On paper, building a program is pretty linear: put an improved product on the field, recruit a little better, do a little better, recruit even better, et cetera. With each progressive cycle of recruits (and learning experiences), on-field performance gets a little better.
Occasionally, it actually works this way. Under Bill Snyder the first time around, Kansas State won 13 games in his first three years (1989-91), then 23 his next three, then 30 his next three, then 33 his next three. It worked that way near the beginning of Mike Bellotti's tenure at Oregon, too: the Ducks won six games in 1996, seven in 1997, eight in 1998, nine in 1999, 10 in 2000 and 11 in 2001.
For Mike Riley at Oregon State, however, there has been nothing linear whatsoever. In fact, it looks like someone hit shuffle on the playlist for the last 16 years. Instead of slowly building OSU to a Top 10 team, then going after a big pay day in the pros, Riley created a unique, confusing path. He took over in 1997, inheriting a program that hadn't been to a bowl in 33 years and hadn't won more than four games in a season in 26 and quickly improved OSU from 2-9 to 3-8 to 5-6. That was enough to earn Riley a job offer from the San Diego Chargers, but after three unsuccessful seasons (record: 14-34), he ended up back in Corvallis when successor Dennis Erickson jumped to the San Francisco 49ers.
Erickson had built onto Riley's foundation, leading the Beavers to a shocking 11-1 season in 2000 and three bowls in four seasons. Beginning in 2003, Riley was able to sustain the momentum, taking OSU to six bowls in seven years and winning 28 games from 2006-08. But the product began to diminish. Ten wins in 2006 turned into nine in 2009, then eight, then five, then three in 2011.
Riley entered the 2012 season with a bit of a hot seat … and has led the Beavers to a 6-0 record and No. 7 ranking in the current BCS standings. Make sense of that, I dare you.
Now, as I referenced in my 2012 Oregon State preview, improvement in and of itself should have been expected. The Beavers suffered a cruel number of injuries over the last couple of seasons and, if healthy, had built solid depth and athleticism in the skill positions and on defense. Ten of last year's top 12 defensive linemen, four of six linebackers and seven of eight defensive backs returned for Oregon State, as did sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion, last year's top four running backs, six of the top seven receivers and four offensive linemen with starting experience. Depth and experience make coaches suddenly look smarter, and Riley has looked like a downright genius in the first half of 2012. The Beavers have already beaten three decent teams on the road (UCLA, Arizona, BYU), took out Wisconsin at home in early September, and took full advantage of Washington State and Utah mistakes in double-digit wins.
Four of Oregon State's six remaining games are at home, including a Civil War visit from Oregon on November 24. How seriously should we be taking Riley's squad right now? Depth and experience are nice, but … from 3-9 to No. 7 in one season? How much of this is a facade, and how much is evidence that the Beavers are in this race for the long haul?
First things first: Oregon State has some serious star power. The Beavers may not be quite as deep (or flashy) as their avian in-state counterparts, but in Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, OSU has one of the fastest, most dangerous receiver duos in the country, track team members who take short passes long distances. Corners Jordan Poyer and Rashaad Reynolds are perhaps the most successfully aggressive pair in the country, having already combined for seven interceptions, 15 passes broken up and three tackles for loss at the season's midway point. What the Beavers may lack in size on the edges (Wheaton, Cooks, Reynolds and Poyer average 5'11, 184), they make up for with extra speed and, in Poyer's case, fantastic instincts.
Plus, there are some playmakers in the defensive front seven: Sophomore end Scott Crichton is on pace for 25 tackles for loss and 16 sacks, and linebacker Michael Doctor has shown solid ability both near the line of scrimmage (three tackles for loss) and away from it (one interception, two passes broken up).
Few FBS offenses have a better idea of what they want to be than Oregon State's does. For years, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has crafted an offense willing to get the ball into playmakers' hands by any means necessary: jet sweeps to receivers, screens to halfbacks, et cetera. Wheaton and Cooks have carried the ball 19 times in six games, while running back Storm Woods has been targeted by 27 passes (he has 19 catches for 147 yards). Of the 26 passes quarterback Cody Vaz (starting in place of the injured Sean Mannion) threw against Utah on Saturday, five were screens and 13 were thrown within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Oregon State's run-pass ratios tend to skew quite pass-heavy, but their passing game really is the epitome of "extension of the running game." And when you've got players this fast and elusive, the approach is perfect. Of those 13 short passes, Vaz completed 11 of them for a total of 96 yards: 12 in the air and 84 after the catch. The offense was far from amazing against a solid Utah defense -- 4.2 yards per play, 3.4 yards per carry, only one scoring drive longer than 16 yards -- but once the Beavers were able to convert two short touchdown drives (both based on Utah turnovers), the Beavers neither had to do much nor tried. Vaz attempted just five passes longer than 13 yards and threw just once to Cooks. With a lead and a defensive advantage, OSU was content to take few chances and run out the clock.
Though one can perhaps excuse OSU's conservatism on Saturday night, it still bears mentioning that the Beavers are not without their flaws, particularly in the trenches. On offense, Oregon State ranks 92nd in Adj. Line Yards (an opponent-adjusted run-blocking measure) and 48th in Adj. Sack Rate. As a result, the running game is only average (Storm Woods and Malcolm Agnew are averaging just 4.3 yards per carry on 23 carries per game), and the passing game can get bogged down by negative plays. And while sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion (when healthy) has improved his interception rate (3.8 percent in 2011, 2.4 percent in 2012), there are enough setbacks to bump OSU to just 22nd in Passing S&P+, a great ranking compared to last year's (84th) but perhaps slightly disappointing considering the success of Wheaton and Cooks.
Defensively, Oregon State has improved from abominable up front (115th in Adj. Line Yards) to outstanding (14th) and, thanks in part to Poyer, Reynolds and Crichton, completely shut drives down on passing downs (eighth in Passing Downs S&P+). But you can still run the ball on them a bit (35th in Rushing S&P+), and on standard downs the defense is still good (26th) but not elite.
Really, that goes for the team as a whole. That Riley has so quickly been able to turn Oregon State back into a Top 25 squad is one of 2012's greatest accomplishments, but that's probably all the Beavers are. They are sturdy on both sides of the ball, and they might be better on the road than at home, but while wins over Arizona (on the road), BYU (road), Wisconsin (home) and UCLA (road) are impressive, most elite teams would have probably managed the same results with larger margins of victory.
Still, there is a chance for quite a few more wins. If you can win at Arizona and BYU, you can win at Washington this coming Saturday, and you can beat flawed-but-interesting teams like Arizona State (November 3) and California (November 17) at home. It is unlikely that the Beavers will survive a trip to Stanford (November 10) unscathed, but with Mannion totally healthy by then, they will at least have a chance. And if they do upend Stanford in Palo Alto, then wow, does this year's Civil War carry enormous implications. Oregon State might not be truly elite, but if they can play like it just once or twice the rest of the way, then what has already been a significant turnaround could be something magical.
I wouldn't bet on anything more than 10-2 for Oregon State, but I wouldn't have bet on 6-0 either. When you've got a strong identity and great speed on the outside, and you make fewer mistakes than your opponent, you give yourself a chance to win any game. So far, the Beavers have won every game.
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