OSU 101: Can Cougs put the heat on Mannion?

CONNOR HALLIDAYS's shoes won’t be quickly filled, but Luke Falk offered a glimpse of what could be an outstanding WSU career this past Saturday. Falk’s first collegiate start comes Saturday on the road against a Beaver squad whose season is threatening to spiral out of control. Oregon State has dropped four of their last five and is barely clinging to hopes of a lower-level bowl game. But …

But, late season rallies have often been Mike Riley's forte and the Cougars - without their fifth-year senior quarterback - could be just what’s needed to put the Beavers on the path to salvage their 2014 season.

Cougars (2-7) vs Beavers (4-4)
1 pm Pacific Time

Reser Stadium (45,674)

Pac-12 Networks

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OSU by 7 1/2

2013: WSU lost 52-24

WSU leads 48-47-3

Cougs 28, Beavers 27


Players to Know
QB Sean Mannion: With Connor Halliday's career now over, Sean Mannion's Pac-12 passing records are safe. But Mannion is certainly going out with a whimper in his final campaign. In eight games he has thrown just nine touchdowns against six interceptions. Not all of the blame can be placed on Mannion. His receiver corps has been decimated and his pass protection has been poor. Nonetheless, his sure-fire NFL draft pick status has tanked (fifth-round of late). He will be very motivated to try and rebuild his reputation against a porous WSU secondary.

RBs Terron Ward & Storm Woods: OSU's pipeline of NFL running backs seems to have run dry, but their top two rusher still have nearly 1000 yards and 10 touchdowns between them, a considerable improvement from last season, (OSU is rushing for 117.5 ypg in 2014, after averaging 94.4 in 2013.)

WR Victor Bolden: Bolden, a second-year sophomore, is the most experienced of all Beaver receivers (still healthy on the roster) with a mere 41 career receptions for 442 receiving yards. He fills the flanker spot vacated by 2013 Biletnikoff Winner Brandon Cooks. He is very fast but has not shown to date to possess the same chemistry with his quarterback that Mannion and Cooks enjoyed.

Offensively, this Beaver team is in trouble. They have looked out of sync since the spring. Mannion has all the ability in the world when he has a good pocket, but he looks like a below average QB when a defense can bring consistent heat. Put another way: his supporting cast could not be much weaker. His receivers are young and unseasoned, and his offensive line, suspect to begin with, has been decimated by injuries. The Beavers currently rank 10th or lower in every offensive category in the Pac-12.

Attack Mannion, but don’t ignore the run. The Cougars need to be aggressive and make Mannion's life as difficult as possible. This crew of receivers has not shown the ability to get open quickly, and the running backs are serviceable at best, though they have done some damage on quick runs up the middle. When Mannion has time to operate, he is still one of the best in college football but when the passing game isn't working, this offense falls apart. How effective Cougar d-linemen Destiny Vaeao and Xavier Cooper (pictured above) are figures to be paramount in deciding this one.

Key Statistic
Nine TDs: After throwing 37 touchdowns in 2013, Sean Mannion's drop off in production has been absolutely stunning.


Players to Know
LBs D.J. Alexander, Jabral Johnson and Michael Doctor: Oregon State might have the best linebacker corps in the conference. All three are seniors, and have done their best to cover for a banged up defensive line that wasn’t deep to begin with.

CB Steven Nelson: The senior Nelson has not been as prolific a pass interceptor as last season (6 vs. 2) but he has mostly smothered opposing receivers all season long.

S Ryan Murphy: One of the more underrated safeties in the Pac-12, the senior covers a lot of ground and hits like an anvil. He is also the primary KO return man and has a 97-yard return for TD to his credit this season.

DL Dylan Wynn: Normally a 275-pound defensive end, Wynn has played primarily at d-tackle with Jalen Grimble out injured since Week Four. He’s been mostly effective at filling space but doesn’t get the same pass rush, obviously, as he did on the edge.

DT Siale Hautau: A dump truck at 6-1, 350-pounds, he clogs up the middle well.

Mark Banker continues to run the same basic 4-3 that has always worked for Oregon State. And Banker will rotate Bud Delva and Brandon Bennett-Jackson frequently at defensive tackle for Wynn and Hautau in an effort to keep them all fresh through the fourth quarter. Seniors litter this defense, but injuries have seriously thinned out the defensive line with two going down to knee injuries against USC who have still not returned (Grimble, Noke Tago). The Beavers have the top ranked pass efficiency defense in the conference but they’ve given up some long catch-and-runs in recent weeks that they weren’t doing earlier in the season. On the other side, they have given up a league-worst 20 rushing touchdowns on the year.

Cal was expected to give OSU a great test on defending the Air Raid last week, but the Beavers actually got torched on the ground. Cal ran for a season-high 269 yards, choosing to exploit Oregon State's beleaguered defensive line rather than test OSU's solid secondary. The Cougars would be wise to check to the run more than they might normally. Luke Falk has been said to have a stronger willingness to feed the WSU running backs if the defensive alignment pre-snap fits. A strong team effort lead by Jamal Morrow, Theron West and/or Gerard Wicks, and an offensive line eager to push someone around, could put up bigger rushing numbers.

Key Statistic
Seven passing touchdowns allowed: Oregon State's defense actually has more interceptions (9) than TD passes against.

Kicker Trevor Romaine has missed only one field goal this year and has 15 touchbacks on 28 kickoffs. Punter Keith Kostol is averaging 39.3 yards on 46 punts. Rahmel Dockery, a former WSU corner now a wideout at Oregon State, has seven punt returns for 47 yards with a long of 20. Dockery has been injury prone in his first season at OSU and has shown some ball security issues – WSU should be going for the ball every time Dockery touches it. But Bolden may be the guy on punt returns against WSU, with four this season averaging 11.0 yards. He has elite speed and WSU cannot give him a seam or he’ll be gone.

OSU was in real danger of losing their first two games against Portland State and Hawaii before picking things up – they looked like they had both the Utah and Cal games in the win column but lost in double overtime and going away in the fourth quarter, respectively. Which Oregon State team shows up against WSU?

-Luke Falk stepped in on short notice and passed the ball very effectively against the Pac-12's No. 2 pass defense last week against USC. In the Air Raid era, stats like 370 passing yards 2 touchdowns and 1 interception seem sort of pedestrian, but for comparison, Sean Mannion threw for just 123 yards 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions against the Trojans.

-If Halliday had not gotten hurt, WSU might be favored in this game. As inconsistent as the WSU defense has been, Oregon State has not shown much offensive prowess in 2014 – they average only 26.13 points per game and have scored 35 or more only twice, against Hawaii and Colorado (38, 36). Still, nothing rebuilds a quarterback's confidence like a disorganized secondary and time to operate. WSU's two interceptions on the season are by far the lowest total in the conference.

- If WSU gets consistent heat on Mannion, they win this game. Mannion earlier in the season was putting each pressure or sack in the rear view mirror before the next snap but ever since the USC game in Week Four, he’s had some happy feet and sometimes felt the rush before it got there. In other words, his eyes have come down. WSU doesn’t necessarily need to sack him, they just need to get close and make him uncomfortable.

-Oregon State would love to keep things close and use their run game. If Wazzu can go up by a couple scores and history is any indication, Oregon State will put the run game in the drawer (and arguably too early.) Such a scenario would play right into WSU’s hands.

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