By Jacob Thorpe The Spokesman-Review
PULLMAN — Sean Mannion is effectively perfect. With 21 touchdowns against just two interceptions, Oregon State’s quarterback is as close to flawless as a Swiss watch. His 2,018 passing yards lead the quarterback-fertile Pac-12, and his 67.2 percent completion clip is the envy of offensive coordinators across the county.
But it wasn’t always this way.
In 2012, against Washington State, Mannion was more pauper than prince, more king without a crown than golden boy with a golden arm. While the Beavers won an ugly game (19-6) at home, Mannion’s three interceptions were matched only by the three sacks he suffered.
Adding injury to insult, Mannion suffered a torn meniscus in the third quarter, after all of his giveaways.
“It was a tough game,” Mannion said. “WSU has a very underrated defense. Obviously, their offense gets a lot of attention, but I think their defense is strong and you can’t make any mistakes.”
That defense won’t be any easier for the OSU quarterback to crack this time around. The Cougars lead the conference with nine interceptions, and defensive coordinator Mike Breske has a mandate that his players generate a minimum of three takeaways each game.
“They do a great job,” OSU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf said. “They’ve done a nice job of disguising looks and giving you different coverage changeups and I think that’s led to their interceptions. They do a nice job in the secondary, put some pressure on the quarterback, but don’t have to do it all with pressure.”
But that defense is going to be facing a different Mannion on Saturday than the one it saw last year. Mannion threw 15 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2012. In 2013, he’s already passed last year’s touchdown total and is on pace to throw less than half as many interceptions.
Langsdorf said that much of the junior quarterback’s improvement can be attributed to more practice reading defenses. He credited Mannion’s sharp decline in turnovers to a willingness to throw the ball out of bounds rather than forcing a pass into tight coverage.
“It’s been a whole year for him to get better, and clearly he’s gotten better, so we’re not going to take anything from last year to this year,” WSU safety Deone Bucannon said. “Everybody’s a different team and he’s a different player, so we’re just going to go in and respect him like we respect every team.”
The Cougars’ defense has played well this year, but gave up 521 yards through the air to Cal’s quarterbacks in Saturday’s 44-22 win. Playing a similar “bend but don’t break” style on defense on Saturday could be dangerous, but could also provide the opportunistic defense with more chances to get its hands on a Mannion pass.
WSU’s defense won at USC without scoring an offensive touchdown, thanks to Damante Horton’s interception returned for a score. The next week, Horton did it again against Southern Utah. In what should be a close game between Northwest rivals, WSU’s ability to change the scoreboard or flip field position on defense could be all the difference.
“Ball security is important in every game. When I look at Washington State, I see a team that has a ton of playmakers in their secondary. They have a good front,” Mannion said. “Certainly, taking care of the ball is something we want to focus on, and with some of the players they’ve got back there you want to be a little more precise than what you might be able to get away with in other games.”
There’s little doubt that Mannion’s ability to summon that precision will be a key factor for both teams. If the OSU signal caller can continue the seemingly unsustainable success he’s had accumulating touchdowns and avoiding interceptions, then it could be a long day for Cougars defenders.
But if WSU breaks Mannion’s spell and forces him into the same ill-advised throws he offered last season, then that WSU secondary may pad those gaudy interception numbers on the way to the team’s fifth win, WSU’s most in a season since 2007.