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Can USC ever get a handle on Oregon State Coach Mike Riley?

USC twice wanted to hire Mike Riley as head coach, but it didn't pan out either time. Meanwhile, Riley's Oregon State Beavers have given USC fits when the Trojans have visited Reser Stadium.

November 19, 2010|By Gary Klein

For USC, Mike Riley is the one who got away.

Twice.

Riley could have been Pete Carroll, the coach hired in 2000 to make USC matter again. But the former Trojans assistant could not get out of his contract with the San Diego Chargers.

He could have been Lane Kiffin, the coach hired when Carroll bolted to the NFL in January. But the Corvallis, Ore., native quickly declined USC's overtures and chose instead to remain at Oregon State.

On Saturday, when No. 20 USC plays the Beavers, Riley is expected to again remind Trojans fans what all the fuss was about.

Since returning to Oregon State for a second stint in 2003, Riley's teams have given USC fits each time the Trojans have visited Reser Stadium.

"I don't know what it is," Kiffin said. "He just seems to motivate them for this game."

Six years ago, the top-ranked Trojans literally played in a first-half fog before escaping with a victory.

In 2006, the Beavers knocked off third-ranked USC. And two years ago, Oregon State derailed the No. 1 Trojans' national-championship hopes by handing them their only defeat.

Oregon State was unranked in all of those games.

It's a similar story this time around: The Beavers are 4-5 and coming off a head-scratching Pacific 10 Conference home loss to Washington State.

"We're like in a freefall here," Riley said. "We've just got to fight our way out of it."

Kiffin, who schemed against Riley as a USC assistant, expects the Beavers' best punch.

"No disrespect to anyone," Kiffin said, "but I think he's the best coach in the conference."

Kiffin cites Riley's longevity at Oregon State — he also coached the Beavers in 1997 and 1998 after four seasons as USC's offensive coordinator — and his ability to build and maintain a formidable program in an outpost far from talent hotbeds. Riley is 68-52 with six bowl-game appearances in nine-plus seasons.

"Obviously, it's not the easiest place to recruit to," Kiffin said. "He does a phenomenal job of developing his roster."

Or, as former Beavers quarterback Lyle Moevao put it, "We don't bring in five-star players. We have a five-star coach who turns two- and three-star guys into five-star players."

Riley doesn't do it alone. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker is in his 10th season at Oregon State, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf his eighth.

Current and former Oregon State players say Riley doesn't approach USC week, or coach against the Trojans, any differently than he does against other opponents.

"He just does a very good job of making sure he motivates guys, and gets the whole team to believe that we're good enough to win any game going into it no matter what the circumstances," said Derek Anderson, an Arizona Cardinals quarterback who in 2004 helped the Beavers forge a 13-0 lead against USC before a Reggie Bush punt return ignited the Trojans.

Alexis Serna, Oregon State's kicker in 2004-2007, said Riley's "open-door policy" on campus and his genuine concern for players during and after their careers engender a fierce determination to play hard for him.

USC's tradition and the opportunity to defeat familiar faces from Southern California also motivate the Beavers when the Trojans come to town.

Serna, who attended Fontana A.B. Miller High, recalled watching USC go through its Reser Stadium walk-through the day before the 2006 game.

"They were out there having a blast — they weren't stressed, just having fun," Serna said. "That's exactly what Coach Riley was turning Oregon State into."

The next day, a relaxed Serna kicked four field goals as Oregon State held off the Trojans for a 33-31 victory.

Two years ago, Oregon State took on an overconfident Trojans team coming off an impressive win over fifth-ranked Ohio State. Moevao recalled nothing unique about the 1-2 Beavers' preparation or Riley's pregame speech.

"We were focusing on details," he said. "Just details."

Oregon State executed nearly to perfection. The Beavers blew the Trojans' celebrated defense off the line of scrimmage in the first half as freshman Jacquizz Rodgers ran for big gains and a touchdown.

Meanwhile, Moevao threw two touchdown passes to Rodgers' brother, James, as the Beavers took a 21-0 lead. Oregon State then held off a Trojans rally for a 27-21 victory, the stadium crowd storming the field in celebration.

Oregon State will again be the underdog Saturday. James Rodgers is sidelined because of a knee injury, his brother is running behind an offensive line that includes several walk-ons, and quarterback Ryan Katz is struggling to find consistency.

But USC shouldn't be fooled.

Riley helped guide quarterback Matt Moore through one of the best games of his college career against the Trojans in 2006. He did the same with Moevao in 2008.

And Oregon State's record this season is somewhat misleading.

Two of the Beavers' losses came early in the season against Texas Christian and Boise State, which are third and fourth, respectively, in the Bowl Championship Series standings. The physical contests might have caught up to Oregon State in an overtime loss at Washington and in consecutive losses to UCLA and Washington State.

But Riley, Kiffin knows, will have his team ready for the Trojans.

That's no secret.

"They obviously believe they can beat us," Kiffin said. "Because they've done it."

gary.klein@latimes.com

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