CORVALLIS — Mike Riley has been grilled by Oregon State fans for the past few years for being too predictable, too conservative, too boring. But Saturday night against No. 8 Stanford, a little conventionality might have been a good thing.
Going for it on fourth down is gutsy and admirable and the times OSU has done it this year, it's even been a little tricky. But it doesn't always net you points.
And against the Cardinal in front of 44,519 fans in Reser Stadium, it didn't win the Beavers (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) the ball game.
Oregon State was one for five on fourth down conversions in its 20-12 loss to the Cardinal (7-1, 5-1), and you can't help but wonder, what if Riley had opted to kick some field goals instead?
There were other problems, to be sure. Stanford's front seven had its way with the Beavers' offensive line, sacking quarterback Sean Mannion a staggering eight times. Brandin Cooks, the nation's leading receiver coming into the game, could never get free, totaling just 80 receiving yards. The defense looked good early, then gave up a few big plays that gave Stanford momentum, and points.
But certainly fans, and probably Riley, will be haunted by two, maybe three, puzzling decisions.
Midway through the second quarter at fourth-and-3 on the Stanford 18 and with a 3-0 lead, he decided to go for it instead of take the points. Trevor Romaine had already connected on a 50-yard field goal attempt earlier, but Riley decided he wanted more on this drive.
Mannion was pressured right away and though he went left and escaped the pass rush, he decided to throw instead of tucking the ball and running, and his pass to Cummings was incomplete. Stanford took over on downs.
Then, at the end of the half with OSU still nursing a 3-0 lead, Riley called for Mannion to sneak on fourth and short. He didn't get it, and Stanford took the ball over on its own 34 with 46 seconds to play.
In the last few weeks Riley had praised his defense for giving up a limited number of "explosion plays" (anything more than 20 yards). But Montgomery's 37-yard reception as the clock ticked down in the first half put the Cardinal in OSU territory, and Kevin Hogan's 23-yard rush two plays later put them in scoring position. That made Tyler Gaffney's 4-yard touchdown run in which he spun away from tacklers look easy.
"It's a big-time game, a top 10 team in your backyard," Cooks said. "You have to be willing to go for it. We commend Coach Riley for making those decisions."
It helps, of course, if those decisions pay off.
Instead of being up at the break, OSU was down and reeling. And if the first half ended badly, the second half started worse. True freshman Victor Bolden fumbled the kickoff and Stanford recovered at the OSU 12, and it took only two plays for the Cardinal to take a 13-3 lead.
Midway through the third quarter, at fourth-and-5 on the Cardinal 35, Riley opted to go for it again. No dice. Gaffney's 32-yard touchdown at the beginning of the fourth gave the Cardinal distance, and made all those points Riley left behind seem even more important.
"It's the kind of thing where it's Coach Riley's decision, and it's on us to convert. We've got to finish," Mannion said. "In five tries to move the chains, we've got to get it done."
"Probably I will (regret) some of those early," Riley added. "We'll probably look back at a lot of things as missed opportunities."
It made perfect sense, of course, to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the Stanford seven with seven seconds remaining, but Mannion's pass to Kevin Cummings was incomplete.
Then again, the way things were going for OSU on fourth down Saturday night, the odds weren't in the Beavers' favor anyway.