It took a year for Oregon State to grow up

Recall your college football self from a year ago.

Now envision the 2011 Oregon State Beavers. They had lost their season opener to Sacramento State, an FCS team. They had been stomped 35-zip by Wisconsin. They had controversially benched returning starting QB Ryan Katz in favor of redshirt freshman Sean Mannion.

And let's just say when they walked by you on the field, they didn't pass the sight test. Their defensive front was small. The offensive line looked a little soft. There was a crowd of running backs but no obvious leader. There were a lot of guys on the sideline limping around.

The 2011 Beavers weren't any good, and they looked the part, a 3-9 record providing ultimate judgment.

Come back to the present. See the 2012 Beavers. They beat No. 13 Wisconsin in their season opener. They beat No. 19 UCLA in Game 2.

They have a returning starter at quarterback. Their top two receivers, Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, might be the fastest tandem in the nation. At the very least, they are the nation's most productive. The offensive line is experienced. The defensive front seven mixes size and athleticism. The secondary is among the best in the Pac-12.

The 2011 Beavers ranked 101st in the nation in run defense. The 2012 Beavers rank second -- despite having played two good rushing teams.

And, finally, the 2012 Beavers head to Arizona on Saturday carrying a No. 18 national ranking. The 2011 Beavers had to settle for just being rank.

To paraphrase "Monty Python and the Holy Grail": In 2011, the Beavers turned into a newt. In 2012, they got better.

Why? The usual reasons. The Beavers are healthy. A young team grew up. They have pretty good players. And coaches.

That said, the starting point for improvement is obvious. Coach Mike Riley has repeatedly said the Beavers' woes in consecutive losing seasons were the inability to run the ball and to stop the run. The Beavers are doing the former fairly well and the latter very well.

It all starts on both lines, particularly the defensive front.

"That's probably the biggest difference," Riley said. "We're doing such a better job with run defense, and that puts us into a lot better third-down defensive categories. We're doing a great job on third down."

The defense is better because it plopped down 354-pound Castro Masaniai into the middle of the line. He started last season out of shape, then got hurt. Fellow defensive tackle Andrew Seumalo has become formidable inside, too. Defensive tackle was a notable weakness last year. No longer.

Playmaking sophomore ends Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn have filled out as second-year starters. A strong front four has freed things up for an athletic corps of linebackers. Jordan Poyer and Rashaad Reynolds are among the best cover tandems in the conference, which allows the safeties to provide plenty of help in run support.

As for the offense, Mannion is far more efficient. He has thrown just one interception after leading the Pac-12 with 18 in 2011. The offensive line features four veterans and true freshman center Isaac Seumalo, one of the highest-rated recruits to sign with the program. There's a nice collection of H-back, tight end sorts.

Although the running game has yet to fully arrive -- the Beavers are 11th in the conference with 2.8 yards per rush -- the offensive line has held its own against two above average defensive fronts.

Essentially, youth and inexperience in 2011 is seasoned in 2012.

"It's confidence as much as anything," Riley said. "A lot of guys played their first football last year. They got a taste of what it was like. And, of course, it was hard last year. We didn't do very well. But they took it in a positive way as far as, 'Well, I know what I need to do. Now I need to go to work.'"

The maturation certainly has made life easier for Riley and defensive coordinator Mark Banker. Although both have long been highly respected coaches, more than a few fans found them wanting during the Beavers' two-year slide. Both apparently sought out the lovely but fickle Coaching Fairy of the Northwest this past offseason and had their X's and O's powers restored after completing The Seven Labors of Bear Bryant.

Or something like that.

Of course, Riley isn't the chest-thumping type. When asked whether he saw this improvement coming, he said. "I'd like to say I did, but it was truly a mystery to me."

The question going forward is whether the Beavers can sustain this fast start.

So imagine your college football self two months from now. Is Oregon heading to Oregon State with the North Division at stake?