42,189. That was how many people filed into Reser Stadium to see the Oregon State Beavers play, and eventually win, the biggest non-conference home game in the program's history. Not a sellout. The Beavs fell 3,485 tickets short. The people who were at Reser Saturday on a breathtakingly splendid day in Corvallis saw the home team suck the life out of the big, bad, Wisconsin Badgers, and saw that life turn right back around and plunge into Mike Riley's program. The Beavers played a serious football game, and they got a serious result. But if their fans don't take them seriously, why should we?
The game itself was stunning as it was impressive. The Beavers' 2011 paper mache defense was gone, and in its place was a cohesively buzzing unit that held the vaunted Wisconsin ground attack to 35 yards, and knocked Monte Ball out of the Heisman race. The Badgers, who last year scored 45 points against Penn State, 42 against Michigan State, 48 against Nebraska, and 38 against Oregon was held scoreless for 58:29 by the Beavers. Sure, Russell Wilson is gone, but Wisconsin still boasted Ball, and the biggest offensive line in the nation. It didn't matter. Their heart, their desire, their execution couldn't match that of the Oregon State defense.
In the reverse fixture last year, Wisconsin shellacked OSU like a Hummer rolling over a snail. It was the game that started the Beavers' irreversible slid into an ignominious and embarrassing 3-9 record in 2011. What a difference a year makes. Riley deserves the credit for turning a negative - the loss of the first game of the year to Hurricane Isaac - into a positive. Instead of his team losing focus, and coming out with typical opening-day jitters and mistakes, Riley kept his team focused, studied up, figured out how to stop Ball, and told his kids for an extra week that beating the reigning B1G champs would revive a program that desperately needs attention. Riley got his team to buy in. Go all in. And Wisconsin folded.
When it was over, the orange-clad fans that were there, the belibeavers cascaded onto the field. Of course, they enjoyed the weather, the game, the spirit and energy of a big-time college football showdown, but there was a sense that these fans that have stuck with a seemingly sinking ship, the past-its-prime small town to Oregon's Disneyland across town, were getting something more. These survivors were part of a team that made them proud. There's no better feeling in sports. Winning championships sure does make you proud of your team, but so does the effort against the odds that the Beavs displayed Saturday. So it's time for fans to check in.
If the average fan isn't taking Oregon State seriously, then why should the media? If the media don't take the Beavers seriously, then the average person won't. Oregon State has something special and something real with Mike Riley. His teams overachieve, and his teams have heart. They won't be competing for the Rose Bowl, but they will be better than the majority of teams in the BCS, and provide us with a few unforgettable moments that only a handful of other programs in the country can provide. You can almost always count on the Beavers, which is why the 2011 season was so sickening - the lack of fight was uncharacteristic. But you can't hold Mike Riley teams down for long. The Beavers appear to be back to their Giant Killing best in 2012.
The last Oregon State column I wrote was almost ten months ago. One of the two major college football teams, in a state with no professional team, and this columnist didn't put pen to paper on the Orange and Black for almost a year. But once again on the field, Riley and the Beavers make us pay attention. Off the field, the empty seats spoke - or didn't speak - for themselves. Say what you want about the Ducks tactics, but 56,000+ filed into Autzen Stadium to watch a game they knew would be close on the scoreboard for three minutes, and over in people's mind when the visiting team got off the plane. Oregon State couldn't sell 45,000 tickets for the biggest home game in non-conference history, with exponentially cheaper tickets. Congrats to the OSU fans who were there. Shame on the ones who weren't. You're holding your program back.
Enjoy this era of Beavers football while you've got it. Riley's spirit and spunk and commitment won't run through the veins of Reser Stadium forever. The Beavers are going to have bad years. With their position in the pyramid of college football, you can't avoid down years. Not when your facilities, brand, and location trial the Pac, and trail college football nationally. Sell those remaining tickets, and you start compiling the funds to build up the program. Good coaches bounce back. If you ask national college football writers around the country, they'll tell you the Beavers are beyond lucky to have Riley. In fact, the state where Riley is least appreciated is Oregon. Why?
If Oregon State wants to be a fodder for the big dogs of college football, a team that averages five wins a season and slumbers through the bowl season, that's fine. Then you don't have to sellout, you don't have to pretend you mean business. But the players and coaches won't let that become the fate of the program. Not your fault. But as fans, you're dealt certain cards, and you behave accordingly. Can Oregon State fans match their team on the field? I'm paying attention to the Beavers this year. I have no choice. If that defense gets up for each remaining game like they did for Wisconsin, if Sean Mannion completes 30 balls a game, it could be a special season. Come to think of, most years in Corvallis have those special components. This team has a chance to put it all together. The fans better be there to see it.