Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith is under criticism after a confusing decision on Saturday night ended up being the difference in the final score. Photo Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports Sep 29, 2023; Corvallis, Oregon, USA; Oregon State Beavers head coach Jonathan Smith looks onto the field during the first half against the Utah Utes at Reser Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon State headed into Saturday night’s game in Arizona ranked No. 11 in the country. At 6-1 and with games against Washington and Oregon looming, the Beavers were firmly in the race for the Pac-12 title and had an outside chance at a College Football Playoff spot.

But Oregon State did not win. The loss to the Wildcats made the road to a conference title really bumpy and essentially ended any hope of a national title.

The game’s most talked about play came before halftime. With two seconds left in the second quarter and the game tied 10-10, the Beavers lined up for a 34-yard field goal. But instead of kicking it, they ran a fake, which called on kicker Atticus Sappington to run for 16 yards (and really, 24 given that his run started where the kick would have been spotted). The time ran out during the final play, so anything other than a touchdown was a failure for Oregon State. And he was tackled well short of the end zone.

The decision was immediately panned. But with two quarters remaining, there was still a chance that the play would be little more than a footnote. Certainly, Oregon State winning would help. But beyond that, Arizona winning convincingly would take potential heat off of the play. This decision was always going to be debated. But any result other than the Beavers losing by three (or fewer) would ease some of the backlash against Smith.

That’s not what happened. After Oregon State took a 17-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, Arizona responded with touchdowns on consecutive possessions to go up 27-17. So, when DJ Uiagalelei and Jimmy Valsin III connected on a 20-yard touchdown pass for the Beavers with 1:38 remaining, it was little more than a garbage time score. Oregon State failed to come up with the ensuing onside kick and Arizona ran the clock out. The final score was 27-24 — a three-point loss for the Beavers.

Of course, the butterfly effect tells us that we can’t assume that everything in the second half would have played out in the same way if the Beavers had taken the three points just before halftime.

Nevertheless, Oregon State losing by three points made the criticism directed at Smith a lot louder than it was in the minutes after the failed fake field goal.

In the immediate aftermath of the play, Smith noted that the fake field goal looked good pre-snap but that the Arizona players “got off the block.” After the game, though, he was more critical of the decision, saying (per Nick Daschel of The Oregonian) that it was “a bad call.”

Smith is in his sixth season coaching Oregon State. The program is certainly in better shape now than it was when he took over. The Beavers won seven games combined over the 2015-2017 seasons. By contrast, Oregon State won seven games in 2021, 10 in 2022 and is already at six in 2023.

But while Smith has the Beavers going in the right direction, it’s easy to understand the sharp criticism he’s facing in the aftermath of this loss.

[Nick Daschel]

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