James Rodgers kept smiling, saying he felt "positive about everything," and if you didn't know better, you'd think there was reason to feel, well, positive about everything. Except the senior receiver was watching Monday's practice while sitting in a golf cart. His left knee was braced. And Oregon State fans had to be bracing for more bad news.
Rodgers, the older half of the Beavers' talented sibling duo, was lost for the season after he injured his knee during a win last week at Arizona. He'll undergo surgery soon to repair torn ligaments. And despite putting the best face on the situation -- which in this case, was Rodgers' infectious grin -- there's no question this was a big blow. I briefly wondered if it was time to write off Oregon State as a Pac-10 contender.
But only briefly, because then I remembered: We'd already done that, hadn't we? When Oregon State started the season 1-2, with losses to BCS-busters TCU and Boise State? Also, the calendar says we're midway through October, which means another September is fading away. And that the Beavers' annual surge has begun.
Ignore them at your own peril.
What is it about Mike Riley's teams? The Beavers struggle in September -- always -- and we forget about them -- always. By November -- always -- they're a formidable factor in the Pac-10 race.
When this year's edition lost two of its first three games, a preseason No. 24 ranking was forgotten. But after winning two straight against Arizona State and at then No- 9 Arizona, the ranking is back (at least in the AP poll; inexplicably, the coaches didn't rank the Beavers this week). And so, inexorably, are the Beavers.
The entire process seems as inevitable as the Oregon rain, which arrives sometime in October and remains until June. The Beavers arrive sometime in October, too -- too late to factor into the national picture, but in plenty of time to dampen the outlook for opponents.
"They seem to get much stronger as the season goes on," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops, a few days before the Beavers got a little stronger by beating his Wildcats.
Oregon is considered the Pac-10's best team. There's plenty to like about Stanford and Arizona, too. But take a look at the league standings and you'll see Oregon State sitting, undefeated, right up there with the Ducks. In each of the last two years, the Beavers entered the season finale with the Pac-10 title on the line. Both times, Oregon dashed their dreams, but no one should be surprised if, come Dec. 4 in Corvallis, the Civil War features high stakes again this year.
On the flip side, what is it about the slow starts? For all the good work that Oregon State does in October, November and December, there's a reason the Beavers are rarely on the national radar in those months -- and why they don't play in January. The reason is September.
In the last seven years the Beavers are 39-14 beginning in October. But in that same span, Oregon State has never had a winning record in college football's opening month (we're including the occasional August date here, but you get the point). The problem, of course, is nonconference schedules only a sadist could love -- and which Nick Saban and so many other big-name coaches would delete, immediately, upon arrival.
In that seven-year span, Oregon State has played at Penn State, LSU, Cincinnati and Louisville. Three times, the Beavers have traveled to play on Boise State's blue turf. They've won none of those road games, and that's not counting this season's "neutral site" opener against TCU at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (This September, the only home game was against Louisville. Not coincidentally, that was the Beavers' only nonconference win.)
Riley's answer to the charge of overscheduling? A shrug, a smile, and a claim that "to be the best, you have to beat the best." Actually, that came from senior cornerback James Dockery a few days before the opener against TCU, but it accurately describes the party line. Riley's stance is that the tough early schedule prepares his team for Pac-10 play, and he's been proven correct.
"Whatever we can do to grow our program," Riley said, "I'm excited to do."
Growing the program mostly means money. Oregon State cleared more than $600,000 for playing TCU in a made-for-TV matchup. The program isn't gifted with natural resources, meaning big-money donors or a large fan base. Though Riley said he didn't have to schedule TCU, and that athletic director Bob De Carolis discouraged the idea, the athletic department annually runs a deficit, making TV paydays important.
"There isn't a player here that would have turned this game down," Riley said before the opener. "You weigh everything ... we're all in it for the competition."
But the Beavers could be forgiven if at some point they filled September with cupcakes, entered October ranked highly and went from there. Instead, we're left with a familiar storyline. After the slow start, the Beavers head into the second half of the season with a chance for another fast finish.
We've seen the signs, starting at quarterback, where a new starter was tossed into the fire from the very beginning. Ryan Katz has a very strong arm, and all the tangibles indicate a tremendous upside. Had he started the season against, say, New Mexico, Tennessee and Portland State (the schedule played by rival Oregon), we might be talking about the sophomore as one of the season's pleasant surprises.
Instead, he'll be a hidden factor in the second half of the season. Last Saturday at Arizona, Katz completed 30 of 42 passes for 393 yards and two touchdowns, with two others called back by penalties. "I felt real comfortable out there," Katz said, and the difficult environments he'd already played in must have helped prepare him for the 'Zona Zoo, and for Stoops' defense. The loss of Rodgers is huge; he's one of college football's best all-purpose guys. (He's also expected to apply for a medical redshirt, and could play again in 2011.) But his younger brother Jacquizz is one of the best running backs. With Katz's emergence, Oregon State has a balanced, powerful attack.
Oregon State's defense, a September concern, remains a potential problem. Arizona piled up 541 total yards. But if the Beavers stick to the script, the defense will stiffen as the offense begins to percolate.
Despite the two-game winning streak, and the history, Riley's not ready to announce his team's arrival.
"The story's still being written," he said, and he's correct.
But we've seen this one before. There's reason to be positive about almost everything.