done much of that since midway last season.
But I see hints of a silver lining through the cloud cover that has enveloped the program since James Rodgers went down to injury in 2010.
I like the young playmakers on offense, including freshmen Sean Mannion at quarterback, Malcolm Agnew at tailback and Brandin Cooks at receiver. There are some good young O-linemen coming up the ranks - on scholarship, no less - who offer promise that the Beavers could be a load for opposing defenses to deal with in the not-too-distant future.
With Rodgers, Markus Wheaton, Jordan Bishop and Joe Halahuni, there are plenty of quality targets for Mannion to hit. If Agnew stays healthy and is able to show what he did in the second possession against BYU, the future can be now.
Defense is another story. The Beavers had been improving on that side of the ball until Saturday, and injuries are a big part of it.
Players were falling like headpins. 'I couldn't believe it,' Riley says. 'It was like the Mash unit over there.'
By the third quarter, D-coordinator Mark Banker was without the likes of tackle Castro Masaniai and linebackers Feti Unga, Tony Wilson and Cameron Collins, and safety Lance Mitchell was playing only in the nickel package. It meant reserves such as Ben Motter, D.J. Welch, Rueben Robinson and Ryan Murphy were playing significant roles. And Robinson, an outside linebacker, was thrust into a middle spot, something he has practiced sparingly since last season.
Safeties Murphy and Anthony Watkins were both playing with sore shoulders.
'We're going without our one big tackle, the safety position is thin, and the linebacker thing falls apart,' Riley says.
Masaniai is lost for the season. The Beavers are hopeful the rest of the injured defenders will be able to play against Washington State, though Unga (calf) and Murphy faced Monday MRIs.
But the coach isn't dwelling on the missing personnel. He notes that despite a rash of mistakes - including turnovers on three straight possessions in the third quarter - BYU's lead was only 24-21 late in the period.
'Oh my gosh, we didn't tackle real well,' Riley says. 'We missed tackles, or we didn't wrap up. Within five plays (in the third quarter), we had three turnovers. Those things are hard to overcome.
'But despite some real ugliness, we kept fighting, made some plays and gave ourselves a chance to win. Then we couldn't get a stop, and couldn't capitalize after getting the ball back. We didn't do the right thing at the right time.'
It would have helped, of course, if Trevor Romaine had nailed field-goal attempts of 41 and 48 yards. The true freshman had plenty of distance both times but missed. Romaine is already the best kickoff man in program history - he boomed all four into the end zone Saturday, two for touchbacks. If he can get some consistency on his three-point attempts, it will provide a major boost.
Agnew, too, is a key to the rest of the season. The 5-8, 190-pound true freshman - who hadn't played since the opener against Sacramento State because of a hamstring injury - gained 40 yards on eight carries in OSU's second series against BYU. For a minute, the Beavers had a running game.
But Agnew saw the ball only twice the rest of the game, and after fumbling in the third quarter, didn't play again. Part of that was an emphasis on ball security. Part of that was a missed block in pass protection that nearly got Mannion's head taken off by an onrushing blitzer.
Agnew is a special ballcarrier, though. He needs to be on the field as much as possible. OSU coaches must live with his mistakes.
'We just have to coach him,' Riley concedes. 'We have to play the kid, let him run the ball and teach him how to protect. That's our job. He's smart. He'll figure it out.'
Depth is a Grand Canyon-sized problem on defense. With Brandin Hardin (shoulder) out for the season and Sean Martin (knee) out for at least two more weeks, Jordan Poyer and Rashaad Reynolds are in for every play at cornerback. Against BYU, Watkins and Murphy played virtually every down at safety. With Masaniai gone, Kevin Frahm and Andrew Seumalo are seeing heavy duty at tackle.
It's almost a smoke-and-mirrors proposition for Banker. He's a good coordinator, but not a magician.
The Cougars are no longer 98-pound weaklings. They move the chains and score a lot of points on offense, are active on defense and 'played Stanford as well as you could for the first half' of Saturday's game, Riley says, trailing 10-7 at the break before falling 44-14 to the nation's seventh-ranked team.
The Beavers have the memory of last year's 31-14 upset to the Cougs in Corvallis to provide a little extra motivation.
Added incentive might not be enough for an OSU team that has taken more lumps than a sugar-addicted coffee drinker. We'll know more about that Saturday.