by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

The definition of the “Dark Ages” can have various interpretations. Most commonly, it is referred to as the cultural and economic deterioration in Europe that occurred after the decline of the Roman Empire. Loosely defined, the Dark Ages are generally assumed to include that period after the fall of Rome and up to the Renaissance. Different eras are also labeled as such in various parts of the world; Greek Dark Ages are generally assumed to have occurred between 1100-750 BC; Cambodia regards its period of time between 1450-1863 in such terms, centuries marked by periods of continued decline and territorial loss, as well as becoming a pawn in power struggles between neighbors Vietnam and Siam.

So much for the History Channel portion of this piece. For the ESPN U version, we reference a definition as held by backers of Oregon State football, who regard the period between 1971-98, a 28-season swath of the last portion of the 20th century, in Dark Age terms.

The reason? Never mind missing bowl games all of those years; the Beavers never recorded as much as one winning record over that span, either. Indeed, a generation passed between the two winning seasons (1970 & ‘99) that bookended an incredible stretch of futility that lasted nearly three decades.

And since the ‘90s are still within recent memory, a lot of Oregon State backers are walking around with troubled looks these days. After hardly worrying about a return to the Beavers’ Dark Ages for more than a decade, all of a sudden, it’s nervous time again in Corvallis. Back-to-back losing seasons, including a 3-9 meltdown last season, have reopened a glimpse back to a period in which most OSU backers would rather forget.

Practical implications for HC Mike Riley, heading into the tenth season of his second stint in Corvallis, are significant. More than a few Pac-12 sources believe Riley, despite being credited with putting the program back on course in the late ‘90s, is under the gun this fall.

Beaver backers young and old have had enough tastes of success to know that it is hardly impossible for OSU to compete successfully on the gridiron. In recent times, the Beavers were one win away from a Rose Bowl berth as recently as both 2008 & 2009, when season-ending losses to hated Oregon instead sent OSU to minor bowl assignments. But even those lesser postseason dates are looking pretty good to Beaver backers who have had no bowl at all to attend the past two seasons after six of Riley’s first seven teams in his second OSU regime qualified for an extra date at the conclusion of the regular season.

From a historical perspective, OSU’s Dark Ages are hard to overlook; in that span, the likes of head coaches Craig Fertig (career record 8-36-1 after nosing out a UCLA assistant named Terry Donahue for the job after the 1975 season), Joe Avezzano (8-47-2 between 1980-84), Dave Kragthorpe (17-48-2 from 1985-90), and Jerry Pettibone (13-52-1 between 1991-96) all not only failed, but did so spectacularly. Previously, and subsequently, however, the Beavers experienced some definite high-water marks.

A memorable era in Corvallis was the period between 1955-64 when Tommy Prothro, hired from Red Sanders’ UCLA staff, won 63% of his games and qualified for three bowl games, including the Rose Bowl twice (1956 & ‘64), as well as coaching Heisman-winning QB Terry Baker in 1962. It was during this period that the Beavers campaigned as an independent entry for five seasons (1959-63) after the breakup of the old Pacific Coast Conference. OSU re-joined the successor to the PCC, the AAWU, in 1964, and promptly stole the conference title behind classy QB Paul Brothers and a rock-ribbed defense that allowed only 9 ppg in the regular season. Those Beavers also cut it close more often than Prothro would have liked, winning five games by seven points or fewer.

OSU continued to thrive under successor Dee Andros, a former World War II marine who was at Iwo Jima during the famous moment in which six soldiers raised the American flag, whose round form and familiar orange windbreaker spawned a perfect nickname, “The Great Pumpkin,” further popularized by a Charlie Brown Halloween TV special of the same era.

Andros’ teams were tough and preferred a physical style, with fullbacks Pete Pifer and Bill “Earthquake” Enyart (left) bruising the opposition while a rugged defense physically manhandled unsuspecting foes. Andros’ 1966 team battered its way to a 7-3 mark before the ‘67 team took the nation by storm, altering the national rankings in a late season stretch in which the Beavers knocked off a pair of number one teams (Purdue, 22-14 and Southern Cal, in the famous 3-0 win) as well as tying Gary Beban and second-ranked UCLA, 16-16.

The ‘67 team might have been the nation’s best by the end of the season, but an early slip-up at Washington cost the Beavs dearly in the conference race. No bowls were allowed for non-champions of the AAWU in those days, so we simply have memories of that late-season run in which the Beavers played arguably the most-physical brand of football on the coast over the past half century, with Enyart plowing for tough yards out of the option and the defense, led by NCAA heavyweight wrestling champ and DT Jess Lewis, plus future 49er LB Skip Vanderbundt, punishing opposing offenses.

Andros’ last hurrah came in 1968, with another rugged team featuring Enyart and versatile QB Steve Preece (who would go on to play DB in the NFL before becoming known as one of the analysts on the Oregon State radio network), but early one-point losses at Iowa and Kentucky, and a narrow 17-13 setback in a November Rose Bowl showdown vs. O.J. Simpson and USC at the L.A. Coliseum, thwarted a possible dream season.

Things began to unravel for Andros in 1969; though the Beavers stayed above water with a 6-4 mark, Andros became embroiled in a racial dispute which would haunt the program earlier that winter.

For the times, and despite his past military service, Andros hardly ran a tight ship in Corvallis. Players didn’t have to live in dorms, and he installed no curfews. Indeed, Andros was considered a flaming liberal in Corvallis compared to predecessor Prothro.

But Andros had a thing about hair; none over the ears or collar, sideburns no longer than mid-ear. No facial hair, period. Andros used to talk about the evils of sideburns and beards and those who wore shoes without socks as if he were a stump preacher.

When rolling across campus one day during the '69 winter term, the old marine encountered LB Fred Milton, one of several black members of the team and who had grown a goatee in the offseason. Andros, in character, ordered Milton to shave. Milton, insisting that it was the offseason, refused. The two had a long chat in Andros’ office. Though not considered a militant by the definitions of the day, Milton nonetheless refused to shave, stating it was his cultural right. Andros, not used to getting any lip, booted Milton off the squad.

Although OSU AD Jim Barnett had said at the time that Milton had confused “discipline for discrimination,” it was a sensitive era, especially for black athletes just a few months after the Tommie Smith-John Carlos black fist salute at the Mexico City Olympics. The OSU Black Student Union, organized on campus only the preceding fall (remember, there were only 47 blacks on the entire Corvallis campus in 1969), succeeded in having the school convene a commission on Human Rights and Responsibilities. Its conclusion was that Milton’s rights were violated.

The accustaions, however, led to escalated charges. The chairman of the Portland chapter of the NAACP said there was an unwritten athletic policy forbidding blacks to date white coeds. The BSU claimed there was discrimination in public services and housing. Annette Green, a spokeswoman for the Black Students Union, said "Corvallis is hostile to blacks." Finally, the 47 black students staged a walkout. All 18 black athletes--six of them football players--on scholarship at the university took part.

In the days that followed, what began as fairly civilized dialogue degenerated into slander. "You heard the most outrageous lies about people," said Assistant Athletic Director Dennis Hedges. "You heard them so much you started wondering, 'Could they be true?' You know better, but you begin having doubts."

The student senate first voted 11-9 in favor of the boycott, then reconsidered and voted against it 19-5. A petition backing the athletic department's policies was signed by 173 athletes. A rally for Andros drew 4,000; one against him drew 1,000. No charges, other than ordering Milton to shave, were ever documented against Andros, who had shrewdly included a clause in his recently-signed contract (when he was being pursued heavily by Pitt) that allowed he and he alone to dictate policy within his program. That addendum was suggested to Andros by none other than Bear Bryant. “You’ve got to have a contract to protect yourself,” said the Bear, “in case your president loses his guts.”

Eventually, Andros was vindicated...sort of. Eleven of the 18 blacks who boycotted returned to the team that fall. Andros slightly altered policies and, due to the conciliatory tone of the report authored by the student-faculty commission, had begrudgingly made his points. Although it ruled that Andros had violated Milton’s civil rights, it did rule that “neat mustaches” should be allowed but “beards” were doubtful, leaving enforcement up to the coaches of the individual sports.

(In truth, these sound vaguely like the grooming guidelines my wife has laid down for me, but we digress.)

Andros, however, was never quite the same thereafter, and neither were the Beavers. The road to the Dark Ages in Corvallis had been paved; OSU was not to emerge for almost another 30 years.

Now, Riley is on the spot entering 2012. Some Pac-12 sources maintain that the new order in the conference could be leaving Riley and the Beavers behind. Oregon’s emergence, Washington’s reawakening under Steve Sarkisian, and a potential rebirth at Washington State under Mike Leach threaten to put OSU at the bottom of the Northwest quadrant of the conference. Last year’s slip to 3-9 could merely be the first deposit into that account to nowhere that the Beavers wish not to open again anytime soon.

Riley, forced into playing more newcomers than he envisioned a year ago, welcomes back 15 starters to the mix, but the most-glaring upgrades are required on the attack end. The Beavers, long owners of one of the more-progressive strike forces in the Pac-12, regressed alarmingly last fall, their once-vaunted rushing game all but disappearing. OSU ranked an awful 118th in national rush stats at only 86.9 ypg and 100th in scoring at a mere 21.8 ppg.

If there is to be a quick makeover, it has to come on the attack end.

Upgrades along the offensive line are the first order of business. Not much was accomplished in spring practice that extended over bits of five weeks, as injuries limited the Beavers to just eight healthy bodies along the forward wall. Three starters return, but a couple of newcomers, juco G Stan Hasiak and ballyhooed 5-star (says Scout.com) recruit Isaac Seumalo (a tackle and local product whose dad, Joe, is the OSU defensive line coach and whose brother, Andrew, is a Beaver defensive lineman), both figure to start this fall.

There’s one family connection that Riley certainly doesn’t mind.

And improved OL is going to be one element of an upgraded OSU infantry; the other will be the emergence of an every-down back. None stepped forward last fall, and the top four ball-carriers return, although skittish soph Terron Ward (right), whose 5'7, 192 lb. stature reminds of recent Beaver star Quizz Rodgers, emerged as the most-consistent ball carrier late in 2011 and might have the inside track ahead of returnee Malcolm Agnew, who gained a team-best 419 YR last fall but must overcome what seem to be chronic hamstring woes. A newcomer to watch is RS frosh Storm Woods (that’s an awfully good name for a running back), like Quizz Rodgers a Texas product who can slash between the tackles and catch passes out of the backfield.

Speaking of passes, those will likely be thrown by Sean Mannion (left), the 6'5 soph QB who emerged as Riley’s surprise starter early in the season and kept the job to the puzzlement of many Pac-12 observers (us included) who wondered why Riley benched Ryan Katz, who had flashed so much promised in 2010. Katz apparently wondered what was up, too, so much so that he transferred to San Diego State. Mannion passed for 3332 yards last fall but was also victimized by 18 interceptions. A pocket passer, Mannion lacks escapability, which was a bad combo alongside that porous OL a year ago when the Beavs allowed 27 sacks, ranking a subpar 81st in the country.

The thought process from Riley and longtime o.c. Danny Langsdorf is that improvement along the OL and in the running game will benefit Mannion greatly. Mannion has some interesting receiving targets led by sr. wideout Markus Wheaton (right), who caught 73 passes last fall (but only one for a TD). Wispy (5'9, 177-lb.) soph Brandin Cooks flashed upside when catching 31 passes as a frosh, and there is lots of excitement regarding 6'5 RS frosh Obum Gwacham, also a seven-foot high jumper for the Beaver track team (which once counted Dick Fosbury among its members) who took advantage to extra reps in spring when sr. Jordan Bishop was sidelined following ankle surgery.

Mannion, however, must do without a couple of longtime OSU receiving targets, James Rodgers (brother of Quizz) and H-back Joe Halahuni, who combined for 76 catches a year ago.

Just as the offense struggled to run the ball last season, the defense labored to stop the run. The Beavs ranked a lowly 101st against the rush, allowing nearly 200 ypg on the ground and 4.8 ypc. Five starters return along the front seven but reinforcements might be required to help forge an upgrade.

Keeping monstrous 6-3, 351-lb. sr. DT Castro Masaniai healthy (left, suffering one of the broken legs from each of the last two seasons) will be crucial, as when in the lineup, this behemoth literally tosses blockers aside as if they were rag dolls. As the only experienced tackle with size, Masaniai’s importance to the cause cannot be underestimated. Isaac Seumalo’s brother Andrew is a thick, 287-lb. roadblock who could form a brutish twosome in the defensive middle if Masaniai can stay on the field. Soph DEs Scott Chricton and Dylan Wynn both showed promise as frosh but each is a more accomplished pass rusher than run stuffer.

There is also ample speed at the edge of the LB corps with returning starter jr. Michael Doctor (right) and soph D.J. Welch, although juco Cade Cowdin will compete for playing time at Welch’s spot. Riley and longtime d.c. Mark Banker are also crossing their fingers that sr. MLB Feti Unga is beyond the recurring calf injury that hampered him last season and into spring. Depth issues could also become a concern at the LB spots.

Both starting corners, sr. Jordan Poyer (an honors candidate) and jr. Rashaad Reynolds, return, but Riley was justifiably concerned about depth after three backup CBs ran into off-field problems and are subject to possible suspensions into the fall. OSU also yielded three or more TD passes to six different foes last fall, and the status of SS Anthony Watkins, who led the team in tackles last season but missed spring due to shoulder surgery, could be a bit iffy entering fall camp.

The Beavs aren’t about to overlook anybody on their schedule after an opening loss to Sac State set the tone for the depressing 2011 performance. Expect OSU to be ready for Nicholls State and its option in the opener, but things get tough thereafter when Wisconsin, a 35-0 winner last year in Madison, travels to Corvallis for the return game the following week. Later, OSU must travel to Provo to take on a loaded BYU team. This year’s Civil War vs. hated Oregon takes place at Reser Stadium, as the Beavs look to end a bitter 4-year drought vs. the Ducks.

Spread-wise, note that Riley’s last two teams have had trouble holding serve at Corvallis, sporting a subpar 4-8 home spread mark since 2010. Riley’s extended underdog marks (9-6 the past two seasons and 23-10 the last 33 receiving points since late 2006), however, have remained positive.

Summary...There is some urgency attached to this fall’s proceedings at Oregon State, where Mike HC Mike Riley might have to steer his team back into a bowl game to keep the war drums from beating too loudly in Corvallis. Though one of the genuine good guys in the business, Riley has worn thin the patience of Beaver backers the past two seasons as his teams have deteriorated noticeably. We expect OSU to better its 3-9 mark of a year ago but there are too many questions (running the ball, stopping the run, effectiveness of QB Mannion) to get too excited about Beaver prospects. With all of the high-profile new coaches (Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez the latest) moving into the Pac-12, OSU cannot risk falling too much further behind in the rapidly-upgrading conference. Riley either gets back to .500 and into a bowl or he might be gone; we suspect his chances are no better than 50/50 to move into safer territory. Beaver backers do not want to risk a return to their own version of the Dark Ages.


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