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September 24, 2013

Five Things: San Diego State

Oregon State roared back from a 13-point deficit early in the fourth quarter to post an emotional 34-30 road victory over San Diego State on Saturday. Here are five things we learned from OSU's win over the Aztecs:

1. When you win on the road, don't ask how: Did Oregon State play its best football game of this or any year? No (Laugh track costs extra). Did the Beavers look feeble trying to run the football? Absolutely. Are 13 penalties too many? Of course. But did OSU battle to the very end of the game and pull out a stirring win? You betcha. When you win on the road, you celebrate on the field and in the locker room and then you get on the plane and fly home before someone decides to change the result. Ultimately, the Beavers achieved the bottom line goal, although the process getting there was often excruciating and unbearable for faithful OSU fans as the game unfolded. Then again, so is the process for making sausage.

Using a baseball analogy, OSU trailed 3-0 in the bottom of the ninth until a couple of errors and a walk loaded the bases, setting the stage for a dramatic and gripping walk-off grand slam (Steven Nelson's Pick-6 on a poorly thrown pass by the San Diego State quarterback) that handed them the stunning victory. So, while some Beaver fans might tell you the victory fell short of being 'satisfying,' coaches, players and, just as important, pollsters and bowl officials, don't care. The video will provide Mike Riley, who is paid a lot of money to win football games, with plenty of teaching moments for his team, but you'd much rather be in that position coming off a win. All in all, when you win on road, it's preferable to follow the advice of that upbeat 1980's hit song: Don't worry, be happy.

2. Running the football successfully isn't always a prerequisite to winning: Oregon State is turning the adage you need to have some semblance of a running game in order to win on its head. Without Storm Woods, the Beavers finished with a grand total of 10 yards rushing, although Terron Ward rushed for one touchdown and caught another in the fourth quarter, his first career receiving TD. Right now, the Beavers are 121st nationally in rushing offense with an average of 55.0 yards per game. Just two of the 14 teams ranked 110th or below in rushing offense have three wins - Oregon State and Washington State. The two teams below the Beavers in the ranking are winless (Connecticut is 0-3; FIU is 0-4), while the team (Miami of Ohio) just ahead of OSU is 0-3 as well.

How did OSU overcome the lack of a rushing attack against San Diego State? The right arm of Sean Mannion (367 passing yards), perfection in the red zone and strong second half defense, including two interceptions in the fourth quarter. First, the Aztecs weren't able to run the ball either, finishing with 74 yards on 40 carries. So, even though the Beavers' per carry average of 0.5 yards was shockingly poor, San Diego State wasn't much better at 1.9 yards per attempt. In addition, Oregon State scored touchdowns on all four trips inside the red zone, while the Aztecs were held to a pair of field goals and a touchdown. That's an eight-point difference.

3. Win the fourth quarter, win the game: When the fourth quarter started, San Diego State held a 283-240 advantage in total yardage. However, the Beavers outgained the Aztecs, 137-42, in the final 15 minutes as the OSU defense forced a punt, held the Aztecs to a field goal after a potentially costly fumble and intercepted two passes, one resulting directly in a touchdown. San Diego State enjoyed the upper hand for the first 45 minutes, but most football games at the major college level are won and lost in crunch time - the fourth quarter - and this game offered just the latest reminder of that reality.

Three key moments defined the fourth quarter:

1) When SDSU recovered the fumble by Brandin Cooks at the OSU 17, the Aztecs were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, pushing the ball back to the 32. The Beavers defense held firm when SDSU penetrated the red zone and the ensuing field goal made it 30-21.

2) OSU converted a critical third-and-3 from its 39 when Mannion hit Cooks for a 9-yard pass. Moments later, Mannion fired a 23-yard pass to Richard Mullaney. The Beaver's hurry-up offense executed well as Mannion was 7-of-10 passing on the 81-yard drive, which took just 2:38.

3) On second-and-19 from the SDSU 16, the left side of the OSU defensive line, particularly defensive end Dylan Wynn, executed their assignments flawlessly, forcing quarterback Quinn Kaehler to hurriedly look right. He floated a pass over the head of his receiver and the ball was picked off by Nelson, who strolled into the end zone for the winning points.

4. Plenty of room exists for improvement: Yes, the Beavers won the game, but OSU's puzzling performance (Riley described it as "sloppy") in the first three quarters should have provided Riley with plenty of teaching moments when practice resumed on Monday. His frustrations about the lack of a running game and the excessive number of penalties (13) were clearly evident following the game. Riley understands that when the Beavers face Stanford, Southern Cal, Washington and Oregon in October and November, they must be able to run the ball and avoid costly penalties in order to have any realistic chance of winning those games. Ten rushing yards and 13 penalties won't get it done against any of those opponents. Being one-dimensional on offense is the worst-case scenario facing heavyweight teams, and Riley knows it.

The good news is the Beavers recognize they committed a ton of mistakes in digging a 27-14 hole after three quarters and that the victory could accurately be described as "ugly." Cooks talked about "heading back to the lab" to make corrections. But you'd much rather be talking about fixing mistakes following a win than a loss. If anything, the first one-third of the season has taught the Beavers a valuable lesson on how to persevere in pressure-packed situations in the fourth quarter. It worked against San Diego State and Utah, but not against Eastern Washington. Will Oregon State carry the "Cardiac Kids" identity forward into the second half of the schedule when the schedule gets significantly tougher?

5. Brandin Cooks is the best wide receiver in the country: Why is quarterback Sean Mannion leading the country in total passing yardage? A major reason is he gets to throw the football to Cooks, who leads the nation in receptions per game (10.8) and total receiving yards (639) and ranks second in receiving yards per game (159.8) after collecting a career high (and school record tying) 14 receptions for 141 yards in the win at San Diego State. Right now, there is no passing combination anywhere more prolific than Mannion to Cooks. If life was actually fair, Cooks would emerge as a serious Heisman Trophy contender, but wide receivers rarely capture the award, so they're routinely passed over by voters. Most years, the trophy has been given to a quarterback or running back. In fact, the last non-quarterback or running to win the Heisman Trophy was Charles Woodson in 1997. The last wide receiver? Desmond Howard in 1991.

So, barring a major shift by voters, Cooks will likely have to settle for being one of just two Beaver receivers with multiple games of 12 or more receptions in his career. Mike Hass is the other. Cooks had 13 catches in the season-opening loss to Eastern Washington (a defeat that still haunts OSU from a national perspective) and bettered that by one in the win over San Diego State. Cooks now has 141 receptions and 2,181 receiving yards in his career, putting him ninth and seventh, respectively, on Oregon State's all-time lists.


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