Oregon State's hot start hasn't come easy

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
5:30
PM ET
Coaches spend a lot of time worrying. For instance, right now Mike Riley is worried about his pass defense, and the fact that the Beavers gave up some big yards last week against Arizona. Now he faces a Washington State team that likes to chuck the ball.

Mike Leach is also worried about Oregon State's defense -- particularly the defensive ends. And as only Mike Leach can, he proposed how he plans to stop them.

"Basically have a bunch of people go to Corvallis sometime this week. Take them out. Make sure they stay out too late," Leach said. "Shanghai them and leave them in a foreign country. That's what we have in mind. But there are some flaws to that and some bugs to that idea that we're working through."

[+] EnlargeMike Riley, Bob De Carolis
Jaime Valdez/US PresswireMike Riley's Beavers have been battled-tested through their first three games. Oregon State has won all three by a combined margin of 13 points.
Though a bit on the silly side, he makes a good point. The Beavers are tops in the conference in third-down defense, allowing teams to convert just 20.5 percent of the time. And they are No. 2 in rush defense. While the Cougars will probably stick to their script of 70-30 pass-to-run ratio, Leach knows the Beavers are averaging better than two sacks per game. Scott Crichton has three of those to go with five tackles for loss.

For the No. 14 Beavers (3-0, 2-0), Saturday's matchup with the Cougars (2-3, 0-2) is their first game at home in almost a month. Since their 10-7 win over No. 13 Wisconsin on Sept. 8, the Beavers have gone on to win close games on the road against No. 13 UCLA (27-20) and Arizona (38-35).

It's been a white-knuckle start to the season for Oregon State, for sure. But that's a good thing, says Riley.

"It's taken all 3 hours and 27 minutes in all of them," Riley said. "We've had two onside kicks and then a last-minute interception to save the game. It's been tough. Besides the wins, the main thing I've liked about the team is they've competed and kept their poise. They've kept their head down and not gotten overwhelmed with the situation which is neat to see. It's a good sign that they just kept playing."

Besides the defense, much of Oregon State's success this season can be attributed to the increased efficiency of quarterback Sean Mannion. But it helps when a good quarterback has good receivers -- and an argument can be made that Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks are playing as well as any wide receiver duo in the country.

The pair ranks second and third respectively in the Pac-12 in receptions per game. Through three games, Wheaton has 27 catches for 403 yards and three touchdowns. Cooks isn't far behind with 21 catches for 404 yards with a pair of touchdowns. Maybe more impressive is that Cooks is averaging 19.2 yards per catch and Wheaton has 14.9.

"It's growth from all of them for sure," Riley said. "Markus has been a real leader in that regard. He was tremendous in the offseason with this team and Brandon is a young guy that is one of the hardest workers around. Those three spent the summer together throwing the ball around and that's always good. They have worked together a lot through the last couple of years.

"Most notable [regarding Mannion] is confidence. He was always poised, even as a freshman playing last year. He always kept his wits about him. He's always good to talk to on the sidelines. He has good explanations for what's going on. Again, the playing time from a year ago and the study and the poise and confidence is a great characteristic of that guy."

Confidence was an issue for Washington State the first few weeks of the season. But improvements were made in defeat against Oregon. The Cougars showed a bit of moxie in taking their shots at the No. 2 Ducks -- which Leach hopes is a step in the right direction.

"I thought we got better this week," Leach said. "There were only a handful of plays that the game could have been differently and we need to figure out how to get those plays. It's one thing to play hard. It's another thing to play hard and play precise and have things in context and we need to improve on that.

"... Nobody is satisfied with just a good showing."

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