Friday, Dec. 11, 2009 | 2:01 a.m.
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What a difference one little penalty flag can make.
When Oregon State faced UNLV on Sept. 12 at Sam Boyd Stadium, the Beavers faced a third-and-26 situation at their own 15-yard line, down 21-20 with less than a minute left.
The Rebels' fans erupted as Sean Canfield's under-pressure throw fluttered to the turf incomplete, but UNLV sophomore defensive back Deante' Purvis was flagged for pass interference, keeping OSU's hopes alive.
Canfield proved that all he needed was that tiny window of opportunity.
He would complete five of six pass attempts in a hurried scramble down the field, setting up Justin Kahut's 33-yard field goal with just seconds to play, propelling Oregon State to a 23-21 victory.
The Beavers improved to 2-0 with the win, and — despite losing their next two games — Mike Riley's club finished 8-4, earning a return trip to town for a Dec. 22 showdown in the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas against BYU (10-2).
Had it not been for gutting out that win over UNLV, Riley couldn't guarantee the season would have turned out as successful as it did.
"This team for me early on was a mystery," he said. "We lost seven guys to the NFL draft from last year's team, so there's a lot of production that's gone, so who's gonna step in and make those plays? I thought that UNLV game, they played well, they did a great job, we were fortunate to win, but I think the manner in which we won, it was good for our team. So from that aspect, your season is a stacking of experiences, and that may have been a big turning point for us."
The Beavers' season turned around so much that just a week ago, OSU played rival Oregon on the road with a Pac-10 championship and a Rose Bowl berth on the line for the second straight year.
Just like 2008, though, the Beavers didn't capitalize, falling 37-33 at Autzen Stadium in the cold and the rain.
They claim, however, that going in the tank for a non-BCS bowl game won't happen.
Riley expects focus to come naturally once film preparation for BYU and its highly explosive offense commences upon OSU's return to Corvallis.
"I really trust our team's resiliency," Riley said. "We've had one interesting season. We've lost four games by a total I think of 24 points, then we've had a bunch of other games we've won by a close margin. So we've been through it all. We've been on the emotional roller coaster at different times during the year, but the one thing I'd always say has been consistent is our consistency in practice. These guys practice hard, and that's been the reason we've been able to win some games."
One of the steadying forces has been Canfield, in quite a turn-around from his up-and-down career at Oregon State.
The fifth-year senior was initially hurt as a sophomore in 2007 against Southern Cal. Then, following surgery on his throwing shoulder, the lefty lost his starting job in 2008 to Lyle Moevao, attempting only 84 passes all season.
When Moevao was bit by the injury bug, Canfield again took the reins running the OSU offense, and left no doubt this season that he was the man for the job.
Against UNLV, he was 25-of-31 for 198 yards and two touchdowns. His 148.3 passer rating this season and 3,103 yards both led the Pac-10. Add in his 21 touchdown passes and only six interceptions, and you get the 2009 first-team All-Pac-10 quarterback.
He was on the bench last season as Oregon State defeated Pittsburgh in a Sun Bowl which didn't come close to living up to its billing of a potential shootout as the Beavers prevailed, 3-0.
In one of only a handful of non-BCS bowl games featuring two ranked teams — BYU checks in at No. 15, while OSU is a spot behind at No. 16 — a high-scoring affair again appears to be a near certainty.
Both teams finished the 2009 season ranked in the top 30 of the Football Bowl Subdivision standings in both total offense and scoring offense.
While brothers Jacquizz (1,377 rushing yards, 20 TD) and James Rodgers (87 receptions, 1,004 yards, 9 TD) get all the fanfare, it's Canfield's team. And he has no intentions of letting off the gas pedal in his Oregon State swan song, Rose Bowl or no Rose Bowl.
"It's been so fun being a part of coach Riley's football teams over the years, but I think as a fifth-year senior, selected as a captain, you kind of take pride in this year," he said. "So for me, it's going to be a big deal and I want to go out with a bang."
Riley speaks highly of long-time friend Sanford
One of Mike Riley's oldest friends in the coaching business is Mike Sanford, who in November was told he would not be back for a sixth season as UNLV's head football coach.
Riley and Sanford worked together both under John Robinson in the mid-1990s at Southern Cal and again when Riley took the head coach position with the NFL's San Diego Chargers.
Riley said he's spoken with Sanford already since his firing and plans to do so again soon. He also said that if by chance a spot was to open up on his staff at OSU, he'd be very interested in trying to bring Sanford aboard if the interest was mutual.
"Whatever it is (in Sanford's future), it's something good," Riley said. "He's an outstanding coach and he's an even better person. So whatever happens with him I think is going to be really, really good."