Although it may not have been apparent at the time, Washington State may have seen the first glimpse of what is now a resurgent Oregon State Beavers football team.
If there was a low point for WSU during its 4-8 finish in 2011, it was a 44-21 loss to the struggling Beavers on Oct. 23, a game at CenturyLink Field that the Cougars needed to win badly.
OSU, a young, inexperienced team with deficiencies on both sides of the ball, entered the game 1-5 and won just one game the rest of the season to finish with a 3-9 record.
But that performance at CenturyLink hinted that the Beavers might be on to something.
Sean Mannion, a freshman at the time, threw for 376 yards and four touchdowns. OSU racked up 551 yards of total offense and held WSU’s potent passing attack to 224 yards, though starting quarterback Jeff Tuel played only one half before leaving with a shoulder injury.
It might have seemed like a fluke at the time. But now that the Beavers are ranked No. 18 after wins over two ranked opponents – Wisconsin and UCLA – that strong showing against the Cougars looks more like a precursor than an outlier.
Asked if he saw this kind of start coming, coach Mike Riley said: “I’d like to say I did, but it was truly a mystery to me. I’d been saying I really liked what this team had done all offseason and into spring ball, and I thought they worked together, worked hard.”
The Beavers followed the postponement of their scheduled season opener against Nicholls State by pulling off a shocking upset of then-No. 13 Wisconsin in Corvallis, holding the Badgers to 35 rushing yards in a 10-7 win.
After a bye, OSU was again an underdog on the road against then-No. 19 UCLA, but the Beavers controlled the Bruins from start to finish in a 27-20 victory.
Riley said he thinks the biggest change for his team has been the play of OSU’s offensive and defensive fronts. That’s evidenced by OSU’s No. 29 ranking in run defense. The Beavers – picked by media to finish last in the Pac-12 North – lead the nation in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert just 4 of 29 through two games.
“We’re doing such a better job at this point in run defense, and that puts us into a lot better third down defensive categories,” Riley said on Tuesday’s Pac-12 coaches’ call. “And we’re doing a great job on third down.”
On the other end of the Pac-12-surprise spectrum, Utah, picked to finish second in the Pac-12 South by media before the season, sits at 2-2 after a 37-7 loss to Arizona State.
The Utes have lost starting quarterback Jordan Wynn for the season, and running back John White has battled an ankle injury. But Utah’s defense, expected to be one of the more stout units in the conference, has also had its woes. It was shredded last week by ASU’s freshman quarterback Taylor Kelly.
“(I can) pinpoint probably about 50 things” wrong with Utah’s defensive effort, coach Kyle Whittingham said. “But the one or two top things, No. 1 is pass coverage. Very poor in the play-action pass game, way too many wide open routes.”
The Utes host No. 13 Southern California this week.
Webb is a winner: Colorado coach Jon Embree said his team’s comeback against WSU on Saturday was the result of his players maintaining their resolve despite trailing by three scores in the fourth quarter.
He credited quarterback Jordan Webb for keeping the offense together.
“He never doubted himself and he never really doubted his teammates,” Embree said. “You could tell by how he was practicing, carrying himself through these games in difficult times. He’s a great leader, lot of intangibles you look at from that position.”
That was quick: USC coach Lane Kiffin, who was derided for walking away from a press conference after 29 seconds earlier this season, answered one question on Tuesday’s call about how poor offensive line play can affect a quarterback’s rhythm.
When the moderator informed Kiffin there were no more questions, he quipped: “Second-quickest press conference I’ve ever been a part of.”