by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon State's Terron Ward slips through a USC tackle in Friday's game at Reser Stadium.After Oregon State's 49-17 win at California on Oct. 19, the thought occurred that it was a good thing the Beavers had taken care of their bowl eligibility so early.

Still ahead was a schedule that read this way: Stanford, Southern Cal, at Arizona State, Washington and at Oregon.

No gimmes there. In fact, there was the distinct chance OSU would lose all five and go into the bowl game 6-6.

It's still a possibility for Oregon State (6-3 overall, 4-2 in Pac-12 play) after losses to the Cardinal and Trojans, with red-hot Arizona State (6-2, 4-1), the South Division leader, as the Beavers' next opponent on Nov. 16 at Tempe.

Oregon State will be the underdog against the Sun Devils and the Ducks. The odds for the Nov. 23 OSU-UW game will be determined by game results prior to then, but the Huskies could get the favorite's nod in that one.

What Oregon State did in its first seven games -- minus the opening 49-46 loss to Eastern Washington -- was play near the top of its capabilities. Sean Mannion was lights out, Brandin Cooks was the best receiver in the country, coach Mike Riley milked the pass offense for all it was worth and the OSU defense showed improvement from week to week.

Stanford -- one of the nation's top five teams -- won a competitive game in Corvallis. Mannion played a courageous, heady game under pressure, though his numbers weren't what they had been the first seven games.

In Oregon State's 31-14 loss to Southern Cal on Friday night, we saw the 2012 Mannion. Too many poor decisions by the junior quarterback proved costly. Suddenly, the Mannion who had expertly checked off to secondary receivers was trying to force passes through traffic. Twice, OSU moved effectively into the red zone, only to have interceptions end drives and take potential points off the board. On two other possessions, field-goal attempts went awry.

Oregon State's defense gave up two inexcusable bombs -- one to start the game, one to open the third quarter. Those two plays and 52-yard TD run by Javorius Allen meant 17 points, too much to overcome when the OSU offense was spotty.

Other than the interception OSU's Ryan Murphy took for a pick-six, Southern Cal played a clean game on both sides of the ball. The Trojans, who have won three of four since the Lane Kiffin firing (losing 14-10 at Notre Dame), showed a solid ground game, a balanced attack and a defense that lived up to its billing as one of the Pac-12's best. With road games against Cal and Colorado and home dates with Stanford and UCLA, USC will have plenty to say about which team represents the South in the conference championship game.

What happened to Oregon State the past two weeks was disappointing but not shocking. Especially against USC, the Beavers made too many mistakes. The effort was there. I don't think they were "flat," as some observers have charged. "Things happen," cornerback Rashaad Reynolds said. "We're human. We're not perfect. (Mistakes) happened today, and that was the result."

Expectations are high in Beaver Nation, as they should be. Nobody should be happy with defeat.

There has to be a measure of reason in all of that, though. The Beavers are facing the best teams in the conference through the latter half of the schedule, and they weren't going to go unscathed.

Oregon State isn't the only Pac-12 team that wants to succeed. Every conference game is a challenge.

"Every program wants to win," Riley said Sunday. "Everybody is working hard to win. That's life in college football. It's going to continue to be amped up in our conference as the years go by. There's the capability for lots of great teams in our league, and it will continue."

Riley and his coaching staff are doing all they can to get ahead in the arms race. There are some excellent freshman prospects redshirting this season, and 20 high school seniors have made verbal commitments. During the bye weekend, Riley and his staff will spread out throughout the West Coast to recruit and attempt to bring better talent to Corvallis.

In his 13 years at Oregon State, Riley has proved he knows what he is doing. His coaches and players won't lay down throughout the rest of the season. They might yet win a couple of more games. If they don't, it won't mean they are "settling" for mediocrity. There are a lot of good programs in the Pac-12, with the stakes just as high in L.A. and Eugene and Seattle and Tempe as in Corvallis.

• I asked Riley how much his players' confidence will be shaken by two straight losses heading into the Arizona State game.

"These kids will react to that correctly," he said. "They care a lot. They're hurting right now. They're disappointed. But we have good, solid, older-guy leadership on this team. Guys like Brandin and Sean and Rashaad and Scott Crichton. Some really good people there. We have a bye week to get back to football. They'll get ready to play again. I don't think we have to worry about that."

• The question was asked after the USC game -- and it's a fair one -- whether Riley should have run the ball more against the Trojans. Terron Ward, Storm Woods and Cooks combined to gain 113 yards on 13 carries, an 8.6-yard average. Including a fumble recovery and two sacks, the Beavers ran 16 times and threw 45 times.

So should they have used the ground game more?

"Maybe," Riley said. "We didn't get many plays (61). I've watched the (video) three times. I thought we had a pretty good mix. We had some success running the ball, mostly with the draw play. We probably could have gone with that a little more.

"We had a good plan to run the ball. Getting down 14-0 didn't help that, but we still hit some good runs at that point. It also didn't help that we couldn't get anything done on third down (2 for 11, including an 0-for-6 start)."

• What has happened to the stretch play Oregon State ran so effectively for years?

"We're trying to get it back," Riley said. "We've been working on it. It takes some real good blocking at the tight end position. Though we got to play Connor (Hamlett) some, we didn't play him a lot, so we played a lot without our two best blocking tight ends (Hamlett and Caleb Smith)."

• Junior kicker Trevor Romaine missed on both his field-goal attempts -- from 46 yards and 26 yards. Riley said the longer attempt was kicked low, as was a PAT try that was blocked by Stanford.

Romaine, who is 9 for 14 for the season, knocked all three of his kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.

"I don't know where the low balls are coming from," said Riley, who said all the snaps were on target. "He has plenty of talent and lots of leg. He has become a real pro in this deal as far as his approach. We just have to get him back into a rhythm."

• Arizona State, which faces Utah at Salt Lake City on Saturday, has scored more than 50 points in successive victories over Washington State (55-21), Washington (53-24) and Colorado (54-13). ASU also beat USC 62-41 on Sept. 28, the game that put the final nail in SC coach Lane Kiffin's coffin.

The Sun Devils rank second in the Pac-12 in scoring offense (46.6), total offense (515.1) and total defense (343.4). They are third in pass defense, yielding only 217.1 yards per contest.

ASU's offense is led by junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, fourth in the Pac-12 in passing (313.9 yards per game, with 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions), senior tailback Marion Grice, sixth in the conference in rushing (647 yards and 12 TDs) and sophomore receiver Jaelen Strong, sixth in the league in receptions (49) and fourth in receiving yardage (720).

• NOTES: OSU punter Keith Kostol had one of his best games of the season against SC, averaging 45.8 yards on five punts and putting three inside the 20-yard line. … For the ASU game, Riley hopes to regain the services of Smith (back) and defensive tackle John Braun (shoulder). Linebacker Joel Skotte (concussion) will go through the normal protocol. Linebacker D.J. Alexander (stinger) will be evaluated later in the week. … The Beavers will practice Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, then be off until the following Monday. Riley will be in Sacramento on a recruiting trip Friday. … How are the Beavers' non-conference opponents doing? Eastern Washington is 7-2 overall and leads the Big Sky with a 5-0 record. Hawaii is 0-8, having lost successive games by five, 10, two and seven points before a 47-10 drubbing by Utah State last Saturday. San Diego State is 4-4. After losing 34-30 to Oregon State, the Aztecs have won four of five, falling only to 15th-ranked Fresno State in overtime.

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