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Even with downturn, Mannion's having special season

by: COURTESY OF OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - Sean Mannion and Oregon State take on the Washington Huskies on Saturday at Corvallis.Sean Mannion is getting plenty of heat these days -- from opposing defenses, from fans around the water cooler and on message boards, through Twitter, from the media.

Comes with the territory, certainly. Quarterbacks get the glory and the blame.

Everyone wants to know: How could the guy who was so good for seven games be so lousy for the last three?

Through seven games, Mannion was on near NCAA record pace. The 6-5, 225-pound junior had completed 229 of 334 passes (68.5 percent) for 2,992 yards and 29 touchdowns with three interceptions.

With six games (including a bowl) remaining, the Pac-12 record for single-season passing yardage (4,458 by Washington's Cody Pickett in 2002) was in Mannion's sights.

The Pleasanton, Calif., native didn't keep pace facing Stanford, Southern Cal and Arizona State the past three weekends. In those games, Mannion completed 98 of 148 passes (66.2 percent) for 868 yards and four TDs with seven interceptions.

The completion percentage is down slightly, the yardage average is down considerably and the TDs/picks ratio is simply not where you want it to be.

But let's analyze the situation for those who are calling for Cody Vaz to take over the Beaver reins.

The opposition through the three-game skid hasn't been chopped liver. Oregon State's six victories came against teams with a combined 12-38 record. Stanford, USC and Arizona State -- all ranked teams -- are a collective 24-7. The latter three, along with Oregon, own the top defenses in the Pac-12. Mannion is going up against defenders who are among the best in the college game.

Over the last three games, Mannion has thrown 49.3 passes per game alongside a run offense that has averaged 59.7 yards. The one-dimensional approach means opposing defensive coordinators can pretty much game plan to stop the pass.

"That's why I've always been a proponent of more balance," OSU coach Mike Riley says. Opponents "are able to bring more heat. We're asking Sean to do a lot."

In Saturday's loss at Arizona State, Mannion had Brandin Cooks and Caleb Smith wide open and directionally missed them on deep balls, resulting in interceptions. (Mannion also missed a wide-open Malik Gilmore on another would-be touchdown, but Gilmore quit running, resulting in an incompletion. That's on Gilmore.) Those kind of misses weren't happening to Mannion through his magical seven-game run.

On the other hand, Mannion is still connecting on two-thirds of his passes, still making a lot of excellent throws, still competing for 60 minutes. And, after each of the last three losses, the rangy signal-caller has sat in front of the media and not made excuses when asked, "What went wrong?"

"I'm disappointed in the way I played," Mannion said after the Sun Devils defeat. "I take a lot of responsibility for this loss. I expect a lot more for myself."

I'm not sure if Mannion will regain the edge he showed through the first half of the season over Oregon State's final three games. I'll be surprised, though, if he doesn't work his tail off to get his team back on the winning track.

It's worth noting that Mannion, with 3,860 yards, leads the nation by a large margin over Ball State's Keith Wenning (3,488 yards in 11 games). And that Mannion needs to average 199.7 yards in his last three games to better Pickett's Pac-12 record. And that Mannion needs seven more TD passes to beat the Pac-12 mark of 39 set by USC's Matt Barkley in 2011.

I've grown to respect Mannion even more with the way he has handled the ups and downs of Oregon State's season and the criticism directed his way. He's a modest, respectful kid, a stand-up leader of whom all of Beaver Nation should be proud.

As for the Chicken Little effect ("The sky is falling") that has resulted from the Oregon State "nosedive" over the past three weeks:

The Cardinals, Trojans and Sun Devils are better teams than OSU. That's not "accepting mediocrity," that's being realistic. With that, the Beavers had genuine chances to win all three of those games. They didn't get it done. Especially in the last two games, mistakes proved costly.

Riley has an excellent staff of assistant coaches and a solid group of players who have plenty of resolve to finish the season strong.

"We have a great group of kids," Riley said Sunday night. "We'll be all right. We got home at 3:30 a.m. (Sunday) and had a volunteer (weight) lifting day. I looked in and there was a whole bunch of guys in there working at it. This team is pretty darn good that way.

"The defense has some stuff going right now. It's on us (coaches) to do a better job of finding a way to have more efficiency on offense, understanding we're playing good defenses and they're going to make it hard. If we're efficient in what we do, we give ourselves a chance to win."

Other notes as Oregon State prepares for Saturday's 7:30 p.m. Reser Stadium date with Washington:

• According to the Seattle Times, a decision on the availability of UW quarterback Keith Price -- who injured his throwing shoulder in the Huskies' 41-31 loss to UCLA Saturday -- won't be made until late in the week. Coach Steve Sarkisian said Price won't be allowed to throw until Thursday.

"I want to see what he looks like on Thursday," Sarkisian said Sunday.

An MRI showed "a lot of inflammation" in Price's shoulder, Sarkisian said.

Redshirt freshman Cyler Miles relieved Price in the second half, completing 15 of 22 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.

• Why didn't Riley challenge the second-quarter sideline catch made by Cooks at the ASU 5-yard line that was ruled out of bounds but appeared otherwise?

"I didn't get a good look at it," he says. "I thought he caught it (in-bounds), but I never got anything from upstairs (from the OSU coaches) on it. (Referees) are reviewing every play. If they don't buzz them, they don't have a question about it."

Coaches are afforded one challenge a half. The Beavers would have been wise to use it on that play.

• Was the fourth-quarter unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against center Isaac Seumalo -- which sent Oregon State backward and resulted in a long Trevor Romaine field-goal attempt that was blocked -- a good call? Seumalo got his helmet ripped off on the play by ASU tackle Will Sutton, who had earlier been flagged for a personal foul for doing the same thing.

"I suppose," Riley says, "but (Sutton) had hands to the face all night. Isaac's helmet comes off again. His head jerks back. I thought we were going to get another call, but Isaac was called for retaliation."

• A 14-yard Mannion-to-Smith pass that would have given the Beavers first down at the ASU 15 late in the second quarter was nullified when Victor Bolden lined up wrong, resulting in a too-many-men-in-the-backfield penalty. They wound up settling for a field goal as the first half ended.

• Three weeks after knee surgery, tight end Connor Hamlett caught a career-best nine passes for 119 yards and a touchdown.

"I was really proud of Connor," Riley says. "Coming back from that injury, he's playing hard and aggressively. We can keep going with that. "

• Cooks leads the nation in receptions (100) and receiving yardage (1,443) and is second in touchdown receptions with 14 (trailing Fresno State's Davante Adams with 15). Cooks is within reach of the Pac-12 record in each category -- receptions (USC's Marqise Lee, 118, 2012), receiving yardage (Lee, 1,721, 2012) and TD receptions (Washington's Mario Bailey, 18, 1991).

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