Even though few college football analysts correctly predicted how the first three games of Oregon State's season would go, the Beavers are 3-0 and ranked No. 14 in the country in the Associated Press poll. Heck, even two BCS computers have Oregon State at the top of their rankings (the first official BCS standings will be revealed on Sunday, Oct. 14). How did they achieve such a lofty stature? Here are five reasons:
1. The Maturation of Mannion:
Historically, second year starters at quarterback have thrived under Mike Riley, and Sean Mannion is no different. Last year as a redshirt freshman, Mannion completed 65.3 percent of his passes (96-of-147) for 895 yards (298.3 yards per game) and four touchdowns in his first three career starts. But he also tossed seven interceptions, including four in a 35-20 loss at Arizona State.
What a difference a year makes. In his first three games this season, Mannion is completing 64.6 percent of his passes (82-of-127), a tick below last season, but he has thrown six touchdown passes compared to one interception for a respectable 150.54 efficiency rating, 31st-best in the country. However, his interception percentage of .0079 percent (one interception in 127 passes) is lower than all but six quarterbacks above him in the passer efficiency rating.
What does it mean? The 6-foot-5 Mannion, a prototypical quarterback for Riley's offense (only Derek Anderson was taller) is developing rapidly into an outstanding quarterback because he is making better decisions when he releases the ball. The results are obvious: Mannion threw for 812 yards in the road wins over UCLA and Arizona, the highest passing yardage in back-to-back games in Beavers history. His 4,416 career passing yards already puts him sixth on OSU's all-time list, and he's not even halfway through his sophomore season.
As long as Mannion continues to be accurate throwing the football - and mature as a quarterback at the major college level - the Beavers should win the majority of the rest of their games, putting them in position for an attractive bowl game. Heck, if everything falls into place, that journey to UCLA two weekends ago might not be the last trip to Pasadena for the Beavers this season.
Mannion must lead the way. He should enjoy a fruitful afternoon this Saturday as Washington State is 112th in the country in passing defense, allowing 310.6 yards per game through the air.
2. Perseverance Through Adversity:
In each of the first three games, a point was reached where the Beavers could have wilted under the pressure but they stood tall. Last weekend's wild 38-35 win at Arizona, which featured six lead changes in the second half, provides the perfect example.
Twice in the fourth quarter, OSU drove 75 yards or longer down the field for a go-ahead touchdown. Mannion first hit Markus Wheaton for a touchdown with 8:35 left to give the Beavers a 31-28 lead. But, Arizona promptly drove 75 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown to reclaim the lead, no doubt sending the partisan UA crowd into a frenzy.
Gut check time. How did the Beavers respond to the pressure of trailing on the road by four points with just over five minutes remaining, knowing a field goal wouldn't help them? Just like Arizona, they drove 75 yards in 10 plays for the game-winning touchdown. Mannion was 6-for-6 for 52 yards on the final drive, including a key 28-yard pass to Wheaton on third-and-3.
Persevering through adversity, especially in late game situations, is a sign of a mentally strong team. The fact OSU has been winning after enduring the 'World's Longest Training Camp' after the opener against Nicholls State was postponed speaks volumes. It's a team trait that should serve the Beavers well as they maneuver through minefields over the final nine weeks of the regular season, particularly the upcoming road trips to BYU (October 13), Washington (October 27) and Stanford (November 10).
3. Third Down Defense and Rushing Defense:
Next to turnover margin, third down conversion percentage might be the most important statistic in football. Why? Because successful teams get opposing offenses off the field. When you don't have the ball, you can't score unless you're putting up points on defense or special teams.
In the first three games, the Beavers have allowed eight third-down conversions by the opponents in 39 opportunities for a 20.5 percent success rate. That ranks second nationally behind TCU (19.3 percent). The result? Opponents have not been able to sustain drives, giving OSU a staggering advantage in time of possession. In fact, the Beavers lead the nation in time of possession (35:37 to 24:23 for opponents). Considering two of OSU's first three games were on the road, that's remarkable.
Besides third down defense, stopping the run should be a high priority for any defense. Right now, Oregon State is second in the Pac-12 behind Stanford and tied for ninth nationally in rushing defense, allowing 83 yards per game. That's a sign the defensive front seven is active, flying to the football and playing with energy and effort, always a positive sign for a defense.
The best superlative you can say about the Beavers defense? The chemistry is off the charts. Eleven different players have at least one tackle for loss, led by Scott Crichton's five TFL. Five different defenders have recorded a sack with Crichton showing the way with three. Thus, the solid defense played by the Beavers through three games has been a group effort. More players contributing means a happier, harmonious team.
By the way, Crichton has also collected two pass breakups, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble, and has unquestionably emerged as an early contender for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.
4. Wheaton and Cooks:
Right now, is there a more dangerous or exciting wide receiver combination in the country than senior Markus Wheaton and sophomore Brandin Cooks? Doubtful. Together, they've combined for 48 receptions and five touchdowns for an average of 16.8 yards per catch (807 yards). Each is averaging almost 135 receiving yards per game. Impressive.
Cooks (21 receptions) is fifth in the country in receiving yards per game (134.7), while Wheaton (27 receptions), who caught two touchdowns at Arizona last weekend, is sixth at 134.3 yards. Wheaton, sixth nationally in receptions per game (9.0), is quietly working on a 26-game reception streak, the third longest active streak in the Pac-12.
Statistically, the only wide receiver combination in the country that has been more prolific than Wheaton and Cooks is the West Virginia duo of Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, who are second and third, respectively in the NCAA player rankings for receiving yards per game. But they must go up against the Texas secondary (43rd in pass defense) this Saturday, and it's unlikely the Longhorns will duplicate the pitiful matador defense Baylor pretended to play for most of last week's appalling 70-63 shootout in Morgantown, W.V.
5. Red Zone Efficiency:
Last season, the Beavers were plagued by red zone problems. They finished a dreadful 100th in the country with a 75 percent scoring percentage (33 scores in 44 trips into the red zone). While that sounds respectable, a closer look exposes where the Beavers faltered. Out of those 33 scores, only 21 were touchdowns for a red zone TD percentage of 47.7 percent (21 of 44). In all, OSU scored 182 points in the red zone.
This year, efficiency in the red zone has been a major factor in the Beavers' early-season success. Right now, Oregon State is first in the Pac-12 and 18th in the country in red zone production with a 91 percent scoring rate by registering points in 10 of 11 trips inside the 20-yard line. The biggest difference from last season, though, is the Beavers are scoring touchdowns rather than settling for field goals or not scoring at all a majority of the time.
has scored touchdowns in seven of their 11 red zone opportunities so far in 2012, a touchdown percentage of 63.6 percent, 16 points higher than last season. They have kicked three field goals. The Beavers have already scored 57 red zone points, putting them well ahead of last season's pace.