MMQB: Asking the right question about Mannion

THE QUESTION WAS asked all week long, all season long, really. ‘Yes, Oregon State and Sean Mannion have been rolling up eye-popping numbers this year -- but how will happen when he faces a defense with a pulse?" Well, the question was answered in the loss to Stanford… Or was it?

Should Sean Mannion be judged harshly for failing to produce his normal, spectacular 300-yard passing performance? Two of his top targets -- particularly in the red zone in Connor Hamlett and Caleb Smith -- were sidelined for virtually the entire game after Smith left early with a back injury.

If you view TE's and WR's as one group, and you should, Smith and Hamlett are the No. 4 and 5 pass catchers for the Beavs and have collectively accounted for seven-of-the-25 touchdowns the Beavers' top five receivers have logged. Kellen Clute and Tyler Perry did a nice job filling in, but neither are the red zone threats that Hamlett and Smith are -- and particularly when quick passes under duress are needed.

Well surprise, surprise... OSU struggled in the red zone in converting touchdowns last week.

But maybe, just maybe, everyone has been asking the wrong question here. Maybe the question isn't, "How good is Sean Mannion, really?" Maybe the better question is, "How tough is Sean Mannion, really?"

Two of the biggest weapons in Oregon State's offensive arsenal were sitting on the sidelines and the offensive line was struggling mightily. There was no run game to speak of, and Mannion was getting planted in the turf -- at least a dozen times on top of the eight sacks he endured. He was hit, hammered, blasted and driven into the turf all night long.

My super-secret sideline spies report that Cody Vaz (you may recall the ruthless beating Vaz took in Palo Alto in 2012) was seen giving Mannion a hug and telling the battered and embattled starting quarterback "I know that feel, bro." And Mannion not only endured, he was bouncing around just fine the next day, Mike Riley said on Sunday.

During the offseason, the hottest topic of debate surrounding Oregon State was, "How is Sean Mannion going to respond when he gets hit?" Because Mannion was a different player before the Washington State game in 2012, when he sustained a minor knee injury that sidelined him for a week. When he returned, he struggled to return to early-season form and many out in cyberspace questioned the lanky quarterback's toughness. No one is doing that anymore.

Cody Vaz this offseason didn't seem to have Mannion's upside, but he did have an almost Lyle Moevao-esque toughness. Vaz showed tremendous resolve last season, lots of toughness in the face of pressure. Sean Mannion meanwhile had questions asked about how tough he could be in physical games.

We wondered then. We don't wonder now.

Mannion against Stanford did what he has done all season long: Trusted his protection, and stepped into throws in the face of pressure instead of throwing off his back foot.

He slid in the pocket and, on more than a few occasions, bought *just* enough time to get the ball out. The windows that Mannion was forced to throw the ball into were tight – very tight. Not a lot of margin for error. And yet the junior quarterback's location was truly outstanding.

The Stanford defenders were in the end able to make enough plays to keep OSU out of the end zone, but consider this: Despite being under a jacked-up pass rush all night that produced eight sacks, tons of knock-downs and hurries, and despite putting the ball in the air an eye-popping 57 times, Mannion committed exactly zero turnovers. None.

How tough is Sean Mannion? Plenty tough.

And that's something I think USC is going to find out firsthand on Friday night at Reser.

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