Those wondering if Oregon State is the real thing need look no further than to the football coaches who have lost to the No. 18 Beavers this season — Wisconsin’s Bret Bielema and UCLA’s Jim Mora.
Oh, and Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez — whose Wildcats will face the Beavers this Saturday night — has a few things to say as well.
“They’re just a fundamentally sound, well-coached, hard-playing football team that I think will win a lot of games this year," said Mora, whose favored Bruins lost 27-20 to OSU last Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
Yep, he’s talking about Oregon State, which won only three games all of last year but has surprisingly opened this season with two attention-grabbing wins over the then-No. 13 Badgers and the then-No. 19 Bruins.
The victories propelled the Beavers into the AP rankings this week at No. 18. After their opener against Nicholls State was postponed because of travel issues in the wake of Hurricane Isaac, the Beavers hosted Wisconsin, which had beaten them 35-0 last season in Madison, Wis. Oregon State held the Badgers to 207 yards in total offense for a 10-7 victory.
“The team we saw last year is now a much-improved one with a quarterback that can be very accurate," Bielema said. “I give a lot of credit again to Oregon State. Mike Riley is a very good football coach. They do a good job at beating ranked opponents."
Next up was UCLA, which had pulled off a 36-30 home upset of then-No. 17 Nebraska in the nonconference season. The Beavers went down to Pasadena and won 27-20.
“They’re obviously a well-coached team with Mike Riley, they play very, very hard, they’re a big, physical group," Mora said. “I was very impressed — not only with their defense, which I knew would be good going into the game — but their offense. Their quarterback played very well, and they have two very explosive wide receivers."
The Beavers (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12) are certainly spreading the workload around.
Sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion is averaging 327.5 passing yards per game, best in the conference. He has thrown for three touchdowns and an interception. Receivers Brandin Cooks and senior Markus Wheaton are pulling down a little more than half of all Mannion’s passes. Cooks ranks third in the nation with an average of 127.7 yards in receptions each game, while Wheaton is ranked fifth with 118.5.
But what has set Oregon State apart has been its run defense, which is ranked second nationally (behind Stanford) and has allowed opponents an average of just 53.2 yards on the ground per game. Last season, the Beavers were ranked 118th — third from last — in the category.
The Beavers are also distinguished by the manner of their amiable coach. Riley stresses hard work, while making sure that his players are not overwhelmed. Practice is open to all, injuries are not kept secret, formal news conferences are eschewed for informal chats on the side of the practice field.
Last week, after the victory over UCLA, Riley took his entire team to In-N-Out Burger, a popular fast-food chain that does not extend to Oregon.
Oregon State is 2-0 for the first time since 2009. The Beavers have not opened a season 3-0 since 2003.
“It’s a sign of good things, actually," Riley said. “It’s just a matter of how you handle it. We’ve just got to keep the theme of this team going, which is just working hard and getting ready to play."
Rodriguez, who has brought his hurry-up, no-huddle offense to Arizona, is wary. The Wildcats (3-1) are coming off a 49-0 shutout loss to now No. 2 Oregon, during which they failed to punch it in from inside the red zone six times.
“Wisconsin hasn’t run the ball as well as they have in the past, but they’re still pretty big up front," Rodriguez said. “UCLA has been putting points and yards on everybody they’ve faced, and Oregon State did a great job stopping them."
The Beavers have won in their past five trips to Tucson. Last year in Corvallis, Oregon State defeated the Wildcats 37-27.
“They have a great coach up there and a great system and scheme," Arizona center Kyle Quinn said. “We just have to be ready for a very physical game. They’re going to come in here and try to take it from us in our house, and we just have to go out there and get the W."