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October 23, 2013

Five Things: Week 7

Oregon State went to Berkeley, Calif. last Saturday, jumped out to a quick 14-3 lead after the first quarter and cruised to a 49-17 victory over hapless California, keeping the Beavers undefeated in Pac-12 play (4-0) and tied with rival Oregon atop the division standings. Here are five things we learned:

1. The Beavers are ready for 'Big Boy' football: Over the past three games, Oregon State has opposed inferior conference opponents and done exactly what they should have - bring the hammer done. They outscored Colorado, Washington State and California by a 145-58 margin, winning all three games by at least 27 points. However, two of those programs (Colorado and Cal) have first-year head coaches, while Mike Leach is now in his second season guiding the Cougars. The Beavers discovered why each of those programs has recently made a coaching change - they're not very good, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Now the Beavers are ready to sit at the adult table at Thanksgiving. Their final five opponents are a combined 26-9 overall, 13-7 in the Pac-12. Why are they better? Easy. They play better defense (all five are allowing fewer than 379 yards per game), they focus on stopping the run (four of the five are allowing fewer than 145 yards per game on the ground), they stop opponents on third down (four of five have defensive third-down conversion percentages of 36 percent or lower) and, most importantly, they rarely turn the ball over (four of five have positive turnover margins). It will be hard, of course, but all five games should be close, hard-fought affairs.

2. Sean Mannion and Brandon Cooks have been remarkably consistent: Steadily, the national media is starting to sit up and take notice of the numbers Mannion and Cooks are putting on the board in Corvallis. Through seven games, Mannion has thrown for 2,992 yards (meaning he should go over the 3,000-yard plateau for the season on his first completion against Stanford on Saturday night) while completing 68.6 percent of his passes (229-of-334) for 29 touchdowns and three interceptions. You won't many quarterbacks in the country with a better TD pass-to-Interception ratio than Mannion. Cooks, meanwhile, has 76 receptions for 1,176 yards and 12 touchdowns.

What's amazing is neither Mannion nor Cooks have piled up slick numbers in a couple of games and played mediocre in the rest. Mannion has thrown for at least 367 yards and three touchdowns in every game this season, while Cooks has caught seven passes or more in every game. He has 13 or more receptions in three of seven games, including Saturday night's win at Cal when he had 13 catches for 232 yards and one touchdown. Mannion has eclipsed the 400-yard passing mark on five occasions. Cooks has surpassed 100 receiving yards in five games. So, Mannion and Cooks have put up big numbers week-after-week. For elite athletes, the best thing they can say about you is you're consistently good.

3. Turnovers on the road are like gold: The formula for winning on the road is simple and straightforward - win the turnover battle. Sure, you must do other things like block and tackle, but the foundation is forcing more turnovers than your opponent. In four road games this season, the Beavers' defense has created 15 turnovers, an average of 3.8 per game, including 10 in the last two contests at Washington State and California, for a turnover margin of plus-9. One key reason OSU has won six straight games is turnover margin.

The Beavers are second in the Pac-12 at plus-10 with 19 takeaways (league high 14 interceptions) and nine giveaways, which matches the third fewest in the conference. The last two victories, though, came against the worst teams in the Pac-12 in terms of turnovers. Washington State (minus-6) and California (minus-11) have combined for an astounding 47 turnovers in 15 games. Stanford, however, does a much better job protecting the football with nine turnovers in seven games. The Cardinal's turnover margin is plus-one, but they make far fewer mistakes than either the Cougars or Golden Bears.

4. The offensive line is solidifying into a stone wall: After dealing with a mishmash of injuries in the first half of the season, the Beavers offensive line is starting to get healthy. Mannion and backup quarterback Cody Vaz have combined for 344 passes this season, completing 235 for a remarkable success rate of 68.3 percent. What's more impressive, though, is they have been sacked just nine times, once every 38.2 pass attempts. At the current rate, OSU would allow just 15 sacks for the regular season. Last year, the Beavers allowed a sack on every 15 pass attempts and 33 overall for the year, so the improvement has been significant. In the road wins at California and Washington State, the Beavers attempted a combined 99 passes, but allowed just three sacks. The offensive line, however, will be tested by a Stanford defense that has 19 sacks, fourth most in the Pac-12 and just four fewer than Washington State (14) and Cal (9) combined. Stanford's sack differential is plus-12 as the Cardinal has allowed the fewest sacks in the conference (7).

5. The Beavers like to play keep away: In a college football world burgeoning with spread offenses, time of possession has become less and less important. For example, Oregon is last in the conference in average time of possession (26:30), yet is averaging 57.6 points per game. The Beavers, though, lead the Pac-12 in average TOP at 33:26. Last Saturday, they held the ball nearly seven minutes longer than Cal (33:28 to 26:32), yet the fast-paced Bears ran three more plays than OSU. Why? The Beavers typically huddle after every play, a dying art in a college football planet flying through space at 1,000 m.p.h., proving yet again there are different ways of accomplishing the same objective - winning.

Besides huddling, there are other factors involved as well: the Beavers are converting 44.8 percent of third down opportunities (43-of-96), while allowing opponents to convert just 33 percent of the time (31-of-94). The gap (almost 12 percent) is significant, and leads to longer possessions for the Beavers and shorter possessions for the opponent. In the last two games, Washington State and Cal were a combined 41.9 percent (13-of-31) on third down compared to an efficient 52.2 percent (12-of-23) for the Beavers. That's one reason OSU actually ran one more play (155 offensive snaps) than the Cougars and Bears combined (154), along with forcing 10 turnovers, of course.


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