There were a lot of strange things about Oregon State's 10-7 win against Wisconsin last weekend. For one, the score. Forget that the Beavers upset the No. 13 Badgers. Who would have projected that score, either way?
Then there's this: Oregon State just about always starts a season slowly. And it just about always loses to its A-list nonconference foe.
Take a gander through the years. Despite a number of good seasons, you have to go back to 2002 to see a 4-0 start. September is typically losing time for the Beavers, particularly against tough nonconference opponents. Oh, there's a scattering of wins over Boise State and Nevada mixed in there. But consider the list since Oregon State ramped up the difficulty of its nonconference schedule, post-Dennis Erickson.
LSU in 2004 (three missed PATs!). Louisville in 2005. Cincinnati in 2007 and 2009. Penn State in 2008. TCU and Boise State in 2010. And Wisconsin in 2011. All losses. The majority of them bad losses.
The last time the Beavers got out of September with fewer than two losses? 2003.
"It is a strange start to the season, for sure," Riley said.
Riley was referring to the Beavers' first game getting canceled and then having a bye in week 3. Every other Pac-12 team will have three games to its credit on Monday, while the Beavers will have just one.
And the Beavers aren't out of the woods yet. They have two more September games, and visits to UCLA and Arizona have transformed from "road games against struggling programs with new coaches" to "road games against ranked teams."
Still, Oregon State, a young team, looked different -- and certainly unexpected -- while physically whipping a notoriously physical football team.
The Beavers' lines were big questions entering the season. How many times has Riley said "running the ball and stopping the run." My count is 362, but that might be off a few because I'm not around him every day.
Who projected the Beavers would outrush the Badgers and Heisman Trophy candidate Montee Ball 78-35, holding the Badgers to a microscopic 1.5 yards per carry? Sure, 78 yards isn't a great rushing yield, but the Beavers generated some sort of running game and surrendered only one sack while dominating time of possession by 11 minutes. Wisconsin ranked 16th in the nation in time of possession last season.
Though it's just a single game -- a very small sample size any sabermetrician would tell you -- the numbers were just about the reverse of every lousy number the Beavers produced in 2011, and there were plenty. From passing efficiency defense to turnover margin to tackles for a loss, the Beavers ranked in the 100s in 2011. And they did all of those well against a Big Ten power.
"I think you saw the combination of some experience from the players and some hard work from the players combining for just better play," Riley said when asked for an explanation.
But Riley also admitted that he didn't see 10-7 coming, calling it "surprising."
"I was as curious as the fans were," Riley said. "I can't pretend I knew what was going to happen."
Besides the improved play on both lines, it's hard to ignore the maturity of Sean Mannion's performance. He threw 18 interceptions last season, most in the conference by a wide margin. Against Wisconsin, he threw zero.
"[He made] great decisions to just throw the ball away a couple of times. It's great quarterbacking," Riley said. "He turned down a couple of throws that he wishes he had back. He had a couple of corner routes that were open that he checked the ball down a little early."
That would be the next step: Instinctually knowing the different between playing aggressively and forcing the action. The former is good, the latter bad.
This is a young team. Mannion is one of 24 freshmen or sophomores among the top-48 on the depth chart, not including the three listed at H-back and fullback. In fact, on offense, 13 players on the two-deep in the traditional 11 positions are underclassmen, including a true freshman at center in Isaac Seumalo.
The bad news there is youth might lead to some boneheaded moments that cost the Beavers this season. The obvious good news is it bodes well for the future.
The recent past, of course, is consecutive losing seasons in Corvallis, and that had some folks griping about Riley and his staff. But the immediate present is about as promising as it's been since the program won 36 games from 2006-2009.
It was just one game, and a strange one that that. But, wow, what a game for a program trying to right itself.