Can Cougs bring back the 'old' Mannion?

THE COUGS WILL face a much different quarterback on Saturday night (TV:ESPNU, 7:30 p.m.) in the Beavs' Sean Mannion than they have the last two years – or will they?

Everyone has said Mannion is a far different, far better QB this season, that the junior has turned the corner and in a big way. And that certainly looks to be true. But looking a little further below the surface reveals more than that.

Two years ago against WSU, Mannion (26-of-34) threw for a then-career high 376 yards and four scores. Last year, the first season at WSU for d-coordinator Mike Breske, Mannion was 25-for-42 for 270 yards with one touchdown -- and three interceptions.

In 2011, Mannion threw 16 TDs – against 18 interceptions. Last season, he threw 15 TDs vs. 13 INTs. This season, he's thrown 21 TDs against only two interceptions in five games.

But two things on Mannion's 2013 campaign have to be noted in order to lend proper context. First, the competition Mannion and Co. have faced hasn't been all that formidable through five games. Second, and most importantly, Mannion has enjoyed outstanding pass protection to this point.

(It's also worth noting that Mannion was locked in a QB battle all this offseason, and was not named the starter over Ryan Katz by Mike Riley until shortly before fall camp ended on Aug. 26. There wasn't that much difference between the two in spring ball and fall camp, and some longtime beat writers covering OSU were even predicting Riley would tab Katz.)

If the Cougs are able to get some heat on Mannion on Saturday, and it's far from certain that they will, but if they do fans might see a much different Mannion than they have to this point.

MANNION HAS LOOKED stellar at times this season, no question about it. But on the few occasions/stretches where he's been pressured, he's looked far more ordinary.

He doesn't possess great mobility, and has been off-target when on the move or when trying to fit it into tight windows when he has guys in his face. The good thing for OSU is, again, that the times he's felt pressure have been few and far between.

He and Oregon State have not had a run game to rely on. It's to Mannion's credit that he's been as good as he has been without much of a run game and where his play action has not given defenses pause because they haven't had to respect the run.

Some think the return of running back Storm Woods and right guard Grant Enger will make a difference in the run game against WSU but for what it's worth, the run game wasn't really working when both of those guys were in there earlier this season either. And WSU seems to be best against the run, rather than against the pass.

THERE ARE SEVERAL keys to this game. But one of the biggest, if not the biggest, is how effective the Cougars' pass rush will be against the Beavs. There's reason for worry for Cougar fans, given all the time Cal's quarterback enjoyed.

Sure, WSU got to Jared Goff some, but there were also many, many occasions where the Cougs rushed four, or only three, and Goff carved them up. WSU cannot expect to do the same against Mannion and OSU and find success. They're going to have to blitz more.

The best thing about the Beaver o-line through five games has been the pass protection. And even if you think a lot of that has to do with the competition level, the inability of WSU to get there enough the last two weeks against Cal and Stanford is a pretty solid indicator that OSU's o-line likely can handle the Cougars if they only bring three or four.

One thing to watch for: what happens when Mannion breaks out his best play action fake. There, he hides the ball and ducks down after faking the handoff, and faces away from the field of play for a beat or two. There really hasn't been a case where a) the defense hasn't been fooled, at least for a split second nor b) has been able to be in his face or even closing in fast when he turns back to set up and throw.

If WSU gets there on that play early on it could really set the stage for WSU success, as well as rattle some cages.

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