"An experienced guy," and one who "can make all the throws," is how Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez describes Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion. Rodriguez's assessment is right, as the OSU play maker ranks among the nation's elite passers headed into Saturday's Wildcat-Beaver tilt at Arizona Stadium.
Not bad for someone who wasn't supposed to be Oregon State's starting quarterback in 2011.
Head coach Mike Riley was returning 2010 starter Ryan Katz from injury, and Mannion was the Beavers' No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart. But Mannion won over the coaching staff in practice, and benefited from the Beavers' ugly opening week loss to FCS program Sacramento State.
Mannion struggled through the bumps in the road customary of a freshman quarterback. He threw 18 interceptions and the Beavers sputtered to a 3-9 finish, the worst since Riley's return in 2003 and the second sub-.500 campaign for the program. But Mannion did have some impressive flashes, too. He was near the top of the Pac-12 in passing yards, with over 3300, and completed nearly 65 percent of his attempts.
The experience Mannion garnered in 2011 has made the Beavers a surprise conference contender in 2012. He's again among college football's best in yardage thus far, and ranks behind only Matt Scott among Pac-12 quarterbacks for completions per game at 26.5.
Riley made a decision starting Mannion last season that is so rarely rewarded in today's football landscape. Riley invested in the future, starting a talented, young quarterback to grow alongside other young positions. He was taking a risk, and indeed, a 3-9 record on the heels of 5-7 could have costed Riley his job elsewhere.
But OSU administration and fans' patience now seems to be paying dividends. The Beavers are 2-0 with a pair of wins over top 25 opponents and the passing game is flourishing at almost unprecedented levels.
OSU has had NFL caliber quarterbacks before. Derek Anderson and Matt Moore both started professionally. But Mannion is producing at a tier higher, making the most of five wide receiver sets. Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks are hauling in passes at levels that would rival any receiver tandem in the conference: Wheaton at 118.5 yards per game with a touchdown, Cooks at 127.5 and two.
The pair is reminiscent of another great duo of Beaver pass catchers, Sammy Stroughter and James Rodgers. Those are two names that should probably keep Arizona football fans awake at night.
"[Oregon State has] some fast guys playing on the perimeter," Rodriguez said of stopping the OSU receivers during his weekly press conference. "We have to play them very disciplined."
The transformation of the Beaver offense is a fascinating deviation from seasons past, when OSU produced one great running back after another. The Beavers went from Steven Jackson, to Yvenson Bernard, to Jacquizz Rodgers spanning 2003 through 2010. OSU had to become more pass-centric when Rodgers left, and none of a three-headed running back attack of Malco;m Agnew, Jovan Stevenson or Terron Ward got it going.
OSU's rushing offense still isn't quite there yet -- neither Agnew nor Storm Woods is averaging more than 4.4 yards per carry -- but thus far, it hasn't needed to bet.