Question 1: The Beavers are maybe the surprise team in the country. But did people close to the program see this coming at all?
A: Nope. Mike Riley admits that this team was a mystery even to him, but he has said since the spring that he likes the feeling and attitude of this group. No one knew what to expect when they finally played their first game, and I think the element of surprise throughout the season — no one saw 6-0 coming, and don’t let anyone tell you differently — is part of why they’re winning. They’re just having fun, and they don’t feel pressure because no one expected this from them. After games everyone is walking around with smiles on their faces that communicate, “Man, can you believe this is happening?”
Q2: What are the one or two biggest reasons for the turnaround from a year ago?
A: I think it’s a combination of two things: First, a lot of young guys who took their lumps last year (quarterback Sean Mannion, pictured above in an Associated Press photo, WR Brandin Cooks and defensive ends Dylan Wynn and Scott Crichton) have grown up and the game has slowed down for them. That experience they gained last season taught them a lot, and it’s paying off. The other factor is that this team is really tight-knit. There’s a certain camaraderie this season that’s been missing the last couple years, and that can go a long way in college athletics.
Q3: Sean Mannion has appeared to have taken a huge step forward this season. In what ways is he better, and is he also being helped by a better offense around him?
A: Like I said above, the game has slowed down for Sean, which has been hugely helpful; he’s not in such a rush this season. He’s learned the value of what he calls “being accurate even with the misses,” which has cut down on interceptions. His offensive line has improved big-time, which gives him more time in the pocket to find his best option. And, let’s be honest — life is pretty good when you’re throwing to Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton.
Q4: OSU’s defense has been really stellar so far, as well. What have been the 2-3 biggest keys to that?
A: First off, there’s a lot of talent on the defense, so Riley and defensive coordinator Mark Banker have a lot to work with: Defensive ends Crichton and Wynn, linebacker D.J. Alexander (formerly D.J. Welch), cornerback Jordan Poyer, etc. The Beavers made a big hire in the offseason with secondary coach Rod Perry, who brings 20-plus years of NFL experience and expertise and can break down the game in ways players would never see otherwise. They’ve utilized the dime defense this year — putting six defensive backs on the field — which allows OSU to attack the quarterback in a multitude of ways. It also gives opposing offenses one more thing to prepare for.
Q5: It sounds like the Beavers are really thinking big now. Do they have what it takes to keep this up?
A: I’m not sure I’m on board with this “undefeated till the Civil War” talk that’s starting to swirl in the state of Oregon, but anything is possible, right? The Beavers are far from perfect, and if they don’t improve in some areas it’s going to catch up with them eventually (hello, penalties) but the fact that they continue to find ways to win says something about their grit and character.