Mike Riley has made a habit of defying expectations in his time as head coach at Oregon State.
The Beavers’ Week 1 loss to Football Championship Subdivision opponent Eastern Washington was oddly apropos—it dropped Oregon State from the AP Top 25 and put Riley’s team in more familiar territory as the overlooked underdog.
Pac-12 media picked the Beavers to finish No. 3 in the conference’s North division prior to the season, but nearing the season’s midway point, the team is 2-0 in the league and a dark-horse contender.
Oregon State returns from its bye week on Saturday at Washington State, riding a four-game win streak since that confounding season-opening loss.
The Beavers and Cougars promise to air it out on the Palouse—they rank No. 2 and No. 8 in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards, respectively. Unlike Washington State head coach Mike Leach, though, that’s not entirely by design for Riley.
“We certainly want to [rush],” Riley laughed during Tuesday’s Pac-12 coaches teleconference “We’d like to balance out a little bit, but as I’ve said, we’ll do whatever we have to do to try to win a game.”
Quarterback Sean Mannion is shouldering the offensive load while the ground game irons out kinks, and he’s excelled. His 21 passing touchdowns and 403.6 passing yards per game lead the nation.
After he was embroiled in a competition with Cody Vaz that started in 2012 and spanned almost the entire offseason, Mannion’s success is one of the biggest surprises of the early college football season.
Mannion and Vaz shared the position down the stretch a season ago, and the instability was Oregon State’s most glaring issue.
Nevertheless, a Beavers team picked to finish dead-last in the Pac-12 North was seven points—three at Washington and four at Stanford—from entering the Civil War against Oregon undefeated and playing for the program’s first Rose Bowl berth since 1965.
The Beavers get both the Cardinal and Huskies at home this season, yet they aren’t really breaking into the Pac-12 championship conversation.
This isn’t a team without flaws. The inability to establish a consistent running game—even before running back Storm Woods suffered a concussion—has been a consistent cause for concern.
The team's 49-46 loss to Eastern Washington also set a tone for the Beavers defense, which ranks No. 92 nationally in points allowed at 31.6 per game.
Still, it’s made strides. Oregon State held Colorado to just a field goal through three quarters in Week 5, and the Buffaloes reached the end zone only after Riley let off the throttle.
Where will Oregon State finish in the Pac-12 North?
The Beavers’ schedule breaks down in such a way that Riley and his staff can fine-tune many of the team's issues before a tough, final stretch.
Their first four conference opponents were a combined 6-30 in the league last year. Oregon State already dispatched two of them this season, including its survival of a road test against an improved Utah squad in Week 3.
Saturday’s Washington State game mirrors the Beavers' overtime clash with Utah in several ways.
The Cougars are much improved, and they have already eclipsed their 2012 win total. Washington State is playing great on the defensive end, too, holding opponents to 20.8 points per game.
Should Oregon State escape Pullman, Wash., with a win, sputtering Cal is the last opponent for the Beavers before a home showdown with Stanford.
If the Beavers are 6-1 and undefeated in the Pac-12 by that point, it will be impossible to overlook them in the North any longer.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter: @kensing45.