Each season is like a puzzle for Oregon State football coach Mike Riley.
He and his staff try to prepare players and make plans. They hope to put the pieces together for a team that does well.
Once the games start, they find out how they are doing. Riley searches for an identity of the group along the way and tries to make the most of what comes out.
This year’s team was a mystery because there were so many concerns after two losing seasons with inexperienced players.
Now halfway through the season, there’s a solid picture of the group. The young players have grown up and are undefeated with grand expectations in the second half.
“This is a tough-minded group,” Riley said. “Their will to win games and finish is great. It’s a result of the commitment to the year. I don’t want to be overdramatic about it. It’s just an excellent group to work with. They are eager and play hard.”
The Beavers have surpassed anyone’s realistic expectations at this point. The Pac-12 media picked them to finish last in the North Division and 11th overall.
OSU is tied atop the North with Oregon, bowl eligible, ranked seventh in the country and No. 7 in the Bowl Championship Series standings.
Now it’s about finishing strong and seeing if a division title is possible, breaking Oregon’s four-year winning streak in the Civil War and reaching a major bowl game.
“I’m going to point out how hard the games have been,” Riley said of keeping them focused. “The difference this year is we’ve been physically ready to play. You can’t forget that. This team has practiced well. As coaches, we are always paranoid about the letdown, but I don’t see anything to worry about.”
The theme this year has been difficult games. The Beavers have won three by seven points or less and all were secured in the fourth quarter.
Defensive end Dylan Wynn described them as brawls the whole time. Sometimes the defense carried the day, others it was the offense.
Players say they are looking for the complete game and there’s more improvement ahead.
“This team has found a way to pick each other up and it would be nice to put it all together, and soon,” Riley said. “It would be more comfortable (to have blowout wins), but for us that’s not the way this year and conference will let it be. There’s a fine line between winning and losing.”
The offensive line has significantly improved and that has made the offense execute more smoothly than last season.
Two numbers stand out.
OSU averages 108.3 rushing yards a game compared to 86.9 a year ago. The Beavers have allowed 11 sacks this year — on pace for 22 — versus 27 last year.
“Our offensive line has gotten better, and we have a ways to go,” Riley said. “We are not a great running team but we are pretty good and better at it.”
The line is still working on coming off the ball harder and finishing blocks. That could enhance the running game.
The emergence of first-year starting running back Storm Woods has helped. He redshirted last year so he could learn and develop. Now Woods and Malcolm Agnew are two capable ball carriers the team can use.
Quarterback Sean Mannion has improved from his freshman season when he threw 18 interceptions. He’s down to four in four games this season.
Mannion continues to make accurate, smart throws with a 63.3 completion percentage. Backup Cody Vaz even stepped in to win two games while Mannion recovered from minor knee surgery.
“From every game there is a lot of room for improvement,” Mannion said. “We’ve had some really good offensive games and areas to work on. We just take what we can from every game.”
The quarterback play-making has been aided by receivers Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks.
Wheaton improved his offseason training and should finish his career as one of OSU’s best, and Cooks has matured now that he’s a sophomore.
However, there are times the offense stalls even though the Beavers lead the Pac-12 and are seventh in the nation in time of possession at 33 minutes, 24 seconds a game.
“We’ve done a lot of good stuff,” Mannion said. “The main thing is to be more consistent. We want to move the chains on third down and sustain drives. We want to build off every game and not take any steps back.”
The defense is also executing at a high level because of maturity. The Beavers follow their plan of stopping the run, forcing teams to throw and then getting turnovers.
That formula has led to the fifth-best rush defense in the country, allowing 80.8 yards a game. Teams have been able to throw the ball, but that’s going into OSU’s strength in the secondary.
Adding the nickel and dime defenses has put more speed on the field and has helped lead to 12 interceptions, tied for ninth-most in the country. The Beavers also lead the Pac-12 in turnover ratio at plus-10.
“The one thing that stands out is the turnover ratio,” Riley said. “We’ve taken care of the ball and we’ve gotten the turnovers.”
The special teams have been solid, which is where Riley wants them to start when breaking in a new punter, holder and snapper.
Keith Kostol has exceled as a punter, but Trevor Romaine missed two field goals early so Riley has chosen to go for it on fourth down and punt more often.
The coverage teams have done well, but the return game is a work in progress.
“Since we haven’t been effective on kickoff returns, we work a lot on that in practice,” Riley said.
As the Beavers begin the second half of the season Saturday against Washington, there aren’t any major areas of concern. And the team is healthy.
Coaches find minor details to be corrected and players make adjustments. That has led to a confidence that they will play a complete game at some point.
“We are playing good enough to win games but there’s room for improvement,” cornerback Jordan Poyer said. “We just have to be focused the whole 60 minutes of the game. Physically, we are in good shape. Mentally, we have to tune-in every down.”