CORVALLIS — If this report card were the precursor to a parent-teacher conference with the Oregon State football team, moms and dads would be proud to see one phrase pop up repeatedly: "Exceeds expectations."
Written off after going a combined 8-16 the last two seasons, the No. 13 Beavers shot out to a 6-0 start, a shocker for nearly everyone in the college football world. They haven't been dominant, but they've found a way to win every time this season, save for last week's game against Washington.
Despite the hiccup in Seattle, head coach Mike Riley has been pleased with his team, praising them for being a "tough-minded group with a great will to win and will to finish."
"They do compete like crazy, and that character was built in the offseason," Riley said. "They think they're going to win every time they step on the field, and I love that about them."
The Beavers are already bowl eligible, but still have five games to go, four of them at home. With their rivals to the south looking more and more like a national title contender, the Rose Bowl is a legitimate possibility for the Beavers. This is provided they take care of business the rest of the season, of course.
Excelling: The receiving game. Sophomore Brandin Cooks and senior Markus Wheaton have proved to be a lethal combo, and are arguably the best receiving duo in the Pac-12, if not the nation. They average 112 yards and 97 yards, respectively, and it could be more if Wheaton hadn't missed most of the Washington game with a concussion. Both shine at racking up yards after the catch, a testament to their speed.
Needs work: The running game. For years a staple of the Beavers' offense, the running game has been unreliable the last few years. Riley's thoughts on Oregon State's ground game has been the same all season: "We're better than we were a year ago, but we're still not great." The Beavers average 109 yards on the ground, 11th in the Pac-12. Redshirt freshman Storm Woods has improved each week, but nagging injuries make his durability questionwable. The offensive line has steadily improved, and is dramatically better than last year, but can still be better.
The quarterback situation, which was thrown into a frenzy this week when Riley announced junio Cody Vaz as the starter over sophomore Sean Mannion, could also use work.
MVP: Wheaton. His value couldn't have been more obvious last week vs. Washington, when his absence after a vicious hit noticeably hurt Oregon State's offensive productivity.
Excelling: The rush defense. Also a staple of Oregon State's program, the run defense all but disappeared the last two seasons, but has made an emphatic return this year. The Beavers are second in the Pac-12, allowing just 83 rushing yards per game (Stanford allows only 65) and have bottled up a few Heisman contenders along the way.
Needs work: The secondary. The Beavers feature one of the top cornerbacks in the country in senior Jordan Poyer, but have been burned a few times for big numbers, most notably against Arizona, when the Wildcats threw for 403 yards. OSU ranks eighth in the Pac-12 in passing defense, allowing 260 yards per game. There is obvious room for improvement, though Poyer has come up with more than a few game-changing interceptions already.
MVP: It's a tie between Poyer, the Beavers' biggest playmaker on defense, and linebacker Michael Doctor, perhaps Oregon State's most consistent player. A junior, Doctor leads the team with 46 tackles, has grabbed one interception and recorded five tackles for loss.
Excelling: Punting. Sophomore Keith Kostol has proved his value, becoming the difference in a few games, most notably against UCLA.
Needs work: The return game is practically non-existent at times, and Riley has said that must change in the second half of the season. The Beavers, to put it simply, must be a threat occasionally. It would also be helpful for Riley to know if he could count on kicker Trevor Romaine to hit some big field goals. Romaine is 7-for-9 this season but mostly from short distance and hasn't been pressured much, which could make things interesting the last couple weeks.
MVP: Kostol. His consistency has been key, and he has become one of Oregon State's most dependable players at any position.
Excelling: Riley took over play-calling duties this season, and it's working. Fans have grumbled that the Beavers have been predictable the last couple years, but with Riley calling the shots, it's different; the double-reverse a few weeks ago at BYU caught everyone by surprise, and provided a score when OSU desperately needed it.
Needs work: The flip-flopping on quarterbacks is concerning. It's great that the Beavers have two capable quarterbacks, but going forward, Oregon State needs to know who its leader in the huddle is.
Most important game(s): If the Beavers learned anything last week, it's that every game will be a battle for this team. Right now, the most important game is against Arizona State on Saturday, although games at No. 15 Stanford and home against No. 2 Oregon will be key in deciding OSU's bowl fate.
Where is this team headed? The Beavers should finish in the top half of the Pac-12 North, and could be second if they beat Stanford in two weeks on the road.
Bowl game projection: If Oregon State loses the Civil War, finishes second in the Pac-12 North behind the Ducks and Oregon goes onto the national championship game, there's a great chance the Beavers wind up in the Rose Bowl. The Alamo Bowl and Holiday Bowl are also good possibilities.