SAN DIEGO -- As Mike Riley addressed his troops in the locker room following Oregon State's rabbit-out-of-the-hat 34-30 victory over San Diego State Saturday, he sought perspective.
"Lots of lessons tonight, fellas," the OSU coach began.
Riley stressed the importance of a never-say-die attitude that has carried the Beavers (3-1) to down-to-the-wire wins the past two weeks.
And then there is the matter of all the mistakes they had to overcome to win -- 13 penalties and three turnovers, for starters. Eliminate some of those and it becomes a much easier game, the coach told his players.
"There were plenty of big plays, both negative and positive," Riley told the media later after Oregon State rallied from a 27-14 halftime deficit and trailed 30-21 before scoring a pair of touchdowns in the final 2:40. "So much stuff to clean up after tonight. So many mistakes, a million penalties.
"But we made the plays to win. I love it. We've played three games that have gone right down to the very end and have won two of them. If a team can learn to play in those games and make plays in the clutch maybe it becomes part of your identity.
"We weren't as good as we could have been, but we kept fighting and found a way to win."
Oregon State's players are convinced a never-quit philosophy is very much a part of their identity.
"This team never quits," said Brandin Cooks, the poster child of the Beavers' good, the bad and the ugly on this night. "We had a lot of mistakes out there. We have to head back to the lab and fix those mistakes. But I'm proud of the guys stepping up and making plays when we really needed them."
Cooks matched Mike Hass' school single-game record with 14 catches for 141 yards and iced the game with a 12-yard run for first down in the closing seconds.
But he also made a pair of monumental errors -- muffing a punt to put the Beavers on their own 2-yard line in the third quarter, then fumbling after a catch to set up San Diego State on the OSU 32 in the fourth period.
"I'm excited we got that 'W,' " Cooks said. "It might be ugly, but we'll take it. I have some personal things to deal with -- the mistakes I made. I take that upon myself. But I'm going to try to look past that right now and enjoy the victory with my teammates."
Following Cooks' fumble, San Diego State converted a field goal to seize a 30-21 lead with 5:18 remaining. The Beavers weren't dead and buried, but team chaplain Tom Ramsay was administering last rites.
Then Sean Mannion went to work. The 6-5, 220-pound gunslinger engineered an eight-play, 81-yard touchdown drive, throwing on every play. His 10-yard drop-off pass to Terron Ward for a score drew Oregon State to within 30-28 with still 2:40 on the clock.
"A beautiful drive by Sean," Riley said. "We weren't running the ball at all. We had to make a bunch of throws and try to protect (Mannion) and he made a lot of great plays."
"At that point, it becomes more simple," said Mannion, who threw for more than 350 yards for a school-record fourth straight game. "You just have to throw completions. Whenever we go with our no-huddle offense, it's find a way to complete some balls, even if it means checking it down" to a tailback.
It left Riley with a big decision: Onside kick or kick deep? The OSU coach chose the latter option, and Trevor Romaine drilled it into the end zone for a touchback.
"We considered (an onside kick), but the best way for us is what we did," Riley explained. "We had a pretty good handle on (the Aztecs) the second half defensively. We got into a bluff onside kick alignment so they wouldn't set up a return. And we had three timeouts left, so we were going to get the ball back with two minutes to go."
That's if Oregon State defense could force San Diego State into a three-and-out. After yielding 24 points and 248 yards total offense in the first half, the Beaver D had come out with resolve after intermission, so there was optimism on the Orange sidelines.
On first down, Scott Crichton and Jabral Johnson stuffed SDS tailback Adam Meuma for a 4-yard loss. On the next play, OSU cornerback Steven Nelson stepped in front of an Aztec receiver, intercepted a pass by Quinn Kaehler and raced 16 yards for a touchdown.
"Biggest play of the game," OSU safety Ryan Murphy said of Nelson's pick, his Pac-12-high fourth of the young season.
Oregon State was in a cover-eight defense, with only three down linemen, and Kaehler was looking to drop a screen pass off to Colin Lockett.
"The thing that made the play was we took the screen away they'd been killing us with all night," Riley said.
OSU's front three put some pressure on Kaehler, "and I peeped inside, and his eyes were on (Lockett) the whole time," Nelson said. "He panicked. I felt like he was going to rush it in there, and he paid for it."
Nobody was more surprised than Mannion, who had been talking with offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf on the headphones about what the Beavers would run should they get the ball back.
"And out of the corner of my eye, I see Steve pick it off," Mannion said with a grin.
Even after the Beavers failed on a two-point conversion attempt, they led 34-30 as partisans among the crowd of 32,133 watched in stunned silence and the thousands of members of Beaver Nation on hand whooped it up.
There was still 2:31 on the clock and San Diego State possessed three timeouts, but Oregon State had all the momentum.
On first down, D.J. Alexander smothered Kaehler on a sack for a 9-yard loss. On third down, it appeared the Beavers had forced the Aztecs into a fourth-and-14, but Devon Kell's roughing-the-passer penalty gave them a first down at their 35.
Two plays later, Kaehler's pass was tipped by Rashaad Reynolds and intercepted by Murphy, who returned it 10 yards to midfield.
There was still 1:25 left and the Aztecs, with two timeouts, could have gotten the ball back. But on third-and-9, Riley went to a play he hadn't used all game -- the fly sweep. Cooks took it 12 yards and it was time for the Beavers to start celebrating.
"We didn't want to throw," Riley said. The Aztecs "were all piled up inside. We went with an unbalanced fly sweep and Brandin got a great kick-out block off the edge."
Oregon State entered the game a nine-point favorite, but the Aztecs -- who had opened the season with losses to FCS foe Eastern Illinois (40-19) and third-ranked Ohio State (42-7) -- had some things going for them. They were off last Saturday, giving them extra time for preparation. With an 0-2 record, there was a sense of desperation to win.
"I knew this was going to be really hard," Riley said. "They had a bye week. Their backs were against the wall. This is a good program. They have tons of good coaches here -- (head coach) Rocky Long, Bob Toledo, Brian Sipe. They have a veteran staff; they know what they're doing. I was really nervous about this."
Riley was also nervous about the pressure the Aztecs would bring at Mannion.
"We probably blitzed 80 percent of the time and put our kids in a lot of man-to-man coverage," Long said. "Until the last four minutes, the pressure helped and the defensive backs did a nice job of covering. We just didn't get it done on that last drive."
Oregon State's decimated offensive line got even thinner when center Josh Mitchell suffered an ankle injury early in the game and departed. That meant Isaac Seumalo, who had switched to right tackle the past two games, moved back to center and true freshman Sean Harlow, who hadn't yet played a snap, went in at right tackle.
The Beavers, with four O-linemen gone and tailback Storm Woods sitting out with a concussion, simply couldn't run. They wound up with 10 net yards on the ground.
"We knew there was going to be a ton of pressure and a lot of different looks," Riley said. "It gets really hard with the new faces on the line and you're not running the ball. The combination of those two things is bad, especially against a team with as much variety in their blitzes as (the Aztecs)."
Which made Mannion's performance all the more remarkable. Oregon State's junior quarterback completed 38 of 55 passes for 367 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He was sacked only once, but part of that was the heady job he did unloading the ball just as he was getting hit.
Mannion fumbled once in the second half while being hit as he attempted to pass, one of a string of miscues by the Beavers, who sustained 13 penalties for 99 yards -- 11 for 79 yards in the first half alone.
Oregon State defenders allowed the Aztecs a pair of field goals, six first downs and 77 yards total offense the second half and came up with the two big interceptions at the end.
"They stepped up big-time," Cooks said. "They came out at half knowing they had to make some plays and help the offense out. That's what they did. Some days, we got the defense's back; some days, they got ours. That's how it works."
The Beavers left the field at halftime with their tails between their legs, trailing 24-14 and devoid of momentum as San Diego State, down 14-7, scored the final 17 points of the half.
Mannion completed 20 of 31 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown in the half, but the Beavers couldn't even attempt to run. Of Oregon State's 37 called plays, four of them were runs -- all by Ward, who gained 12 yards. Cooks had eight receptions for 82 yards in the half.
Oregon State couldn't have gotten off to a worse start. After a 35-yard kickoff return gave San Diego the ball on its 35, the Aztecs marched 65 yards in six plays. Kaehler found Donnel Pumphrey on a screen pass for 23 yards, a touchdown and a 7-0 lead 3:16 into the game.
After an exchange of punts, Oregon State took possession at the San Diego State 47. Mannion's perfectly thrown bomb to Cooks covered 46 yards and set up Ward's 1-yard TD run to tie the score at 7-7 with 6:17 left in the first quarter.
After another Aztec three-and-out and a short punt, Oregon State went 53 yards in eight plays, Mannion finding Kellen Clute for a two-yard TD pass to give the Beavers a 14-7 lead with 2:03 to go in the quarter.
On first down, Kaehler connected with Lockett, who put a move on two Oregon State defenders, reversed field and raced 80 yards for a touchdown, bringing San Diego State into a 14-14 tie with 1:44 left in the period.
"The worst play of the game," Riley said. "We missed three or four tackles and the guy goes a mile for a touchdown. That was a horrible play, and it set the tone for how we played for a long time. It was very sloppy football."
The Aztecs regained the lead at 17-14 on a 45-yard Wes Feer field goal with 11:59 remaining in the second quarter, then upped the margin to 24-14 on a 2-yard Muema run after a 13-play, 69-yard scoring drive with 3:31 to play before halftime.
The Aztecs took advantage of a short field after Mannion's third-quarter fumble, tacking on a 39-yard field goal by Feer to make it 27-14 with 1:55 left in the quarter.
The Beavers responded, rolling 65 yards in 10 plays. Mannion's 2-yard pass to Kevin Cummings for the touchdown narrowed San Diego State's lead to 27-21 with 12:27 remaining.
Feer upped the lead to 30-21 after Cooks' fumble, setting up the final drama that moved Riley to say, kiddingly, "I don't know if I can take much more of this stuff."
The Beavers were disappointed with their inconsistency but buoyed by the final outcome.
"We play until the clock hits zero," Murphy said. "Our offense had a little struggle running the ball, but we're a team. Those guys have held us up in other games. We came through for them this time."
"It shows how much heart this team has," said tight end Connor Hamlett, who caught four passes for 26 yards. "We were down and weren't playing well, but we found a way to win."
"There are a lot of learning experiences. but I'm really happy with the way we fought throughout the game," Mannion said. "There were a lot of spots where we were sputtering and it would have been easy to quit, but we kept fighting hard."
As he ended his media session, Riley noted there is plenty to correct with his Oregon State team.
"I'm going to be concerned about it (Sunday)," he said with a smile. "I'm going to enjoy this win tonight."
NOTES: Cooks' 12-yard run in the closing seconds pushed Oregon State into positive yardage. Until that play, the Beavers were at minus-2 yards for the game. Mannion has thrown for 1,904 yards and 15 touchdowns with one interception this season. Cooks moved into seventh place on the school career receiving yards list (2,181), passing Robb Thomas, and into ninth place on the reception list (141), passing Thomas and Steve Coury. Cooks moved into a tie with Reggie Bynum for fifth place on the career 100-yard receiving game list with eight. Riley, on Nelson's interception return for a touchdown: "That play will go down in the history of this season." Kaehler, making his first start at quarterback for San Diego State, completed 16 of 25 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns. Oregon State was 4 for 4 in the red zone, pushing its mark to a national-best 22 for 22 for the season. OSU burned a redshirt year for Harlow, who hadn't played in the first three games. OSU safety Ty Zimmerman made a career-high 13 tackles. Redshirt freshman Rommel Mageo, who played most of the game at middle linebacker ahead of Joel Skotte, made a career-high six tackles. Oregon State was 7 for 13 in third-down conversions, San Diego State 4 for 14.
Oregon State 14 0 0 20 -- 34
San Diego State 14 10 3 3 -- 30
SDS -- Donnel Pumphrey 23 pass from Quinn Kaehler (Wes Feer kick) 11:44
OSU -- Terron Ward 1 run (Trevor Romaine kick) 6:17
OSU -- Kellen Clute 2 pass from Sean Mannion (Romaine kick) 2:03
SDS -- Colin Lockett 80 pass from Kaehler (Feer kick) 1:44
SDS -- Feer 45 FG 11:59
SDS -- Adam Muema 2 run (Feer kick) 3:35
SDS -- Feer 39 FG 1:55
OSU -- Kevin Cummings 2 pass from Mannion (Romaine kick) 11:27
SDS -- Feer 30 FG 5:18
OSU -- Ward 10 pass from Mannion (Romaine kick) 2:40
OSU -- Nelson 16 interception return (pass failed) 2:31
ATT. -- 32,133