PULLMAN — Sean Mannion torched the Washington State Cougars in a forgettable 44-21 loss to Oregon State last season.
But a different Oregon State quarterback will be under center for the No. 14 Beavers on Saturday when WSU travels to Corvallis for a 3 p.m. game.
That quarterback, of course, is still the same person. It’s still Mannion. But he’s a sophomore now, and there is a consensus among observers that his approach to the game has changed in a very detectable way.
“I think probably the most notable thing is confidence,” OSU coach Mike Riley said. “He was always poised, even as a freshman last year. He always kept his wits about him, always good to talk to on the sidelines, has good explanations for what’s going on.”
WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske, who this week has watched film of OSU from both last season and this season, agreed with Riley.
“Confidence,” Breske said. “You see it. How he carries himself, you see quite a difference.”
It’s only been three games, but Mannion leads the Pac-12 in passing with 362.7 yards per game, supported by two receivers — Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton — who rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the conference in receiving yards per game.
So, yeah, things are going a little better for OSU this season. The Beavers’ win over WSU was their second of just three victories last season.
“They’re a team that took their lumps last year and feels like this is their year,” Cougars coach Mike Leach said.
Mannion’s leadership has a lot to do with that. He’s thrown six touchdown passes and just one interception this season, benefiting from being named OSU’s starter over Ryan Katz after two games last season.
Mannion had his struggles as a freshman, throwing more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (16), though he did complete nearly 65 percent of his passes and threw for 3,328 yards.
He threw for 376 yards against WSU last season, which stood as his career-best until Mannion put up 379 yards against UCLA two weeks ago. Then he threw for another 433 in a 38-35 win over Arizona last week.
“I think the year of getting to play for Sean was really, really good,” said Riley, referring to Mannion as a “gym rat” when it comes to watching film. “There’s nothing like playing for a football player, in the games, and it’s especially true for a quarterback. And the other thing about him is, he really likes this game and works hard at it and spends a lot of time with it.”
His arm isn’t too bad, either.
“Obviously you’ve got to play the pass,” said Leach, asked how to slow Mannion. “But on those broken plays when he gets loose, coverage has to hold up because he’s got a real strong arm and sometimes when he gets loose, that stuff’s way down field, and if you don’t attend to it he can hurt you.”
The Cougars already know this.
“Their quarterback has a huge arm and he’s not afraid to throw the ball down field,” said junior safety Deone Bucannon, who watched Mannion do that plenty against WSU last season.
“They came out with a chip on their shoulders and they’re a team that everyone needs to watch out for.”