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September 15, 2013Oregon State is No. 1.
Not in the weekly national polls, of course, but in one of the major offensive statistical categories kept by the NCAA.
Three weeks into the 2013 season, the Beavers are tied with California for the nation's No. 1 passing offense with an average of 438.7 yards per game through the air.
Most of the recognition for the lofty ranking goes to quarterback Sean Mannion, who remained white hot in Saturday night's wild 51-48 overtime victory over Utah by completing 27-of-44 passes for 443 yards and five touchdowns, along with receiver Brandin Cooks, who had nine receptions for 210 yards and three touchdowns in Oregon State's conference opener.
However, the offensive line deserves praise as well for typically giving Mannion plenty of time to scan the field and fire the football to an open receiver (usually Cooks) by allowing only three sacks in three games.
"It's everybody doing their job," Mike Riley said Sunday night during his weekly teleconference. "Of course, Sean has to make good decisions and be accurate with the football. That's what he is doing well. And our receivers have made some great plays for him. When things are going well in the passing game, all the parts have to work together."
Mannion's completion percentage remains above 70 percent (73.1) with 1,237 passing yards and 12 touchdowns, an average of 412.3 passing yards and four TD throws per game. Because he has tossed just one interception, his passer efficiency rating is an impressive 181.9.
Mannion is second nationally behind Jared Goff of California in total passing yards, passing yards per game and total offense.
"He is playing well and confidently," Riley said. "That was definitely the toughest defense we've seen. He got hit a few times and still made some throws. He managed the game well and made good choices. The number one thing he's got going is he's really playing with confidence."
Cooks, who turned a short pass from Mannion into a 55-yard touchdown on the first snap following a Beavers interception late in the third quarter, is ranked inside the top five nationally in four individual categories: total receiving yards (498), receiving yards per game (166.0), receptions per game (9.7) and scoring (14 ppg).
"We have a good history here of top-notch receivers and Brandin fits right into any category that you want to name," Riley said. "He's stronger and, believe it or not, he's more explosive. You can't arm tackle him and he's also a good student of the game."
Oregon State faltered running the football on Saturday, amassing 48 yards on 28 rushes (1.7 yards per rush) compared to 260 yards (all but six yards in the second half) for Utah. Mannion, though, offset that anemic number with constant pinpoint passing and big plays by the receivers, starting with Cooks and Richard Mullaney (seven catches for 142 yards), who had consecutive receptions of 13 and 34 yards on OSU's final meaningful possession towards the go-ahead touchdown with 2:29 left.
"We had a few runs that were decent," Riley said. "I thought this might be a hard week to get the run game going because we only rushed for 50-something yards against Utah last year. They are historically physical and it's hard for us to run the ball against."
Riley craves a more productive running game, although the head injury to Woods harms that endeavor. In three games, the Beavers are averaging 70.0 rushing yards (210 total yards) on 28.3 rushing attempts per contest.
"Everything will go better if we can run the ball better," Riley said. "We're not going to stop trying to do that. We need to do that. It helps a lot of things. When you're running the ball, that's the best way to score when you're down (in the red zone). If you always have to throw it into the end zone, coverages are tighter and the windows are smaller. It gets tougher to score when you just throw. If you can run it in, it makes it a lot easier.
"Your red zone percentage of touchdowns will be higher if you can run the ball in a good percentage of the time."
For all the stratospheric offensive numbers put up by both teams (combined 1,030 yards), the most important statistic producing victory for the Beavers was perhaps turnover margin. Oregon State didn't commit a turnover on the road and coerced three interceptions from Utah quarterback Travis Wilson, one of them resulting in a 27-yard Pick-6 by Sean Martin.
The striking plus-three ratio in turnover margin played an integral role in the win.
"We had a staff meeting today and that's the first thing our offensive coordinator said in summing up the game," Riley said. "We had another no turnover game. We've had one in three games. That's real good. If we can get some more like we did defensively, those were obviously key plays. When you get into a game like that, every point is big."
Beyond Oregon State's prolific passing attack, the major storyline emerging from OSU's third overtime victory in school history is the health of running back Storm Woods, who suffered a scary head injury trying to protect Mannion from an onrushing Utah defender.
Riley described Woods - showered with an ovation from his teammates when he got on the team plane for the trip home - as doubtful for Saturday's road test at San Diego State with a concussion even though all tests were negative.
"He will go through the usual protocol," Riley exclaimed. "When he is symptom-free, then the countdown starts as to when he can play. I don't anticipate that being right away, obviously. I'm just thankful he wasn't injured more seriously."
Woods is not expected to practice this week as he works through the protocol. He was still experiencing concussion-like symptoms on Sunday, Riley said.
Terron Ward (45 yards on 18 carries), redshirt freshman Chris Brown and senior Jovan Stevenson (back after not making the trip to Utah) will likely assume the ball carrying responsibilities for Saturday's game in the city where Riley coached the NFL's San Diego Chargers for three seasons (1999-2001).
San Diego State enjoyed a bye week after dropping consecutive games to Eastern Illinois (40-19) and Ohio State (42-7) to start the season. The Aztecs, whose head coach is Rocky Long, formerly the Oregon State defensive coordinator (1991-95) and New Mexico head coach (1998-2008) among other stops, are currently tied for 112th nationally in total defense.
"Rocky Long is a great defensive coach," Riley said. "I've known Rocky for a long time. There is always a lot of stuff with Rocky's defense. We're going to have to be very sound to move the ball against him. We'll see all sorts of zone pressures and zone blitzes."
-- Riley said outside linebacker D.J. Alexander "looked pretty comfortable" in his first action of the season since suffering a sprained knee in preseason camp.
-- Riley said junior defensive tackle Siale Hautau suffered a tricep strain and is listed as doubtful for the San Diego State game.
-- Riley said Gavin Andrews will be tested on Monday "to see where he is" concerning his mono, and if everything checks out he could practice this week.
-- Riley on the importance of the win at Utah: "I was proud of our team and coaches because we never quit playing and they never thought there were going to lose. It's a chance to build some momentum and confidence and you don't want to fall in a hole early. It's great to win an opening conference game. Maybe this is an indicator of how our conference is going to go this year. It's going to be really, really competitive."
-- Riley on the defensive performance at Utah: "It was a step forward in learning how to play a much better team, for sure. They had lots more overall speed (than Hawaii) and the quarterback is at a different level."
-- Riley on the surprising fourth down completion to Cooks for 48 yards: "I knew they would be packed in there. It was a play we had been practicing since very early in camp. I had a strong feeling we would execute. Sean saw Brandin running wide open and I'm really glad he took the shot. That shows your players have confidence."
-- Riley said OSU's kickoff return unit "lacked execution." The Beavers averaged 18.1 yards per return. However, he was pleased with the way some young players performed on special teams.
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