TUCSON, Ariz. -- On the night Oregon State coach Mike Riley became the Beavers' all-time winningest coach, Beavers running back Storm Woods made a pertinent observation about the accumulation of victories for the program.
"It took us an entire year last year to get where we are today," he said.
Yep. Last year, Oregon State was in the dumps, going 3-9. This year, it's 3-0 after outlasting Arizona 38-35. It surely will move up a click or two from the No. 18 perch in the national rankings it found itself in this week.
All three of those wins were different. All three came against teams that have been ranked this year. Two were on the road. The Beavers, by the way, haven't been 3-0 since 2002.
What made this game different is the defense struggled more than it had before, surrendering 545 yards after pitching a shutout in the first quarter. And the Beavers trailed for the first time this season. After jumping ahead 17-0 in the first half, they yielded the next 21 points.
The Beavers, in fact, yielded the lead twice more during a back-and-forth second half, including after a Woods fumble. Down 35-31 with 5:34 left, they took over on their 25-yard line.
It was a big moment. The game hung in the balance. It's the sort of time when a quarterback either steps up or doesn't. And Sean Mannion did. He went 6-for-6 for 52 yards on the drive, including the game-winning 9-yard TD pass to backup tight end Connor Hamlett, a play that Riley admitted he'd been saving for the right moment.
"Sean had a look in his eyes that I have never seen before," Woods said. "Sean is our leader; when he says we are going to score, we are going to score."
Said Riley, "Some really good quarterbacking."
Mannion completed 29 of 45 throws for a career-high 433 yards with three touchdowns. Last year, he threw 18 interceptions, most in the conference. He threw none against the Wildcats and has tossed just one this season.
His top targets, Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, both eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark for the second consecutive game. They both also caught passes of more than 50 yards. Wheaton finished with two touchdowns and 166 yards on 10 receptions. Cooks hauled in nine passes for 149 yards.
But the element that most suggests that the Beavers are legitimate contenders in the Pac-12 North is the rejuvenated running game. Woods rushed for 161 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries, and the Beavers finished with 180 yards on the ground. It's been more than two years since Oregon State has been consistent running the ball, and the lack of a running game has put pressure on the quarterback to throw. A lot. That pressure also included getting hit. A lot.
"It's really big," Riley said of the improved ground attack. "We haven't seen that for a little while."
On this night, the Beavers needed all the offense they could generate. Arizona clearly wore down their defense, which yielded 142 rushing yards, 88.5 yards more than their average entering the game. Wildcats quarterback Matt Scott completed 31 of 53 passes for 403 yards.
But Scott tossed two interceptions, including one grabbed by cornerback Rashaad Reynolds that iced the game.
"It was hard on our defense," Riley said. "Sometimes that's how football is. One side has to pick the other up."
Riley has again picked up Oregon State. With the win, he moved past Lon Stiner with his 74th victory as the Beavers' coach. He entered the season amid grumbling from some Beavers fans that the game had, perhaps, passed him by.
He's been around long enough to know a 3-0 start doesn't guarantee much, other than a shot at 4-0, which they get with a visit from Washington State next weekend.
"That proverbial rug, boy, when the pull it out from under you, your head hits hard," Riley said.
But the Beavers still have both feet firmly planted on this seeming magical carpet. They have the look of a team with staying power. It's been a heck of a transformation that perhaps we should have seen coming from the program's winningest coach.