2003 was going to be the year when the Beavers were going to shout from the end zone that the 11-1 team of 2000 was not a fluke, but the foundation from which a solid football program would be built.
The year started with extremely high expectations: a Pac-10 championship, a Rose Bowl birth, and maybe even a contention for the national championship. And why not? Steven Jackson, the conference rushing champ and one of the best running backs in the country, was returning. The physically talented and highly touted quarterback Derek Anderson was returning with a full season of experience under his belt. And James Newson, the best receiver on the Oregon State squad, had passed a chance to enter the NFL draft early and was returning for his senior season.
The defense also looked extremely solid, but was looking to initiate two young, talented cornerbacks into what has been one of the best units in the conference for three years running. The team was veritably brimming with talent, overloaded almost. This was it. This was what Beaver Nation had been salivating for.
It was going to be the year OSU finally peeled off the last layer of lizard skin of 3 or 2 or 1 or even 0 win(s) seasons that had become synonymous with Beaver football in years past. Never again would the orange and black faithful have to hear someone say that they should be happy with five hundred seasons because it was better than what they had to endure in the years past.
Oh, how glorious the agonizing wait for the start of the season was. You could taste the victories as if they held physical substance. But it wasn’t to be, at least not exactly as had been anticipated.
An 8-5 finish, including a 55-14 drubbing of the New Mexico Lobos in the Las Vegas Bowl isn’t too shabby. But, to be honest Beaver Believers, it’s also not what I’d hoped for, dreamed for, and longed for.
Of the five losses, only USC should have out performed this Beaver squad. Others may put Washington State in that same class, but the Beavers actually outplayed the Cougars nearly the entire game and ended up giving the win away at the end.
No Beaver Nation, this was not supposed to happen. A team this talented was supposed to have more than eight wins. Call the year what you like, I’ll respect your opinion, but I call it a disappointment.
What happened? What went wrong? Point to the coaching change, point to the new system, or point to too lofty expectations – you could be right on all accounts. But coaching changes and their inherently different systems happen all the time. Players adjust. And I’m not entirely sure how dramatic a scheme shift there was from former coach Dennis Erickson to current head man Mike Riley. Expectations are just that, and they’re normally based on the talent level of the team. Were they high? Definitely. Were they unrealistic? Perhaps, but looking at the talent-laden roster, not really.
Where then, to lay fault? In three areas: coaching for certain, the play, or lack thereof, of the offensive line, and poor decision making by the offensive signal caller, the general of the field, the quarterback.
Hold on; don’t stop reading this just yet. I am going to get critical, but I’m not advocating for, nor calling for the coach’s head, nor am I giving up on Derek Anderson.
I am, however, saying that Oregon State was out coached on multiple occasions, plain and simple. Disagree if you like, but too many times the coaching staff failed to adjust to the opposition’s offensive and defensive schemes.
Take for instance that during the Washington game, OSU continued to use a linebacker to cover speedy receivers even after getting torched several times using that defensive plan. Recall if you will how the Beavers offense looked stale and unimaginative in the loss to Oregon. Recollect the meltdown against the Cougars. Also, consider that special teams were a liability all season even with a coach giving them individual attention.
Mike Riley and his crew have some work to do for certain, but it’s already begun. The Lobos were overmatched in the Las Vegas bowl, no question, and Oregon State’s offense was creative, exciting, and more unpredictable than the previous 11 games.
The running game was solid, but that didn’t open things up as is incorrectly assumed to be the only way to balance a game. Instead, the short passing game across the middle, to Jackson swinging out of the backfield, and deep strikes downfield made New Mexico play an honest defense, which opened up the run. The coaches finally drew up a plan to combat a defense designed to stop the run.
And the offensive line blocked well in that win, something they did only sporadically all season. Yes, defenses stacked the box to stop the run, but they were also able to pressure and sack Anderson with a three-man rush. Don’t believe me? Go watch the Washington game again. You cannot, and will not ever win a game, if you lose the line of scrimmage. It’s a fact and it’s indisputable.
Much was expected of these gladiators in the trenches this year, and they failed too often. While the coaching staff was culpable, this group is the main culprit in dashing any chance the team had for better success this season, as well any chance Jackson had at the Heisman Trophy.
My advice to the coaching staff: recruit 25 offensive linemen and hope you can find 5 in the group that can play at the level you need for the entire season.
The pressure and sacks played a key role in determining the play of Anderson, but it wasn’t always the line’s fault. Getting pounded into the turf every play isn’t any fun, and after a while it’s going to be on your mind as you step back to scan the defense for a weakness. But four games with three or more interceptions, including a five pick performance against Fresno State, and another three games with at least two, while totaling 24 interceptions for the season is also poor decision making.
Too many times Anderson threw into double coverage, forced the ball into tight coverage, or locked onto a receiver at the line of scrimmage. His delivery betrayed him as the defense read him from the beginning before stepping in front of the ball and plucking it out of the air.
It’s not that Anderson is a bad quarterback. In fact, he’s awesome when he makes the right decisions ala the Arizona and Stanford games where he threw for four touchdowns in each contest. He’s breaking Oregon State records left and right, and amassing amazing numbers in yardage. His decision process just needs some work. Hopefully, the coaches can help him with that, and the offensive line can give him some time to make those decisions.
It’s unclear what’s going to happen next year. Jackson has declared himself available for the NFL draft, Newson is moving on, the line graduates two starters, and the defense loses their heart and soul in senior Richard Siegler along with standout tackle Dwan Edwards and others.
The coaches have been busy the last few seasons recruiting quality athletes in anticipation of the upcoming voids. It will be exciting to see who fills the holes.
Expectations won’t be as high next year, but I can tell you this: a .500 season is no longer acceptable by Beaver Nation and would be considered a disappointment.
Here’s to next year, I’m looking forward to it! Go Beavs!
Nesta's views do not necessarily represent those of BeaverFootball.com
He can be reached at email@example.com.