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November 13, 2008

Oregon State set up for another strong finish

Call it an oxymoron or a paradox, but the label still fits Oregon State like a glove. They're college football's most predictable mystery.

In each of the past three years, the Beavers have started 2-3, yet they still have the second-most wins of any Pac-10 team during that three-season stretch. The reason: BYU, Boise State, Hawaii and USC are the only programs in the nation with better post-September records than Oregon State since the start of the 2006 season.

Two seasons ago, Oregon State won eight of its last nine games to finish 10-4. Last season, the Beavers won seven of their final eight to finish 9-4. This year, Oregon State (6-3 overall, 5-1 in the Pac-10) has won four in a row and is the only team that controls its destiny in the Pac-10 title chase.

Their schedule hasn't gotten any easier over the second half of the season, so why do the Beavers continually start so slow and finish so fast?

"I don't know," senior offensive tackle Andy Levitre said. "That's a good question. We're all a tight-knit group of guys. We all believe in each other. I can't really explain what it is that makes this happen every year. We just continue to play. We try not to worry about the past and let it hamper us in the future."

Since the Beavers can't explain the reason behind their annual early-season slumps and late-season surges, we'll try to come up with a few causes.

Oregon State has benefited from having one player or one facet of its game improve dramatically in the second half of the season.

Two seasons ago, Sammie Stroughter caught six passes for 124 yards in a 13-6 loss to Washington State that dropped the Beavers' record to 2-3. He would go on to catch 52 passes for 1,064 yards and five touchdowns in the final nine games of the season while developing into one of the nation's most exciting receivers.

Oregon State struggled early last season because quarterbacks Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao combined to throw 15 interceptions and only six touchdown passes in the first five games. They combined for a more manageable 6-5 interception-touchdown ratio the rest of the way.

Jacquizz Rodgers and James Rodgers have made the kind of impact this season that Stroughter provided two years ago. The 5-foot-7 siblings weren't heavily recruited, but they have emerged as the Pac-10's most dynamic duo. James Rodgers ranks fifth in the conference in receiving with 42 catches for 553 yards, and he has produced at least 100 receiving yards in each of the past two games. His younger brother has proved even more valuable. Jacquizz has set a Pac-10 freshman record with 1,089 rushing yards this season. He ripped through USC's top-ranked defense for 186 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-21 victory over the Trojans that turned Oregon State's season around.

"Quizz is the neatest guy," coach Mike Riley said. "He's really unfazed by most all this. That's the beautiful thing about him. He is truly just a really humble, good guy who loves to play. And he's been a major impact guy. He's a credit to this team both on and off the field with who he is.

"It's been a really good thing for the Beavers to have the Rodgers brothers."

Riley's NFL background also may have played a major role in Oregon State's ability to bounce back from adversity. Riley spent three years as the San Diego Chargers' coach and one season as the New Orleans Saints' secondary coach before beginning his second stint at Oregon State in 2003.

After working in a league that usually rewards the teams playing their best at the end of the season, Riley perhaps instilled an attitude that a season isn't necessarily over after a team drops a couple of games. Riley's unyielding optimism has carried over to his players each September and has helped the Beavers turn lost causes into unexpected resurgences.

"When you lose early, you have to live in the moment," Riley said. "You're not thinking about a conference championship or a national championship. You're thinking, 'Oh, my gosh. What are we going to do? We have to focus on the next game and winning it.' "

Riley's focus is evident in Oregon State's post-September record.

Blossoming after September
If you could throw out the first month of the season, Oregon State would have one of the nation's premier programs. Here's a look at the teams with the top 10 post-September records since the start of the 2006 season:
BYU 21-1 .955
Boise State 20-4 .833
Hawaii 20-4 .833
USC 20-4 .833
Oregon State 19-4 .826
Central Michigan 19-4 .826
Florida 18-4 .818
West Virginia 18-4 .818
Ohio State 17-4 .810
Utah 17-4 .810

"Mike does a really good job of crescendoing his team," USC coach Pete Carroll said. "Unfortunately they get off to a bit of a rocky start, but they're obviously showing everybody they're a really good football team. I don't know how or why (the early-season slump) happens, but certainly they have shown they can rise up and play good football. They're doing it."

They've even done it against Carroll's team. The turning point of Oregon State's season came Sept. 25 when it stunned USC, which entered the game as a 25.5-point favorite. It was the second time in three seasons Oregon State had beaten the Trojans.

Oregon State's ability to pull off arguably the biggest stunner of the season underscored Riley's ability to get his team to believe in itself after a couple of early setbacks.

"He never really gets discouraged by challenges," Levitre said. "He tries not to worry about those kinds of things. He's really optimistic about saying it's a great opportunity to make something happen."

Oregon State's third consecutive early-season slump was an unwanted challenge. The Beavers worked all summer to avoid struggling in September, though it's understandable why they stumbled out of the gate this season. They had to replace their entire starting front seven from a defense that was the toughest in the nation to run against last year. Oregon State also lost Yvenson Bernard, who had rushed for more than 1,000 yards each of the past three seasons.

Stanford's Toby Gerhart and Penn State's Evan Royster ran roughshod over Oregon State the first two weeks of the season. Despite allowing a total of 449 rushing yards in those two losses, Oregon State now ranks 27th in the nation in run defense.

The upset of USC showed that Oregon State had turned things around. The Beavers squandered an eight-point lead in the final two minutes of a 31-28 setback to unbeaten Utah the following week, but they haven't lost since.

"It's about leadership," senior cornerback Brandon Hughes said. "We have great leaders. We have a bunch of coaches who are dedicated to each other and to us. We also have players who are capable leaders and who exercise their leadership abilities in different ways. When you have that, it's hard for things to fall apart."

The Beavers also have learned from their history of recovering from slow starts. They knew they'd done it before, and they figured they could do it again.

"We also used that as a warning," Riley said. "This didn't happen automatically to the two teams before us. It happened because they managed to persevere, and they managed not to blink. They continued to grow. Those were the attributes of those teams. I don't think it's a given you're going to do it. You have to do it. It always scares me, 'Oh, we've done this before.'

Doing it again
Oregon State appears on the verge of rebounding from a 2-3 start for the third consecutive season. Here's a rundown of how the Beavers have fared in their first five games and after in the past three seasons:
SeasonFirst 5AfterFinal

"It doesn't just happen. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of detail to get better."

And it hasn't completely happened yet.

Oregon State still has a long way to go to match its 10-4 finish from 2006 or its 9-4 record in 2007, but if the Beavers don't slip again, they also could outdo their accomplishments from the past two seasons. Oregon State had to settle for winning second-tier bowls each of the past two seasons. This season, the Beavers have a chance to earn their first Rose Bowl bid since the 1964 season.

USC and Oregon State have one Pac-10 loss each, but the Beavers would win a potential tiebreaker because of their head-to-head victory over the Trojans. Oregon State can clinch a trip to Pasadena by winning at home against California, at Arizona and at home against Oregon the next three weeks.

A Rose Bowl rematch of Penn State's 45-14 victory over Oregon State might not appeal to the majority of the nation, but the Beavers couldn't imagine a better way to end the season.

Even though the Beavers refuse to look ahead to a potential Rose Bowl appearance, one look at their faces reveals how much the next three games mean to this program. Oregon State's offensive players have instituted a "No Shave November" policy as a way of building team unity during the stretch run.

"There is a sense of excitement," Riley said. "It's because they've come out of a bad situation and are feeling better. That's always a neat feeling."

At Oregon State, it's also a familiar feeling.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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