With 21 touchdown passes and two interceptions this season, Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion is as close to flawless as a Swiss watch.
His 2,018 passing yards lead the quarterback-rich Pac-12 Conference, and his 67.2 percent completion clip is the envy of offensive coordinators across the country.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Against Washington State in 2012, Mannion was more pauper than prince, more king without a crown than golden boy with a golden arm. While the Beavers won an ugly game (19-6) at home, Mannion threw three interceptions and was sacked three times.
Adding injury to insult, Mannion suffered a torn meniscus in the third quarter, after all of his giveaways.
“It was a tough game,” Mannion said. “WSU has a very underrated defense. Obviously, their offense gets a lot of attention, but I think their defense is strong, and you can’t make any mistakes.”
That defense won’t be any easier for the Oregon State quarterback to crack this time around.
The Cougars lead the conference with nine interceptions, and defensive coordinator Mike Breske wants his players to generate at least three takeaways each game.
“They do a great job,” said Danny Langsdorf, Oregon State’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “They’ve done a nice job of disguising looks and giving you different coverage change-ups, and I think that’s led to their interceptions. They do a nice job in the secondary, put some pressure on the quarterback, but don’t have to do it all with pressure.”
But that defense will face a different Mannion than the one it saw last year.
Mannion threw for 15 touchdowns with 13 interceptions in 2012. In 2013, he has surpassed last year’s touchdown total and is on pace to throw less than half as many interceptions.
Langsdorf said much of the fourth-year junior quarterback’s improvement can be attributed to more practice reading defenses. He credited Mannion’s sharp decline in turnovers to a willingness to throw the ball out of bounds rather than trying to force a pass into tight coverage.
“It’s been a whole year for him to get better, and clearly he’s gotten better, so we’re not going to take anything from last year to this year,” Washington State senior safety Deone Bucannon said. “Everybody’s a different team, and he’s a different player, so we’re just going to go in and respect him like we respect every team.”
The Cougars have played well on defense this year, but they gave up 521 yards through the air in last weekend’s 44-22 victory against California.
Playing a similar “bend but don’t break” style on defense Saturday could be dangerous, but it could give the opportunistic defenders more chances to get their hands on a Mannion pass.
Washington State’s defense won at USC without scoring an offensive touchdown, thanks to Damante Horton’s interception return for a score. The next week, Horton did it again against Southern Utah.
In what should be a close game between Northwest rivals, Washington State’s ability to change the scoreboard or flip field position on defense could make the difference against the Beavers.
“Ball security is important in every game,” Mannion said. “When I look at Washington State, I see a team that has a ton of playmakers in their secondary. They have a good front. Certainly, taking care of the ball is something we want to focus on, and with some of the players they’ve got back there, you want to be a little more precise than what you might be able to get away with in other games.”
There’s little doubt that Mannion’s ability to summon that precision will be a key factor for both teams. If the Oregon State signal caller can continue to accumulate touchdowns and avoid interceptions, then it could be a long day for WSU defenders.
But if WSU breaks Mannion’s spell and forces him into the same ill-advised throws he offered last season, then that secondary might pad those gaudy interception numbers on the way to a victory. The Cougars would have five wins, their most in a season since 2007.