Can the Beavers be real contenders?
Oregon State's quest for the Pac-12 football championship begins 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Reser Stadium against Washington State.
Whoa, you say?
Well, the Beavers have a coaching staff, led by Jonathan Smith, that has put the program on a positive trajectory. They have a savvy quarterback, Tristan Gebbia, and a running back, Jermar Jefferson, set for a big rebound season, and a lot of playmakers.
They have depth on an improved defense and, if Jefferson could be one of the Pac-12's best on offense, outside linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr. could be the league's best on defense.
Optimistic, you say?
Why should the Beavers not be optimistic? Everybody else in the Pac-12 is. Winning starts with belief, and the Beavers believe they can beat Washington State and then win other games — remember, they play Cal and Oregon at home — and contend in the Pac-12 North Division.
The Beavers won five games last year, Smith's second at his alma mater, and lost two others by three points and one by one.
"We think we can strap on the pads and win every game we play, that's the confidence we play with," defensive lineman Isaac Hodgins said. "The belief factor is there. If I had to put a number on it, it'd be 10 out of 10."
The Beavers have survived the road through the COVID-19 pandemic and have been working hard through the ups and downs, Gebbia said.
"The beautiful thing about football is every given Saturday anybody can win or lose," said Gebbia, who helped OSU stay competitive at Oregon last season in his only previous start (24-10 loss to eventual Pac-12/Rose Bowl champ).
"Every game is a steppingstone. We do things the right way, we'll end up where we want to be."
Smith played quarterback as Oregon State played itself into national prominence in 2000. He served as offensive coordinator for Washington teams that played in the College Football Playoff and Rose Bowl, after the Huskies had fallen off the national map. He knows what a rebuild is and "we're in the middle of continuing to rebuild," he said.
"We've made some great strides," Smith added. "We have some great players who have bought in and give great effort, and they're always thinking about getting better. We feel good about the trajectory of the program."
Gebbia, a 6-2, 200-pound redshirt junior from Calabasas, California, found out just before the 2019 Oregon game that he would be starting in place of an injured Jake Luton (now with the Jacksonville Jaguars). With Oregon playing for a spot in the Pac-12 title game, Gebbia went 26 of 40 for 243 yards with no interceptions, and added 25 rush yards (only one sack). Gebbia had the entire (yearlong) offseason to be a Pac-12 starting quarterback in comparison, he joked.
"He took advantage of last year, preparing week in and week out, knowing he was one snap away (from playing)," Smith said. "He's continued to improve through camp. He's getting timing with new receivers, he's more accurate with decision-making."
With Jefferson to rely on, and capable receivers in Trevon Bradford and Champ Flemings and tight ends in Teagan Quitoriano and Luke Musgrave, Gebbia has some support. The offensive line has some new faces, and it'll be something to watch.
Remember, offense hasn't been the problem at Oregon State under Smith. The Beavers averaged 31.2 points and 411.8 yards last season, and even the two-win 2018 team put up 26.1 points and 404.8 yards.
The "sky's the limit for us. We got a lot of great players and depth at every position — even quarterback," said Gebbia, who fought off fellow QBs Chance Nolan, Ben Gulbranson and Nick Moore in training camp competition.
Jefferson, a 5-10, 215-pound junior from Harbor City, California, has looked good in practice and scrimmages. He rushed for 1,380 yards and 12 TDs in 2018, but an injury-plagued 2019 kept him to 685 yards and 8 TDs.
"He's been working his tail off," Gebbia said. "He's doing an awesome job of progressing and becoming smarter in the system. He has a feel for the run-game stuff and pro stuff we have. I think he's doing awesome."
If Rashed Jr., a 6-4, 245-pound senior from Phoenix, Arizona, has a better season than in 2019 the Beavers should be a force on defense. Even a good Rashed Jr. would make a difference. He had 14 sacks and 22 1/2 tackles-for-loss last season.
Rashed Jr. wants wins over personal success and wants to "be a leader on the team and be a better defense."
Defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar likes depth and experience on defense, namely with linebackers; Andrzej Hughes-Murray returns to the fold after being injured last year. Jaydon Grant and Isaiah Dunn lead the secondary, with newcomer Alton Julian playing well. Up front, without Jordan Whittley, it's the likes of Hodgins and Simon Sandberg leading the way.
It's a fact that the Beavers have improved on defense: 45.7 points and 536.8 yards (including 281.2 rush yards) given up in 2018, by far the Pac-12's most; 32.5 points and 445.7 yards (169.5 rush) last season.
"There's a real sense of competition at every position," Tibesar said. But, "we're still a work in progress."
Offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren said the defense has "taken it to us" in camp, with Gebbia adding, "You love to see a defense that's chippy and aggressive and wanting to compete."
Smith said, overall, the Beavers need to stay healthy and play complementary football with offense and defense making plays in games, and not one or the other. "We gotta play great team football," he said.
OSU has endured six consecutive losing seasons, going back to the 7-6 under Mike Riley in 2013, which happened to be the season when the Beavers won their sixth bowl game (Hawaii Bowl vs. Boise State) in eight tries under Riley.
First things first: The Beavers face a Washington State team that has a new coach (Nick Rolovich) and a new quarterback (true freshman Jayden de Laura). Rolovich coached the run-and-shoot offense at Hawaii, which beat the Beavers 31-28 last season in Honolulu. (Washington State scored a TD with two seconds left to beat OSU 54-53 in Pullman, Washington).
The Beavers have been watching WSU and Hawaii game tape as well as Wyoming game tape — defensive coordinator Jake Dickert joined the Cougars from the Cowboys.
"We expect those guys to be well-coached," Smith said. "I know they got some explosive athletes, and that offense will transition similarly, from (Mike) Leach to the run-and-shoot. We know it'll be a great challenge."
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