Americans love underdogs, they love winners, and they love big, juicy burgers. When Oregon State, a team that was just 3-9 last season, surprised nearly everyone by winning its first six games, college football fans were happy to jump on the Beavers’ bandwagon, with its frequent stops at In-N-Out Burger.
Oregon State’s sweet ride came to a fork last weekend in Seattle and instead of reaching 7-0 for the first time in school history, the Beaver bus took the road most traveled and ended the team’s undefeated run with a 20-17 loss to the Washington Huskies.
Suddenly, that 6-1 record, which few expected to see this season, looks a little precarious.
Several key playmakers were knocked out of the game against the Huskies and haven’t practiced this week.
Senior receiver Markus Wheaton, one half of one of the best receiving duos in the nation, was literally knocked out by a helmet-to-helmet hit and the Beavers’ offense took a hit without him on the field. He is still being evaluated for concussion symptoms but hopes to play Saturday.
Another question mark is senior cornerback Jordan Poyer, who leads the team with five interceptions. Poyer suffered a sprained knee against Washington but is expected to be available this Saturday, as is redshirt freshman running back Storm Woods, who also injured his knee last weekend.
“We’ll have to play it by ear,” OSU head coach Mike Riley said, admitting that he doesn’t have a rule about how much one has to practice in order to play Saturday, especially when it comes to veterans like Wheaton and Poyer.
Bouncing back from the team’s first loss, potentially without several top players, would be a big enough challenge, but the Beavers also have a quarterback controversy on their hands after Riley announced that junior Cody Vaz will start over sophomore Sean Mannion.
Mannion was the starter in the beginning of the season before missing two games for minor knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Vaz threw for 506 yards and three touchdowns in those games before ceding the starting role back to Mannion last weekend.
In his first game back, Mannion struggled, throwing four interceptions. Riley brought Vaz off the bench in the fourth quarter, and the backup went 7 of 11 for 97 yards and a touchdown, and he almost won the game.
His effort was good enough to unseat the sophomore starter, who could still need time to regain his strength following surgery.
The decision might be the right one, but it comes at a time when the team can either regroup from their first tough loss and finish strong, or drop the next few games like dominoes.
“They think they’re going to win every time they step on the field, and I love that about them,” Riley said.
Now that they’ve lost, how will they respond?
The Beavers had to fight to get to 6-1, and the second half of their schedule, with Arizona State this weekend and Stanford and Oregon later in the month, is arguably much tougher. The Sun Devils lead the Pac-12 in total defense and passing defense, and Stanford’s no pushover. Beat Stanford, and Cal the following week, and all eyes in the conference will still be on the Civil War the last weekend in November.
The Beavers are already bowl eligible, but Riley wants to do whatever it takes to keep them winning, even if that includes making delicate changes at the core of the offense.
“You try to make a decision for the team that’s right this minute,” Riley said. “We think Cody’s playing a little bit better right now and deserves the start.”
Even when both quarterbacks publicly support each other like Vaz and Mannion have, shuffling at the position can be detrimental to the team overall, but Riley is confident that won’t be the case.
Sophomore free safety Ryan Murphy told The Statesman Journal‘s Gary Horowitz on Monday that he hadn’t even been aware of the change.
“As a team we support Cody, we support Sean. And the biggest thing is Sean supports Cody and Cody support Sean,” Murphy told Horowitz.
Actually, the biggest thing is that the team supports Riley, who’s done a masterful job of getting them this far and has the very top of the Pac-12 North well within his sights.