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October 25, 2012

Oregon State: 10 Things We Know Now

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Oregon State is a surprising 6-0 as it begins the second half of the 2012 regular season on Saturday night against Washington. Here are 10 things we know right now about the Beavers:

1. The Beavers are the feel good story of the year in college football: And it's not even close. South Carolina ascended to No. 3 in the BCS rankings two weeks ago, but have fallen back due to back-to-back road losses. Now it's Oregon State's turn to take a crack at the so-called big boys of college football. So far, they're 6-0 for the first time since 1907. Oregon State has never been 7-0, so the stakes are high for Saturday night's matchup with Washington at the "Clink" in downtown Seattle. Before the season, I'm sure many Washington fans put this game in the win column. Not anymore.

The current No. 7 ranking in the AP poll (and BCS standings) is the highest for Oregon State since ending the magical 2000 season at No. 4 after the Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame capped an 11-1 season. A win over Washington Saturday night would guarantee the Beavers a spot in the Top 25 for six consecutive weeks for the first time since, you guessed it, 2000. I'm sensing a trend.

2. Mike Riley is one of the top two candidates for National Coach of the Year: Riley's main competition is Bill Snyder of Kansas State, which improved to 7-0 with an impressive 55-14 win at West Virginia last weekend. Both the Beavers and Wildcats have posted three notable road wins, with OSU defeating UCLA, Arizona and BYU in front of their home fans. But here's why Riley holds the edge: according to Jeff Sagarin, the Beavers have had the second toughest schedule among the 11 undefeated teams left standing in Division I (FBS).

Only Florida (10th toughest schedule in country) has played a more difficult schedule than OSU (No. 15). Kansas State's schedule has been judged the 45th most difficult. The Wildcats have beaten Missouri State and North Texas on the way to the perfect mark after seven games. In addition, Oregon State has come farther than any team in the Top 25. Kansas State faced Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas last January, so the Wildcats have already appeared in a major bowl game this calendar year. They started the year at No. 22 in the pre-season AP poll, while OSU was nowhere to be found, even in the receiving votes category. Of course, then came the win over Wisconsin and, as they say, the rest is history.

3. The Beavers are winning the statistical battles where it matters the most: Statistics can be twisted this way and that to fit any storyline. Most fans typically look only at offensive numbers to gauge on how a team is doing. However, Oregon State is 6-0 largely on the strength of three statistics: rushing defense, third down percentage defense and turnover margin. Oregon State enters the Washington game fifth in the nation and second in the Pac-12 is rushing defense, allowing 80.8 yards per game. Any great football coach will tell you that stopping the run is Job. 1 for every defense in every game.

Stopping opponents on third down is critically important, as well. The Beavers lead the Pac-12 and are third nationally with a 25.3 percent rate in third down percentage defense, meaning foes are successful about once every four chances on third down. When opponents have third-and-3 or longer, they are converting just 20.9 percent of the time. Last season, OSU was 104th in the country in third down percentage defense (47.4 percent), so the improvement has been dramatic.

How important is turnover margin? Last weekend's victory over Utah provides a great example. The Utes outgained the Beavers, 307-227, ran 19 more offensive plays (73-54), registered more first downs (19-15) and had more rushing yards by greater than a 2-to-1 margin (135-53). Yet, Oregon State won by 14 points because they forced four turnovers (and didn't commit any themselves), including two deep in Utah territory that gave the Beavers offense short fields. No matter what else happens on the field, when you win the turnover battle by plus-4, you're going to win the game. For the season, OSU is plus-10 in turnover margin, including plus-9 in the last three games. That's championship caliber. By the way, the Beavers are 41-8 in the last 49 games when they commit fewer turnovers than the opponent.

4. Cody Vaz performed his job very well: Now that Riley has said Sean Mannion is the probable starting quarterback for Saturday's road test at Washington after missing two games with a torn meniscus, it's appropriate to reflect on the contributions Vaz made as the backup quarterback. In two games against BYU and Utah, he completed 36-of-58 passes for 506 yards and three touchdowns. In other words, Vaz isn't the most popular guy in the Beehive State right now.

Really, his back-to-back starts boil down to two numbers: the record (2-0) and the number of turnovers committed by the Beavers (0). From that perspective, Vaz's two opportunities were a smashing success. He did exactly what Mike Riley wanted him to do - manage the game and don't make any crippling mistakes by protecting the football. Hyper-analyzing Vaz's performances beyond those two factors is meaningless. Was the Utah game pretty from an offensive standpoint? Heck, no. But it didn't have to be because the defense played so well. What happens if Mannion has to shake off the rust and starts slowly in Seattle? Do Beaver fans scream for Vaz?

5. The Beavers have the best wide receiver combination in the country: Before the season started, the volume button on Southern Cal's wide receiver duo of Robert Woods and Marquise Lee was stuck on 10. But Markus Wheaton (29 straight games with a reception) and Brandin Cooks (second in the nation in receiving yards per game at 131.8) have surpassed them as the top pass-catching combination in the Pac-12, if not the country.

Wheaton and Cooks have combined for 83 receptions, 1,321 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in six games. Wheaton, who possesses loads of experience with 26 career starts (an underrated factor) has set career highs in receiving yards twice in 2012 and currently stands fourth on OSU's all-time receptions list with 184. Cooks had just one catch for eight yards against Utah, but he has enjoyed a spectacular season. His speed creates matchup problems for opposing defensive backs since they must worry about Wheaton as well on the opposite side.

Lee and Woods, meanwhile, have combined for 104 receptions, 1,276 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. Nice numbers. Yet, Oregon State is No. 7 in the BCS standings and the Trojans are No. 9. So, quoting Aretha Franklin, who's zoomin' who?

6. Scott Crichton is a beast: Crichton, a sophomore defensive end, was named to the Bednarik Award Watch List on Wednesday, and for good reason. The award honors the most outstanding defensive player in college football. Crichton is second in the nation in sacks per game (eight for 1.3 per game) and now has 14 in his career. He also leads the Beavers by a wide margin with 12.5 tackles for loss. In fact, exactly one-half of his tackles (25) have been for loss. That's being productive as a defensive player.

With apologies to lockdown corners Jordan Poyer and Rashaad Reynolds (OSU has 11 interceptions in six games), Crichton is the face of a Oregon State defense that has allowed nine or fewer points in three of six games this season, In today's world of college football with wide-open offenses everywhere, that's amazing. The last time OSU accomplished that feat was 2008. The last time the Beavers surrendered fewer than 10 points more than three games in a single season? 2000. Right now, OSU's three games of allowing nine or fewer points is tied for third among Division I teams.

7. The Oregon State defense is where the hopes of highly touted running backs go to die: Coming into the season, three of the most highly touted running backs in the country were Montee Ball of Wisconsin, Johnathan Franklin of UCLA and John White of Utah. Ball was on everybody's Heisman Trophy list. But the Oregon State defense hasn't allowed any of those ball carriers to eclipse 70 yards: Ball saw his Heisman hopes dim with a 61-yard outing in the Badgers' loss on Sept. 8. Two weeks later, Franklin was held to 45 yards at the Rose Bowl. Last weekend, White struggled against OSU by gaining 68 yards.

All three running backs have found out why OSU begins the second half of the season fifth in the nation and second in the Pac-12 in rushing defense. The Beavers have allowed more than 100 yards rushing twice this season - 142 yards to Arizona and 135 yards by Utah last weekend.

8. TV Executives are taking notice of the Beavers: OSU fans are experiencing first-hand the impact of the Beavers local and national success, and discovering what happens when a team turns into a Cinderella story - lots of prime time action. Last week's win over Utah marked the first night game of the season at Reser Stadium. Saturday's game in Seattle kicks off at 7:15 p.m. PT. Next week's home game against Arizona State has a late kickoff as well. Typically, TV executives prefer to put the most attractive teams in prime time because that's when the most eyeballs are watching. As long as the Beavers keep winning, you can expect the trend to continue. Sure, it's late for East Coast audiences, but few fans there except the most hard-core college football addicts pay attention to what's going on the other side of the country outside of the Los Angeles or Eugene anyway.

As long as ESPN and other TV networks are paying the Pac-12 billions of dollars for the right to televise the conference's game, they will have the exclusive say in when games start. That's the price you pay for accepting the money. The Pac-12 network works under the same parameters. They are trying to generate as big of an audience as possible, especially for a Top 10 ranked team like the Beavers.

9. Isaac Seumalo will be a Freshman All-America: Coaches often say the closer you are to the ball, the tougher it is to play as a freshman. That's why you see a bunch of true freshmen wide receivers and running backs on the field, but far fewer offensive linemen. Center? Unheard of. However, the 6-foot-3, 302-pound Seumalo isn't just beating the odds, he's smashing them to smithereens.

Last Saturday night, Seumalo was matched up with Utah's Star Lotulelei, one of the top players at his position in the country and a certain first-round NFL draft pick next April. In terms of experience, it was a mismatch. But Seumalo stalemated Lotulelei and played an integral role in Vaz not getting sacked once by the Utah defense. A performance like that will get you noticed quickly. Seumalo has become a key component of an underrated Oregon State offensive line that has played well for most of the season. The Beavers are 4th in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed.

10. The toughest games are still ahead on the schedule: Around the country, some analysts are probably pointing to the Beavers' final stretch of games as the most accurate barometer of how good they truly are. After Saturday night's road matchup at struggling Washington, OSU's final four conference opponents are Arizona State (3-1 in Pac-12), Stanford (3-1), California (2-3) and Oregon (4-0). The combined conference marks of those four teams is 12-5 compared to a 3-13 league mark for the first four Pac-12 opponents. The Ducks are No. 4 in the BCS standings, while Stanford is No. 17. Thankfully, three of those four games are at Reser Stadium, so the Beavers hope the home field advantage comes into play.



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