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September 17, 2013

Five Things: Utah

It took one possession of free football before Oregon State pulled out a wild 51-48 overtime victory over Utah on Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, improving the Beavers' to 2-1 at the quarter pole mark. Here are five things we learned from OSU's win over the Utes:

1. Turnover Margin Is Still King Of Statistics: Oregon State and Utah combined for 1,030 yards in total offense and 12 touchdowns. There were big plays, long runs and supreme feats of athleticism. Make no mistake about it, the back-and-forth affair was as entertaining as any college football game anywhere. Nonetheless, the Beavers won this game primarily because of one number: they were plus-3 (0-3) in turnover margin.

Anytime you go on the road and don't commit a single turnover, you put yourself in splendid position to win. Think about this: all three turnovers occurred in the second half when Utah amassed 35 points and didn't punt once.

In nine second half and overtime possessions, the Utes scored five touchdowns, threw three interceptions and kicked a field goal in OT.

Without the interceptions (one of which was a Pick-6 by Sean Martin), Utah would have likely won the game in regulation based on the way they moved the football against the Beavers defense over the final 30 minutes of regulation.

Hey, turnover margin is the most important statistic in football for a reason. Long live the King.

2. Steven Nelson and Sean Martin Are Capable Of Making Big Plays: Nelson and Martin engaged in a heated battle to replace Jordan Poyer at cornerback during preseason camp. Most of the time, one has lined up at corner and the other as the nickel back. Sure, Oregon State has struggled stopping the pass this season, which is reflected in their lowly national rankings - 113th in passing yards allowed (299.0 yards per game) and 103rd in pass efficiency defense (155.0 rating). Obviously, Nelson and Martin must accept their share of the blame for those numbers.

Utah quarterback Travis Wilson was 19-of-33 for 279 yards and two touchdowns in addition to his three interceptions. OSU allowed some yardage through the air, but Nelson (2 interceptions) and Martin (the Pick-6) came up with big plays when they had to.

Those are signs of progress. If anything, the interceptions should boost their confidence moving forward.

They stepped into big shoes, and are expected to play well so the Beavers won't experience a big decline in performance from last season when Poyer was manning the cornerback spot. Riley likes their competitive spirit and focus on fundamentals.

3. Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks Will Leave Corvallis As The Most Prolific Passing Combination In School History: The good news is Mannion and Cooks are both juniors, so they could return to the Beavers in 2014. The bad news is the invisible gravitational pull of the NFL is so powerful many third year players are enticed annually to leave school early. So, this season could be the last time we see Mannion throwing touchdown passes to Cooks, or maybe not. We'll find out in January.

Last Saturday, Mannion connected with Cooks on three of his five TD throws, including a 55-yarder when Cooks turned a short pass into a scoring gallop by racing through the Utah defense with his blazing speed.

The duo has now combined for seven touchdown passes in 2013 and 14 during their OSU careers, tying Derek Anderson and Mike Hass for third most in school history. The Beaver duos with the most passing touchdowns? Anderson-James Newson (15) and Erik Wilhelm-Robb Thomas (17).

Can Mannion and Cooks hook up for at least four touchdown passes in the final nine games of the regular season and become the top passing combination in OSU history? Yeah. In fact, the way this season is going, you might need binoculars to locate No. 2 when all is said and done.

4. When The Beavers Reach The Red Zone, Put The Points On The Board: Why is Oregon State averaging 43.3 points per game? One of the nation's most prolific passing attacks certainly helps (tied for No. 1 in passing offense with California) and possessing playmakers on the field is a must (Cooks, Storm Woods, Connor Hamlett, Richard Mullaney). But here's another reason - the Beavers are perfect in the red zone this season.

Through three games, they are 18-of-18 in the red zone with 14 touchdowns (77.8 percent) and four field goals (22.2 percent), one of 22 schools nationally with an unblemished red zone resume.

However, looking at the figures belonging to the other 21 teams, no one has made more trips into the red zone than the Beavers. In fact, 18 of the 21 schools tied with the Beavers at 1.000 percent have made 12 or fewer red zone visits.

When you look at the top 50 schools in red zone offense, only one (Marshall) has equaled Oregon State in total number of red zone trips. Essentially, based on volume, you could make the argument (and pass the snicker test) that the Beavers are the most productive red zone offense in the country.

5. Mike Riley's College Coach Is Turning Over In His Grave: Riley played four seasons at Alabama from 1971-74, so his college coach was, you guessed it, the legendary Bear Bryant.

Back in those days, wild shootouts like we've seen in two of the first three Beaver games (49-46 loss to Eastern Washington; 51-48 OT win at Utah) were extremely rare. However, Alabama wasn't afraid to put points on the board. In Riley's four years, the Tide scored 40 or more points 15 times. However, the most points scored by the opposition in any of those games was 21. So, it was usually a beat down by Alabama, not a track meet in which two teams simply tried to outscore each other.

Old-school coaches like Bryant focused on running the football, mixing in the pass and playing solid, fundamental defense and special teams. In short, they would be horrified by what they saw today with the proliferation of spread offenses, poor tackling and points galore.

College football is now a game built entirely on speed, whereas 40 years ago when Riley played in Tuscaloosa, power and strength in the trenches mattered for something. However, as Riley noted, skill position players are better today, most dual threat quarterbacks at the BCS level are superb athletes possessing rocket arms and quick feet (see Utah's 6-foot-7 Travis Wilson), which, in turn, makes it extremely stressful on defenses. Elite athletes are playing quarterback today, and that wasn't always the case 20 or 30 years ago when drop-back quarterbacks were the rule and not the exception.


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