Sean Mannion is going to throw the ball many times when the Washington Huskies visit Oregon State on Saturday. This is a given.
What the Huskies can’t allow Mannion to do, however, is pat the ball many times.
“The challenge is, if he’s standing back there patting the ball and staring at our secondary with time, he’s going to throw it accurately,” UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. “He’s a really accurate passer down the field, so we have to find a way to generate some pressure on him.”
They do, but it’s not as simple as sending four or five pass-rushers toward the quarterback on every play at full speed. OSU might not run the ball a lot — the Beavers’ 261 rushing attempts this season are fewer than every FBS team in the nation except SMU (239) and Washington State (183) — but their creative, well-timed screen passes keep opposing defenses from teeing off on Mannion.
“We’ve always got to react, but that’s part of it,” said UW defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha. “Any team that will pass a lot will hit you with screens to keep you kind of at bay.”
And despite some injuries to their offensive line earlier this season, the Beavers have protected Mannion relatively well. He’s been sacked only 20 times in 10 games, a figure that ranks 65th nationally but is made more impressive by the fact that OSU has attempted 495 passes.
That’s partially due to a balanced passing attack that includes multiple players catching different kinds of throws.
“That’s why they do it,” said UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. “They’ve obviously got a ton of motions and flies, and you have to defend all that stuff. They throw the screen game not only to the running backs, they use the tight ends and the receivers. … They’re a different style of offense than we’ve seen this year, and they’re very good at it.”
Of course, receiver Brandin Cooks is a big reason why. He leads the nation in total receiving yards (1,443) and yards per game (144.3), and ranks second in receptions per game (10.0).
What makes Cooks particularly dangerous is the way the Beavers use him. He’s not just a vertical threat.
Wilcox called him “elite,” and that has to do with his versatility.
“It’s not like he just lines up in one spot,” Wilcox said. “They get him the ball in a lot of different ways. He gets it on flies; they give it to him, obviously, when he’s split out. They’ll motion him so you can’t jam him. Coach (Mike) Riley and (offensive coordinator) Danny Langsdorf know what they’re doing.”
In the aftermath of UW’s 41-31 loss to UCLA last Friday, Wilcox lamented the Huskies’ four pass-interference penalties, three of which came on third downs and extended the Bruins’ drives.
Those penalties ultimately led UCLA to 21 points. One of them — a pass-interference penalty by safety Sean Parker in the first half — nullified an interception.
“We want to play very aggressive in our coverage and be physical, but there’s a point where you can’t hold,” Wilcox said. “Whether it’s just a little tug, something here or there, they’ll call it. But again, those are tough to overcome because three of them are third-down plays and we were going to be off the field.”
Fumbles forced by the Huskies, but recovered by UCLA — two of them, including one that bounced directly toward two Huskies players — also provided moments of disappointment.
“We made a huge effort to get it out all around on our defense, so (we) purposely got it to come out more than a few times,” Kikaha said. “So just being able to pick it up is effort, everybody flying to the ball and getting around it so when it comes out, we recover it and not the opposing team.”