From a Sunday night conversation with Mike Riley as Oregon State prepares for its noon Saturday game against Colorado at Reser Stadium
Sean Mannion has put together back-to-back-to-back-to-back performances like no other quarterback in Oregon State history.
Riley won't say that. He doesn't like to compare players.
So leave it to a sports writer who has witnessed a lot of Beaver games over the years to make such a declaration.
I'm excluding Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker, who played in such a different era (1960-62), where 200 yards passing was an unusually productive outing.
From Erik Wilhelm to Jonathan Smith to Derek Anderson to Matt Moore to Sean Canfield, nobody has played four straight games as well at quarterback as Mannion in guiding Oregon State to a 3-1 start.
The 6-5, 220-pound junior has completed 71.5 percent of his passes for 1,604 yards -- an average of 401 per game -- while throwing for 15 touchdowns with one interception. He has become the first QB in OSU history to top 350 yards passing in four successive games.
Mannion leads the nation in passing yardage and TD passes, is third in total offense and 12th in pass efficiency (by the way, I don't understand the formula the NCAA uses in the latter category. His numbers across the board seem much higher than that.)
Mannion started on fire the first four games of last season, too, before getting injured and struggling at times the rest of the campaign. Through four games a year ago, he had completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 1,358 yards and seven TDs with seven picks. Mannion seems to have an added measure of composure this season that might carry him more easily through turbulent waters this time around.
Quarterbacks take awhile to learn Riley's system. Anderson, Moore and Canfield all went through growing pains before emerging as all-conference-caliber signal-callers. Mannion -- in his fourth season in the program and his third as the starting QB -- seems to be getting there.
"It's about being very consistent," Riley says. "That's built through time. It's a combination of a few things -- experience in the offense, experience playing games, talent and work ethic. Those are all real parts of getting better at that position.
"Sean is to the point where he is used to the system and seeing the progressions (of a pass play). He is making good, fast decisions, seeing the field well, and his confidence is outstanding."
Heisman Trophy candidate? Not unless the Beavers win the rest of their games.
But the lanky youngster is off to a heck of a start.
Oregon State ranks 121st of 123 FBS teams in rushing at 55.0 yards per game. The Beavers managed 10 net yards on the ground in their 34-30 win at San Diego State Saturday night. Conversely, they threw for 367 yards against the Aztecs and Mannion was sacked only once. How can OSU pass-protect so well and run-block so poorly?
"I don't know that we pass-blocked real well (against San Diego State), either," Riley says. "We missed a lot of assignments. Sean had to throw in some heat a lot of times. A lot of times, (the Aztecs) brought more players than we could block. He had to get rid of the ball and did a good job of it."
Mannion has been sacked three times all season. How much credit does he deserve for avoiding the pass rush and/or unloading the ball before a sack?
"The quarterback's role is huge in not allowing sacks," Riley says. Against San Diego State, "Sean threw the ball away nicely. We had one sack on a night when we could have had 10. He moved enough to get rid of the ball just in time several times. Those are all good decisions, and that's good quarterbacking."
Even so, Riley says the OSU O-line has done a better job pass-protecting than run-blocking. The art of staying in front of a pass rusher is "not easier, necessarily, but different" than trying to drive-block the defender in the opposite direction.
With four O-linemen who have started or were slated to start -- Grant Enger, Gavin Andrews, Josh Mitchell and Roman Sapalo -- on the injury list, "we've been disrupted up front," Riley says.
The Aztecs blitzed 80 percent of the time Saturday night.
"They were letting it all hang out," Riley said. "Sometimes that's good for your running game. For us, it wasn't."
Oregon State had 75 offensive plays. Fifty-five of them were passes. Seven more were sacks or scrambles. Thirteen were rushing plays reaping a total of 38 yards (Terron Ward and Brandin Cooks each had one covering 12 yards, a season-long for the Beavers).
Riley felt compelled to throw to gain yardage.
"You feel a little -- what's the word -- hamstrung," he says. "You'd like to feel more confident and get something going with the run. Everything goes smoother when you're running the ball. We have to continue to have a will to try to do that. We'll make that a priority against Colorado. But you have to do what you think will help win you the game."
Oregon State sustained 13 penalties for 99 yards against San Diego State. Eleven of them came in the first half for 79 yards. Five of them -- all in the first half -- were false-start penalties. This in a half-empty Qualcomm Stadium where crowd noise was not a factor.
"It was a pretty undisciplined day for the offensive line and the tight ends," Riley says. "Part of it might be structural. We're making line calls as the cadence goes with the way they were blitzing. Part of it is understandable, but it's so disruptive to having a smooth game we can't live with that."
With all the penalties to go with three turnovers, even Riley began to lose faith in the second half.
"I didn't know if we could come out of all of that and have a chance to win," he says. "It was really frustrating."
The entire Oregon State team convened in a huddle on the field before the start of the fourth quarter, with the Beavers trailing 27-14. Riley was not a part of it.
"That was the players getting together," he says. "I don't know what was said, but I have an idea, and I think it was good."
After yielding 24 points, 12 first downs and 248 yards in the first half against San Diego State, Oregon State limited the Aztecs to six points, six first downs and 77 yards in the second half. Eighty of the first-half yards came on a TD reception by Colin Lockett.
"We are doing some things better defensively," Riley says. "In the second half, the momentum grew, and we played really good down the stretch."
Riley singled out junior end Dylan Wynn for two big defensive plays. One came when he sniffed out a throw-back pass to quarterback Quinn Kaehler that went incomplete in the second quarter.
"If Dylan wasn't there to break it up, it might have gone for a touchdown," Riley says.
On Steven Nelson's game-winning pick-six in the fourth quarter, Wynn read the intended screen pass.
"That's when (Kaehler) threw the ball wildly," Riley says. "It started with Dylan taking the screen away."
Redshirt freshman Rommel Mageo will get his first start at middle linebacker against Colorado.
The 6-2, 245-pound native of American Samoa had a career-high six tackles against San Diego State, playing most of the final three quarters ahead of previous starter Joel Skotte.
"Joel is a good player, but he was missing tackles," Riley says. "We put Rommel in and he flat-out made plays. He's a natural middle linebacker, instinctive with a good nose for the football."
Riley has gotten to know first-year Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre, who coached San Jose State to an 11-2 record last season before taking over a program that had gone 4-20 the previous two years.
"Mike coached under Duke coach David Cutliffe, a classmate of mine at Alabama," Riley says. "Great guy, real good coach. Colorado will be a team that will grow in this conference under him."
The Buffaloes, 2-0 after wins over Colorado State (41-27) and Central Arkansas (38-24), run a pro-style offense out of the shotgun, with multiple personnel sets. Quarterback Connor Wood, a 6-5, 225-pound junior who was a backup a year ago after transferring from Texas, reminds Oregon State coaches of Utah QB Travis Wilson.
"He both runs and throws it pretty well," Riley says.
Wood has completed 56 of 82 passes for 741 yards and six touchdowns with two interceptions. Ace receiver Paul Richardson, a 6-1, 170-pound junior, has hauled in 21 passes for 417 yards and four TDs in the two games. He redshirted after knee surgery a year ago.
Colorado hasn't played since Sept. 7. The Buffaloes' Sept. 14 home game against Fresno State was cancelled due to flooding and last Saturday was a bye.
"I don't really like it, but there's no control over it," Riley says. "We can't worry about what they're doing or how they're doing it. We have to find a way to get ready ourselves to play. I like that we've got some momentum going. We have to make sure our kids are physically ready to play. We'll give them the right amount of practice, but not too much, so we're fresh, because we know (the Buffaloes) will be fresh."
NOTES -- Injury report: Enger (knee) won't play. Tackle Andrews (mononucleosis) will likely be given clearance to begin practice this week, but his availability Saturday is doubtful. Mitchell (ankle), fullback Tyler Anderson (hamstring), cornerback Sean Martin (shoulder) and long snapper Mike Morovick (knee) are all questionable. Tailback Storm Woods, who missed the San Diego State game with a concussion, will likely begin practicing Wednesday but is doubtful to see action against the Buffaloes. true freshman offensive tackle Sean Harlow came out of a potential redshirt year to play most of the San Diego State game in Mitchell's absence. "Sean battled like crazy," Riley says. "Not a perfect game, but he did a pretty darn decent job." Brandin Cooks leads the nation in receptions (43) and touchdown receptions (seven) and is second in receiving yardage (639). Steven Nelson is tied for the national lead with four interceptions. Oregon State leads the nation in red-zone efficiency, converting all 22 opportunities -- 18 touchdowns and four field goals.