The Oregon State Beavers were nothing short than an enigma this season.
They opened with a thud then sprinted past all expectations before tumbling again down the stretch. They capped the season with an authoritative 38-23 victory over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl to finish 7-6.
Along the way Sean Mannion emerged as one of the nation’s most prolific quarterbacks and Brandon Cooks stepped out of Markus Wheaton’s shadow as the Biletnikoff Award recipient for the country’s top receiver.
But the Beavers also struggled on the run, something out of character for a program that has produced backs like Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers in the past decade.
“That many L’s is definitely a burden for you. To be blessed with the opportunity to be able to play in a bowl game — once we heard that, we knew we had to get this W for the program and bring a trophy home to our trophy room and that’s what it’s all about,” Cooks said.
Cooks wasn’t a surprise this season. It was clear even last year when he complimented Wheaton that he was a talent. But his accomplishments this season were particularly laudable.
He caught a Pac-12 record 128 passes this season. He also set the league’s single-season record with 1,730 receiving yards. His 16 touchdown catches this season are an Oregon State single-season record and rank third on the conference’s all-time list.
His receiving yards ranked first among FBS receivers, while his total catches and touchdowns ranked second nationally.
“He’s fearless. He’s not very big, but he’s very physical,” Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said this season about Cooks. “He can go up and get a football with two or three people around him.”
One of the reasons for his success has been his on-field chemistry with quarterback Sean Mannion, who himself set the Pac-12 single-season record for passing yards with 4,662.
Mannion finished with 37 touchdown passes, a school record and third most for a single season in the league. His 68 career touchdowns moved him into a tie for third in conference history.
In fall camp, coach Mike Riley took his time to decide whether to start Mannion or Cody Vaz. The two had traded off the prior season — mostly because of injuries — and the Beavers went 9-4 after winning just three games in 2011.
Mannion won the job, but got off to a rocky start when the Beavers fell 49-46 at home to lower-division Eastern Washington in the season opener.
The Beavers rebounded and reeled off six straight wins to become bowl eligible seven games into the season. But then they ran into then-No. 6 Stanford and the 20-12 loss touched off a five-game losing streak to opponents that included USC, Arizona State and Washington. The 67-27 rout by the Huskies in Corvallis was especially disheartening.
The Beavers capped the regular season with a hard-fought 36-35 loss to rival Oregon at Autzen Stadium. The slide ended when they handed Boise State its worst loss in two months to move to 11-6 all-time in bowl games. The victory snapped a two-game postseason losing streak.
“They’ve worked hard, they haven’t lost their focus even though there’s been some discouragement, they didn’t let it stay with them,” Riley said. “I loved how they’ve responded all year.”
During the course of the season, the Beavers struggled with their ground game, averaging just 94.4 yards to rank 114th among FBS-level teams. They’ll have to see improvement there next season if they want to challenge in a conference division that includes Oregon and Stanford.
Oregon State was selected to finish third in the Pac-12 preseason media poll; it finished fourth.
Next season is already fraught with uncertainty over Cooks, Mannion and defensive end Scott Crichton, all juniors. Many believe that at least Crichton is likely to declare himself eligible for the NFL draft but none of the players revealed his plans following the Hawaii Bowl.
Rashaad Reynolds capped his Oregon State career with two touchdowns off fumble recoveries in the Hawaii Bowl. The senior cornerback was an amiable ambassador for the Beavers all season, and took it upon himself to rally the team following tough losses, including the season-opener against the Eagles.
Riley was already looking toward next season.
“When you win, you’d like to say it’s a good ending — a good beginning for the upcoming year,” he said.