To understand Oregon State's football team, you have to understand Mike Riley.
OSU's 13th-year coach is as about consistency as doctors are about health and welfare.
When the earth shifted as the Beavers fell 49-46 to FCS opponent Eastern Washington in a shocking season opener, Riley -- to use a favorite phrase of his -- didn't blink.
Riley, beleaguered defensive coordinator Mark Banker, the rest of the Oregon State coaching staff and their players didn't wobble. They simply got back to work, building back to respectability one game at a time.
Now the Beavers are 5-1 overall, 3-0 in Pac-12 play and working on a five-game win streak after burying Washington State 52-24 Saturday night at Pullman.
Riley pretty much works in a bubble. He doesn't let outside distractions faze him, though he sometimes worries they'll affect his players. He has such a strong belief in his inner values and ability to lead a football program, he's not going to let a loss or two shake the foundation. He carries this off without a trace of the arrogance that is so typical of a man in his position.
Riley's players believe in him both as a coach and as a person. That's important, because it helps carry a team through bad times. When you're Oregon State, there are going to be some bad times. How you handle adversity is going to be a major predictor of future success.
During the 3-9 season in 2011, there were plenty who jumped off the Riley bandwagon. Some of them have not climbed back on, even with Oregon State going 14-5 since then. Riley and Banker are the lightning rods for criticism every time the Beavers lose a game or two. Riley would rather you were with him, but if you're against him, that's your deal. He'll go about his business, whistling while he works.
Riley's even-keeled nature has helped carry his teams through turbulent waters. There is no panic in Riley, and this OSU team has shown that trait, too, playing its best ball when the chips are down.
The Beavers have won despite playing spotty defense early, despite losing several offensive linemen and despite being unable to run the ball effectively thus far this season.
Riley has done it by getting the most out of a potent passing game that features national leaders Sean Mannion at quarterback and Brandin Cooks at receiver. He has manufactured a pseudo-run game with screen passes to tailbacks Storm Woods and Terron Ward and by incorporating the fly sweep into the attack.
Against Washington State, Riley was like a scientist, experimenting through the first three quarters to see what would work against a gambling, pressuring WSU defense. By that time, he had it figured out, pressing plenty of the right buttons to help Mount Leach crumble under the avalanche of five fourth-quarter turnovers.
This is still a flawed Oregon State team, shallow in depth in some areas, devoid of much straight-ahead run game with the tailbacks. The Beavers are getting better, though, especially at the defensive end, with the secondary beginning to play as was expected coming into the season. The team is ranked 15th nationally in total offense at 506.5 yards per game despite having no rushing game to speak of.
Mannion has put together the best half-season of quarterbacking in modern Oregon State history -- I'm going to call that the 1970s, after Terry Baker won the Heisman Trophy in a different era. Cooks is the frontrunner for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's outstanding receiver, and he's a selfless leader who makes special effort to spread the attention to his teammates when speaking with media.
A victory at California Saturday would clinch a bowl berth for the eighth time in the 11 years since Riley began his second stint as Oregon State's head coach in 2003. Then it's on to the rough home stretch of schedule that includes home dates with Stanford, Southern Cal and Washington and road games against Arizona State and Oregon.
The Beavers will be hard-pressed to beat any of those final five opponents. Other than the Ducks at Autzen Stadium, though, the Men in Orange stand a decent chance of winning any and all of them.
There's a lot of football to be played, but they've put themselves in position to achieve an awful lot after a simply awful start in the season opener. That says as much about the guy in charge as anything.
Notes, stats and observations
At midseason, Mannion and Cooks are in line to shatter the Pac-12 single-season record book.
Mannion, who leads the nation in passing yardage per game (418.5) and touchdown passes (25), is on pace for a 5,000-yard regular season with 2,513 in six games. The conference record is 4,458 yards by Washington's Cody Pickett in 2002. The Pac-12 mark for TD passes is 39 by USC's Matt Barkley in 2011.
The Pac-12 single-season receiving records are receptions (118, USC's Marqise Lee, 2012), yardage (1,721, Lee, 2012) and TDs (18, Washington's Mario Bailey, 1991). Cooks leads the nation in each of those categories -- 63 catches for 944 yards and 11 TDs. The OSU junior is on pace for 126 catches, 1,888 yards and 22 TDs through the regular season.
Cooks' consistency has been remarkable. He has, in order, caught 13, 7, 9, 14, 9 and 11 passes. He has been over 100 yards five times and has accumulated 137 or more receiving yards in four games.
Someone explain to me, incidentally, how Mannion can complete 67.1 percent of his passes for 2,511 yards and 25 TDs with three interceptions and still rank only 11th nationally in passing efficiency. I know, other passers have a better percentage. But when a guy has thrown for that much yardage with that kind of touchdown/interception ratio and still be only No. 11, maybe the NCAA ought to tweak its formula.
I'll say this: Marcus Mariota is having a season for the ages. The Oregon sophomore has thrown for 1,724 yards (60.6 percent completion percentage) and 17 touchdowns with nary an interception to rank fifth in pass efficiency. Beyond that, he has rushed 41 times for 426 yards and eight scores for an eye-popping 10.4 yards per carry. It's no stretch to say that the Heisman is Mariota's to lose right now.
How does Riley deal with the stress of a season? Yoga. Mike and wife Dee have a daily regimen set up by their daughter, Kate.
"It takes about a half-hour, and we do it at least six and sometimes seven days a week," says Riley, 60, who ran until a couple of years ago when his surgically repaired knees would not allow it. "It's using your body weight for strength and stretching your muscles. Best thing I've ever done conditioning-wise, especially not being able to run."
NOTES: Tight end Connor Hamlett will get an MRI Monday to determine the extent of his knee injury. OSU coaches don't believe it will require surgery, but it could keep him out of the Cal game. Receiver Richard Mullaney has turf toe, but it's not expected to sideline him for the Bears. Besides leading the nation in pass offense, Oregon State is tied for eighth in turnover margin at plus-8 and 11th in scoring offense at 43.3 points per contest. Cooks is moving up the OSU career list, ranking sixth in both receptions (161) and receiving yardage (2,486). With 19 TD receptions, he is tied with Vern Burke and James Rodgers and one behind the school mark shared by James Newson and Mike Hass. Markus Wheaton holds the receptions record (227), while Hass has the receiving yardage mark (3,924). Washington State had three explosion plays (more than 20 yards), while Oregon State had 12 in the Beavers' 52-24 rout of the Cougars. After the game, WSU coach Mike Leach wouldn't reveal whether the Cougars were attempting a fake punt in the third quarter. The Beavers recovered a botched snap at the WSU 27, leading to a touchdown. Guess telling the media his motive would lead to a competitive disadvantage against the Cougars' future foes. Andrew Maughan, a 6-4, 205-pound walk-on redshirt freshman, handled both the short and long snaps in punt and place-kick situations vs. the Cougars. "He's a bigger guy (than Harrison Linsky), and (the Cougars) really hit the middle" in those situations, Riley says. OSU defenders had a lot of hits on WSU QB Connor Halliday but only one sack. "He gets the ball out of his hands so fast, it's almost impossible to get to him," Riley says. "He has a real good handle on what they're doing in their offense. It's pretty effective. They spread you out, he gets the ball out quickly, and most of the time finds the right guy." The Beavers, who haven't been ranked nationally since the opening week, received votes in both polls this week. "It would be nice to be ranked, but it's going to be more important later," Riley says. "We just have to do our job." Is Cal the last easy opponent on OSU's schedule? "You won't hear that from me," he says. "There's no such thing in our world. We know better. We already had one of those we lost." Riley is especially concerned with the Bears' passing game that ranks fifth nationally at 371.3 yards per game. Quarterback Jared Goff is ranked fourth individually, having thrown for 339.3 yards per contest. "They can move the ball," Riley says. "Their running backs are good. They have a lot of talent defensively, with a big front four, active linebackers and a pretty good, aggressive secondary."