Shortly after Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith hoisted the Las Vegas Bowl trophy high above his head following the Beavers’ 30-3 beating of Florida, the game’s most valuable player was announced.
It was quarterback Ben Gulbranson, but truthfully, it could have been eight or 10 players. In a nutshell, it perfectly describes No. 14 Oregon State and its 2022 football team, which embedded itself among the school’s greats after a 10-3 campaign.
Gulbranson was terrific in mastering an efficient offense that generated 353 yards, four touchdowns and 24 first downs. But who’s to say it couldn’t have been special teams ace Jack Colletto, Deshaun Fenwick and his 107 rushing yards in spelling Damien Martinez, or one of several players from a defense that nearly handed Florida its first shutout in 34 years?
If there’s one word to describe the 2022 Beavers, it’s selfless.
“When you’ve got a bunch of guys who all work hard and don’t care who gets the credit at all, only good things happen,” senior safety Jaydon Grant said.
Anyone who has spent time around sports has heard this. Pulling it off in an era when athletes look to make a name, or develop a brand, isn’t easy. But that’s been part of coach Jonathan Smith’s magic in building this program virtually from scratch. Smith and his staff have convinced players that the reward is the win, not a stat showing up on a printed sheet or a top-10 highlight on ESPN.
Smith only needed to go as far as Saturday’s performance as a prime example. Gulbranson sat for two series during the first half to give senior Tristan Gebbia a chance to play in his final game. Running back Damien Martinez, on the verge of a 1,000-yard season, left during the first quarter with a shoulder injury, only to have Fenwick shine in his place. Cornerback Jaden Robinson, making his first career start with Rejzohn Wright out with a thumb injury, had seven tackles, OSU’s second highest total behind linebacker Kyrei Fisher-Morris. Colletto, recruited to play quarterback at OSU, became a special teams and short yardage star.
“That’s why this group is so special, because we hold on to this idea of being selfless,” Smith said. “In this day and age, that’s unique. And we won 10 games doing it.”
The Beavers won Saturday at Allegiant Stadium the way they often have done it this season. The defense, one of the Pac-12’s best, blanked Florida for more than 59 minutes. The offense didn’t veer from its script, running the ball effectively and using the pass to keep Florida (6-7) off balance. Special teams contributed mightily, as Colletto set up two touchdowns by blocking a punt and running a fake punt for a first down.
It’s hardly the stuff of Las Vegas dreams. But it’s what Oregon State knows best. In sticking to a starless, do-your-job approach, the Beavers went from 2-10 during Smith’s first year in 2018 to potentially finish among the country’s top 12 when the final 2022 polls are released.
“I got here in 2018, and we couldn’t win a ballgame to save our lives,” Colletto said. “To go from 2-10, a record like that in 2018, to completely changing the program, flipping it on its head… there’s no better feeling.”
There was some pressure Saturday on Oregon State. The 9-3 regular season record was terrific, but 9-4 would have felt empty. A year after falling flat in the team’s first bowl game in eight years, the Beavers couldn’t have a repeat performance and say they’ve grown.
“I thought last year we were a little too lackadaisical going into (the LA Bowl),” Colletto said. “When we started practice after the Oregon game, all of them were high energy, guys were locked in. We were spending a lot of time after practice studying film, and getting ready to play this game.
“And it showed.”
As for this team’s place in Oregon State history, there’s a solid argument to be made that it’s second only to the Beavers’ Fiesta Bowl champs of 2000. OSU won 10 games for only the third time in program history, and won seven of its final eight games. The Beavers finished the season with a thorough beating of Florida, the school’s first-ever win over an SEC team.
Perhaps the only question is, how close is this team to the gold standard, Oregon State’s 11-1 co-Pac-10 champions of 2000?
Smith, quarterback of the 2000 team and coach of the 2022 squad, wouldn’t get sucked into the debate, although he did laugh when the question was posed.
“Both those teams had some really good players on it. Special years in both instances. Really happy with this team,” Smith said.
Saturday’s win wasn’t just a statement for Oregon State, but the Pac-12. The conference hadn’t won a bowl game in two full seasons. Oregon State got the Pac-12 off to a solid bowl season start with a thorough beating of an SEC blueblood.
“There’s a lot of good football and good football teams in the Pac-12,” Colletto said. “I think it’s only going to get better.”
Did someone say better? That’s the question for Oregon State. With many leaders leaving the program after this season, can the Beavers maintain, perhaps even build on their success in 2023?
Grant, who leaves Oregon State after a seven-year career, is convinced when returning players return for offseason workouts in early January, there will be hunger. Strength and conditioning coach Mike McDonald won’t let them think any other way. It won’t be about 10 wins. It’ll be this could have been a 12-win season. Maybe 13.
“He’s always pushing us to be our best,” Grant said. “That’s why it’s a really enjoyable place to play.”
— Nick Daschel reported from Las Vegas.
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