NCF Nation: Sean Mannion

Pac-12's perfect passing storm

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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Athletes often refuse to play along with media storylines, or they simply are oblivious to them. That's not the case with the Pac-12's stellar 2014 crop of quarterbacks. They get it. They know they are good and you are interested. They are perfectly aware that 10 of them are returning starters, and a handful of them are expected to be early NFL draft picks this spring.

For the most part, they know each other. Many crossed paths in recruiting. Others sought each other out after games. Seven of them bonded at the Manning Passing Academy in Tbibodaux, Louisiana, this summer. There's a reasonable degree of believability when they insist they all like each other.

“It’s kind of a brother deal," said Washington State's Connor Halliday, one of seven Pac-12 quarterbacks who threw at least 20 touchdown passes a year ago. "We’re all representing the conference.”

That collegial connectedness means Halliday is perfectly willing to map out the NFL prospects of the crew, even if he opts to leave himself out -- Oregon State's Sean Mannion, he says, is the most NFL-ready, while Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley have the most upside. That chumminess means -- cover your eyes, USC and UCLA fans -- Hundley and Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler feel free to talk about how cool the other is.

The preseason scuttlebutt is the Pac-12 will follow up perhaps its best season in terms of top-to-bottom quality depth with a 2014 encore that should be even better. There's legitimacy to the belief that the Pac-12 might eclipse the SEC this fall as the nation's best conference, and that seeming apostasy begins behind center, where the SEC doesn't have a bona fide proven passer.

The Pac-12? Five returning QBs passed for more than 3,500 yards in 2013. If you give Kessler 32 more yards and Stanford's Kevin Hogan 370, then you have eight who passed for 3,000. Mariota, Hundley and Mannion are potential first-round NFL draft picks. Hogan is a three-year starter who's started in two Rose Bowls. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, some forget, was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2013 and led his team past Hundley and UCLA in the South Division. Halliday had 34 touchdown passes in 2013, while California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau were true freshman starters. Before he got hurt, Utah's Travis Wilson was good enough to lead an upset of Stanford.

Seems pretty odd to mention the USC quarterback last, but there you have it: Kessler surged late in the season and should thrive under new coach Steve Sarkisian's up-tempo scheme.

The sum is quarterback depth that has everyone gushing, including Pac-12 coaches.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Charles Baus/CSMUSC's Cody Kessler threw for 2,968 yards in 2013, a robust total that only ranked seventh in a stacked league for quarterbacks, the Pac-12.
"Oh, I don't think there is a conference that is even close in terms of the quality of quarterbacks," UCLA coach Jim Mora said.

Said Washington's Chris Petersen, who, like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez, doesn't have a returning starter at quarterback: “There’s not a crop like this coming back in the country. It’s scary when you don’t have one of those returning guys. Every week, you’re going to have to face one of them.”

The question bouncing around before the season is whether it's the best quarterback class, well, ever, and not just for the Pac-12. Maybe, maybe not.

The Pac-10 was pretty impressive in 2004: USC's Matt Leinart, California's Aaron Rodgers, Arizona State's Andrew Walter, UCLA's Drew Olson, Oregon's Kellen Clemens, Oregon State's Derek Anderson, Washington State's Alex Brink and Stanford's Trent Edwards. If you wanted, you also could throw in Utah's Alex Smith, though he was still in the Mountain West Conference at the time. A handful of those guys are still in the NFL, with Rodgers in the discussion as the best quarterback in the league.

Outside of the Pac-12, there's the Big 12 in 2008: Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Texas' Colt McCoy, Baylor's Robert Griffin III, Missouri's Chase Daniel, Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, Kansas' Todd Reesing and Kansas State's Josh Freeman.

Ultimately, a judgment will be best delivered at season's end, and things rarely go as projected in the preseason. Injuries are, unfortunately, often an issue, and the pecking order could change. Don't be shocked, for example, if the estimations of Hogan, Kessler, Halliday and Goff go way up this fall.

The obvious leader is Mariota, probably the Heisman Trophy co-favorite with Florida State's Jameis Winston, the 2013 winner. While Mariota's return for his redshirt junior season was a bit of a surprise, how he's conducted himself during the preseason is not. He's not going to get in trouble off the field and he's not a look-at-me guy on it.

“He cares more about practice rep 13 in period 12 in 7-on-7 than anyone I’ve ever been around," coach Mark Helfrich said. "That carries over to every single guy in our program.”

But Mariota doesn't top everyone's list. Washington State linebacker Darryl Monroe favors Mannion, who won the Elite 11 Counselor's Challenge this summer after leading the conference with 4,662 yards and 37 TD passes last year.

“He’s a true NFL quarterback," Monroe said. “He has one of the best arms I’ve played against. Or seen in person.”

[+] EnlargeChris Petersen
AP PhotoAside from a Nov. 15 date against Arizona, Washington coach Chris Petersen will likely face a returning starter at quarterback in every one of the Huskies' Pac-12 games.
Monroe, the boisterous contrarian, ranked Kelly No. 2.

“He ran that offense like a point guard," Monroe said.

Obviously, the expectation is that these 10 returning starters will combine talent and experience and put up huge numbers. As important as the position is, however, a good quarterback can't do it alone. He's got to have some places to deliver the ball. The good news for these guys is most have a strong supporting cast. While Mariota and Mannion have questions at receiver, that position is strong and deep throughout the conference.

Nine teams have at least three starting offensive linemen back, and five have four or more. Oregon is the only team without at least one of its top two receivers back. It's also notable that more than a few teams have questions in the secondary.

It could be a year when preseason hype meets big passing numbers. But stats are not what football is all about, either.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to winning games," Kessler said. “I don’t look at the stat box. I look at who won. Most of the time, if you look at who won, I can tell you how the quarterback played.”

That's the truth: Winning is the ultimate measure of a quarterback. More than a few Pac-12 quarterbacks through the years have put up big numbers but haven't led their teams to championships, conference or national. It's likely that the first-team All-Pac-12 quarterback this fall, a guy who should be in line for a variety of national awards and All-America honors, will be sitting atop the final standings.

As for the celebration of Pac-12 quarterbacks in 2014, some ambivalence does follow the fawning. While there is a sense of genial community when discussing the depth at the position, most coaches would rather have their guy be talented and experienced and everyone else to be searching for answers behind center.

Said Stanford coach David Shaw, “I can’t wait for some of these guys to get out of our conference, which I thought a couple of them would last year.”
The only thing the Pac-12 has to fear in the new era of the College Football Playoff is itself. Oh, and other conferences gaming the infant system.

Whatever negative perceptions formerly were held about the Pac-12 -- finesse, pass-first, defense-optional league with half-full stadiums -- are mostly dead. Though there always will be trolling mouth-breathers with tired insults, Pac-12 folks now can show up to the verbal brawl with facts and numbers and game scores and commence to deliver a dose of frenzied verbal MMA that leaves said trolls whimpering for mercy.

OK, perhaps that's going overboard. But the Pac-12 deserves credit for two things: (1) Its rating as the nation's No. 2 conference (2) Making things tougher on itself than any other conference.

The overwhelming national consensus is the Pac-12 ranks second to the SEC. As ESPN Stats & Information noted in January, "Overall, the Pac-12 finished with six teams ranked in the AP Top 25 and five teams ranked in the top 10 of ESPN's Football Power Index. As a result of its strength in the computers, the Pac-12 was the clear No. 2 conference in the Power Rankings."

[+] EnlargeRich Rodriguez
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsThe Pac-12's $3 billion broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox has been followed by an influx of big-name coaches like Arizona's Rich Rodriguez.
It wasn't just ESPN. Jeff Sagarin ranked the Pac-12 No. 2 in 2013. Phil Steel ranked the Pac-12 the No. 2 conference in 2012 and 2013, and also projected it as No. 2 in 2014. Athlon Sports did the same. In fact, if there is a conference rating system that ranked the Pac-12 anything different in 2013 and projects a lower rating this fall, we haven't seen it.

Another vote in the Pac-12's favor comes from an unquestionably unbiased -- cough, cough -- constituency: Pac-12 coaches.

"[The SEC] should claim themselves as the best league in the country because they've earned it," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "But to go through the Pac-12 and win a national championship may be the most difficult thing to do because of our schedule."

Ah, that's the worrisome rub. No other conference rides the scheduling tricycle like the Pac-12: 1. Challenging nonconference slate; 2. Nine-game conference schedule; 3. Conference championship game.

While some conferences have improved their nonconference scheduling, they don't play nine conference games. The Big 12 does play nine conference games, but it doesn't play a championship game. Pac-12 coaches aren't shy about noting that a conference team, in almost all cases, will have to play at least 11 quality games -- one tough nonconference foe, nine conference games and the Pac-12 title game -- to earn a spot in the CFP. No other conference can claim that.

There is a big reason the other conferences can't: They don't want to.

"Fair or unfair, whatever the words you want to use, we play a nine-game schedule and a conference championship game and other conferences don't on purpose," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "There is obviously a reason for that."

That's the big issue for the Pac-12 heading into the season. There is no longer a worry about respect or the perception of the Pac-12. Rather, it's about how unscathed a conference champ can hope to be against such a demanding schedule, and whether the committee will stick to its stated insistence that strength of schedule will be paramount. When a conference plays eight of the nation's 13 toughest schedules, as the Pac-12 did in 2013, the challenge to go unbeaten or even to lose just one game is far greater.

Of course, this issue won't be solved today, or even in the next couple months. The ultimate answers will be delivered in January when four semifinalists are picked and seeded.

So then, how did the Pac-12 gain ground in the perception battle -- one that has the conference starting with six teams ranked in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, including three in the top 11 with two others receiving votes?

The easy answer: money. The $3 billion broadcasting deal with ESPN and Fox was a game-changer. That money has flowed into facilities improvements and more aggressive investments in coaching -- head coaches and assistants. A concomitant influx of A-list coaches, most notably Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Todd Graham, Jim Mora and Chris Petersen, has boosted the conference's Q-rating. Those coaches also have been able to hire and -- critically -- retain key assistants with competitive salaries, such as Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell ($700,000), UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm ($650,000), Washington State defensive line coach Joe Salave'a ($275,000) and USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox (north of the $800,000 he made at Washington), among others.

No team has had a better, and perhaps more unfortunate, seat while watching the Pac-12 improve than Utah. The Utes joined the conference in 2011 as a program that had posted two unbeaten seasons and won two BCS bowl games as a member of the respected Mountain West Conference. Though they went a solid 4-5 in conference play in 2011, they slipped to 3-6 in 2012 and 2-7 in 2013, with lineups that might have been better than the 2011 squad.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
AP Photo/Eric GayOregon's Marcus Mariota is part of an impressive group of returning QBs in the Pac-12 this season.
"The thing that has been very apparent with the Pac-12 in 2011 when we entered, is the Pac-12 now is far superior from top to bottom," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "The progress this conference has made in the last few years is phenomenal."

What separates the Pac-12 this season -- and could make it a legitimate threat for the No. 1 conference -- is behind center. Not only does the conference welcome back 10 starting quarterbacks, a majority of those are NFL prospects.

"I've never seen anything like this," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "You have multiple guys that you could say could be the No. 1 pick overall in the draft. You have multiple guys in the conference that could be All-Americans and lead the nation in quarterback rating or lead the nation in passing."

The most notable quarterbacks are Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley, Heisman Trophy candidates blinking brightly on NFL radars who lead teams favored to win their respective divisions. Hundley will get an early showcase game against Texas, and Mariota and the Ducks play host to Michigan State, the Big Ten favorite, in Week 2. And the Ducks and Bruins could meet each other twice this season.

But they also must contend with Arizona State's Taylor Kelly, Oregon State's Sean Mannion, USC's Cody Kessler, Stanford's Kevin Hogan, Washington State's Connor Halliday, Utah's Travis Wilson, California's Jared Goff and Colorado's Sefo Liufau, each capable of posting a spectacular individual performance that could spawn an upset.

The Pac-12 is plenty hyped heading into the 2014 season. There is no perception problem. There might, however, end up being a reality problem. If the Pac-12 champion ends up with two losses, and the selection committee has a handful of Power Five conference teams with one or fewer defeats, the Pac-12 could get a respectful tip of the cap but end up out of luck in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Oregon State Beavers season preview

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
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» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC.


Previewing the 2014 season for the Oregon State Beavers:

2013 record: 7-6, 4-5 in Pac-12; beat Boise State 38-23 in Sheraton Hawaii Bowl

Final grade for 2013: C-minus. The Beavers had a dynamic pass-catch combination in Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks but little else. The back-loaded schedule probably made the season feel worse than it was, but a 7-6 finish was a win or two below realistic preseason expectations.

Key returnees: QB Mannion, OL Isaac Seumalo, TE Connor Hamlett, S Ryan Murphy, CB Steven Nelson, DE Dylan Wynn, LB Michael Doctor

Key losses: WR Cooks, DE Scott Crichton, CB Rashaad Reynolds

Instant impact newcomers: DT Jalen Grimble, OT Bobby Keenan

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsOregon State senior Sean Mannion threw for 4,662 yards last season, but he doesn't have Brandin Cooks as his go-to receiver this time around.
Projected winning percentage (ESPN.com Stats & Information): .590

Chances to win the conference (ESPN.com Stats & Information): 0.9 percent

Best-case scenario: 9-3

Worst-case scenario: 6-6

Over-under win total (Bovada): 7

Biggest question mark: How does the offense -- read: Mannion -- adjust to life after Cooks, who was the best receiver in the nation in 2013? Who steps up at receiver, and does the running game get going?

Most important game: Nov. 22 at Washington. The Huskies embarrassed the Beavers in Corvallis last year, and this game might determine the No. 3 spot in the Pac-12 North.

Upset special: Oct. 25 at Stanford. The Cardinal might be looking ahead to their Nov. 1 date at Oregon, and the Beavers played Stanford tough in 2013.

They said it: "There's no doubt about it. I think I actually became a little bit of a victim of it myself early because we were so good throwing the ball for six games." -- Oregon State coach Mike Riley, on whether he passed too much in 2013

Top Pac-12 players: Nos. 10-6

July, 31, 2014
Jul 31
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Our list of the Top 25 players in the Pac-12 continues.

10. Oregon C Hroniss Grasu

Why he's ranked here: Grasu is one of three players in the conference -- all from Oregon -- to have been named first-team All-Pac-12 the last two seasons. As a junior in 2013, he was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's best center, and the undoubted leader of the Ducks' offensive line that blocked for the conference's No. 1 rushing attack. Grasu enters his final year in Eugene having started all 40 games of his career with a chance to leave his mark as one of the Ducks' all-time greats. And as good as Grasu and the line were a year ago, they should be better this year with all five starters back and some talented players behind them who could push for playing time in training camp.

9. Stanford WR Ty Montgomery

2013 stats: Caught 61 passes for 958 yards and 10 touchdowns, and ranked second nationally averaging 30.3 yards per kickoff return.

Why he's ranked here: When Montgomery is on the field for Stanford, he's the team's best player. Whether that's as a receiver or kick returner, he's the one guy who has consistently proved he can change a game on any given snap. There's minimal concern he won't be 100 percent for the start of the season due to an arm injury, but Montgomery said Wednesday he's not limited when it comes to running, catching or lifting weights. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, with just 4 percent body fat, Montgomery certainly didn't look injured. "When he comes back, he might be the most explosive player in college football, and he's going to touch the ball in every single way possible," Stanford coach David Shaw said at Pac-12 media days. It remains to be seen whether we should take Shaw literally and add punt return duties to Montgomery's other responsibilities, but there have been discussion about that as well. When comparing Montgomery as a receiver to the other two receivers listed below, there's really not much separation -- a solid case can be made to have each of them in front of the other.

8. Arizona State WR Jaelen Strong

2013 stats: Caught 75 passes for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns in his first year with ASU.

Why he's ranked here: Perhaps no one in the conference made as strong an immediate impact as Strong did last year after arriving at ASU from Pierce College in Los Angeles. He eclipsed the 100-yard receiving mark in five of his first six games and finished fourth in the Pac-12 with 1,122 receiving yards. The three players who finished ahead of him -- Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Colorado's Paul Richardson and Oregon's Josh Huff -- are all off to the NFL. Like Montgomery, Strong is physically imposing and at 6-4, 212 pounds makes a dangerous red zone target for quarterback Taylor Kelly. Of the 25 players the Pac-12 blog has deemed the conference's best, Kelly-Strong is the only quarterback-receiver tandem to be included together on the list (you'll see where Kelly lands Friday morning). They're the main reason ASU coach Todd Graham proclaimed at Pac-12 media days that "This will be the best offensive football team that I've ever coached." If Strong makes the kind of jump Cooks made from 2012 to 2013, it shouldn't surprise anyone.

7. USC WR Nelson Agholor

2013 stats: Caught 56 passes for 918 yards and six touchdowns and also returned kicks (17.5 avg) and punts (19.1 avg)

Why he's ranked here: On a team that featured 2012 Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee, Agholor was simply the better receiver in 2013 and his value to the Trojans stretched further than that because of how he could impact games as a return man. What Montgomery was to Stanford on kickoff returns, Agholor was for the Trojans on punt returns. He returned two for touchdowns, and his 19.1 average was a new school record and ranked second nationally. With Lee off to the NFL, a second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Agholor figures to see his receiving numbers improve -- even if that means more attention from opposing defenses. Agholor has developed a reputation for being an NFL-caliber route runner and is among the nation's most dangerous receivers after the catch. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Agholor as the No. 3 receiver on his Way-Too-Early Big Board (one spot behind Strong).

6. Oregon State QB Sean Mannion

2013 stats: Threw for a Pac-12 record 4,662 yards with 35 touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

Why he's ranked here: By the time the NFL draft rolls around, Mannion might just end up being the top quarterback on some teams' boards. He's that talented. With 10,436 career passing yards, Mannion already sits at No. 10 on the conference's all-time passing list and, assuming he stays healthy, should have no problem passing Matt Barkley's record of 12,327. Mannion admits he had a great relationship with former offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who left to become the quarterbacks coach for the New York Giants, but he has already grown under the tutelage of Langsdorf's replacement, John Garrett. "It has been good to get another perspective, another coach to learn from," Mannion said at Pac-12 media days. "It was tough to see [Langsdorf] go, but I think it'll end up being beneficial." Mannion is also the first Oregon State player to be selected team captain three times. Kiper ranked him as the No. 2 senior NFL quarterback prospect in the country.

Check out the rest of the rankings here: Nos. 25-21, Nos. 20-16, Nos. 16-11
For his career, Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion has officially carried 84 times for minus-498 yards. That's an average of minus-5.9 yards per carry, for those scrambling for a calculator. He has one career rushing touchdown. It came in 2011 and was, naturally, a 1-yard score. Of course, those numbers are deflated by the 61 times he's been sacked. But you get the idea.

Sean Mannion isn't a runner.

And in a conference silly with running quarterbacks and Heisman hopefuls and unprecedented depth at the position, Mannion is the old-school prototypical pocket passer. Big (6-foot-5). Sturdy (220 pounds). And productive to the tune of 10,436 career passing yards and 68 touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion
Steve Conner/Icon SMISean Mannion's skilled pocket game will probably make him the Pac-12's all-time leading passer by Halloween.
By the time you're buying your Halloween costume, Mannion will probably be the Pac-12's all-time leading passer. And yet that almost seems blasť with excess of quarterback talent in the league this year. He's not a Heisman frontrunner, or, as we've already established, any kind of runner for that matter. That hype belongs to Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley.

He wasn't first- or second-team all-conference, despite 4,662 passing yards and 37 touchdowns in 2013. Those honors went to Mariota and ASU's Taylor Kelly. Heck, even Stanford's Kevin Hogan, who operates a pro-style scheme, broke through because the coaching staff designed a special read-and-run option package for him. And with "raid" quarterbacks Jared Goff and Connor Halliday, Mannion isn't even the only pocket guy.

No question, Mannion has NFL talent. He was given a third-round grade by the NFL Draft Advisory Board. And with another strong year, he might develop into a first-round talent, given his frame, his understanding of the pro-style offense and his skill set. But in the Pac-12 pecking order, where exactly does he fit in?

"I don't really know. And to be honest, it's not something I spend a lot of time thinking about," Mannion said. "I don't think about pecking order. I feel like when I'm playing well and at my best, I'm as good as or better than anyone. But all I'm worrying about is being the best Sean Mannion I can be. But I also know I'm as good as anyone when I'm at my best."

It's been a whirlwind couple of weeks for Mannion, who won skills competitions at both the Elite 11 camp and the Manning Passing Academy. To claim the crown at the Manning Camp, he had to connect with moving golf carts moving at distances of 10 and 20 yards and a "deep ball" cart. Not surprising, Mannion went 4-for-4 on the deep ball. He did, after all, spend all of last year throwing to Biletnikoff winner Brandin Cooks. And Cooks is faster than a golf cart.

"Yes, he certainly is," Mannion said. "But it was more about getting the ball out of your hand fast and getting your grip and getting rid of it."

This time last year, Mannion didn't even know if he'd be Oregon State's starting quarterback, let alone go on to have a record-setting season. A 2012 quarterback competition with Cody Vaz spilled into the 2013 summer, leaving many to wonder if Mannion would ever develop into an upper-echelon quarterback. He proved more than capable last year, re-writing school and conference records along the way.

"Right now, I feel like I'm as prepared as I've ever been," Mannion said. "Even last year with the whole controversy or competition or whatever, at that time, I felt like I was as prepared as I could possibly be. It was a little tough because you weren't really sure what was going to happen Week 1. But now I'm able to take a deep breath and not worry about that and just keep preparing."

And that means improving on those skills that make him an intriguing NFL prospect. Like getting the ball out quicker -- a skill he shored up at the Manning Academy. It also means playing to his strengths. And Mannion knows what his are ... and aren't. So while other notable Pac-12 quarterbacks will be getting it done in the air and on the ground, Mannion will stick to what he does best.

"College football has transitioned so much more into the spread and the shotgun and running quarterbacks," he said. "I'm not a big runner. So I think I landed in the right spot. There are still a lot of good pro-style systems out there. And this has been, for me, the perfect fit."

The Pac-12 entered spring practices with more clarity and quality at quarterback than any conference in the nation by a wide margin. It exits with even more clarity at the position.

With new USC coach Steve Sarkisian announcing that Cody Kessler retained his starting job, and Utah's Travis Wilson's apparently successful return from a career-threatening medical condition (an intracranial artery injury diagnosed in November), the Pac-12 welcomes back 10 returning starters heading into the fall, with a handful -- such as Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley, Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion -- who are candidates for All-America honors and national awards.

Further, it became clear this spring that the Pac-12 is overflowing with quality receivers, with several teams combining depth, talent and experience at the position. So things figure to be pass happy in the fall.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Williams
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC junior defensive lineman Leonard Williams is one of the few Pac-12 defensive stars returning this season.
But what about defense? After all, they say, defense wins championships, and Woody Hayes told us, "Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad," an optimistic take that leaves out the quarterback sack.

While conference teams average 6.4 returning starters on defense, and just three -- Arizona State (3), Oregon (5) and Utah (5) -- welcome back fewer than six starters on that side of the ball, the loss of star power is notable.

Just two first-team All-Pac-12 defenders return in 2014: USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams and Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Only four from the second team return.

Washington defensive end Hau'oli Kikaha and Oregon outside linebacker Tony Washington are the only returning defenders who ranked among the conference's top 12 in sacks last season. The same is true in the secondary: Only two of the top eight interception leaders are back in 2014.

So, without marquee guys chasing them or trying to steal their passes, life seems good at quarterback heading into the offseason. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, few teams seem to be fretting their situation on the mean side of the ball.

Take Stanford, owner of the Pac-12's best defense in 2013. While the Cardinal appeared more settled on offense than defense entering spring practices, the defense mostly ruled when the ball was snapped.

"No question," Cardinal coach David Shaw said. "If you look at our defensive front, it's a bunch of fourth-year and fifth-year seniors ... we've got a lot of guys coming back who've played a lot of football for us."

While Stanford lost some big names, such as linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov, it also welcomes back a strong foundation of seven returning starters and experienced backups. Shaw noted that Aziz Shittu is only non-fourth- or fifth-year guy in the mix for playing time in the front seven. He lauded defensive end Henry Anderson, an athletic 6-foot-6, 295 pounder, this spring as a potential breakout star this season, with an NFL future.

Over at Oregon, the Ducks are not only replacing two of three defensive linemen and three starters in the secondary, they also are breaking in a new defensive coordinator, as Don Pellum moved up from linebackers coach to replace the retiring Nick Aliotti.

Yet even when matched against Mariota and a potent and experienced Ducks offense, the defense held its own.

"I think we've had a great give and take as far as who's had the upper hand," Ducks coach Mark Helfrich said. "Marcus is obviously a difference-maker and a special guy. Defensively, we're building where we need to be. It was good give and take overall."

In the South Division, UCLA and USC both look strong on defense despite losing some marquee players. Both welcome back eight starters from accomplished units. Defending champion Arizona State lost almost all of its star power, but Sun Devils coach Todd Graham was almost defiant all spring about his expectations for his defense.

Of course, he's also counting on a number of newcomers playing key roles, which often is a matter of keeping the ole fingers crossed.

“People come here to play defense, that’s what we’re known for," he said. "We’re known for defense, so I don’t expect anything less than last year.”

While there might be some defensive questions among the teams thought to be competing for division championships, the defenses that finished on the bottom in 2013 could be much improved.

Oregon State, Colorado and California, the Nos. 9, 11 and 12 scoring defenses last season, each welcome back eight starters. The Golden Bears and Beavers, in particular, could dramatically improve if injury woes from 2013 reverse themselves.

"I think our team is tougher and better conditioned and our players are in a much better place than they were last year," Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. "I think that's something players noticed. We have some experience coming back. It's the second year in the system. So, yeah, I think everybody feels like we're a lot better football team than we were a year ago."

It seems certain that Pac-12 offenses will again be high-flying and potent in 2014. But the conference teams that have earned BCS bowl berths the past decade or so also have played good defense. As we exit spring and head into the offseason, there is hope -- but not nearly as much certainty -- there.

3-point stance: Pac-12 QB talent

April, 24, 2014
Apr 24
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1. According to ESPN Insider and Reese’s Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, it’s a thin year for veteran quarterbacks everywhere but the Pac-12. Listing the top pro prospects for the 2015 NFL draft, Savage, speaking with me on the ESPNU College Football Podcast on Wednesday, started with Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA, then tossed in Sean Mannion of Oregon State. Not to mention the league has Kevin Hogan of Stanford, Taylor Kelly of Arizona State and Cody Kessler of USC.

2. Dabo Swinney is a good man and a stand-up guy. He is proud of his Christianity and believes it can help others as much as it has helped him. As the coach of Clemson, a public university in a religious state, he is preaching to the choir. I’d bet it never occurred to Swinney that he stepped over the line between church and state, perhaps because the line is blurrier in South Carolina than in Madison, Wis., where the Freedom From Religion Foundation is based. If the foundation’s complaint makes Swinney realize again that everyone is not Christian, then the foundation’s complaint is a success.

3. The town of State College is crowdsourcing a statue to honor the late Joe Paterno, and it’s wonderful that the planned site is not far from Old Main, the home of the Penn State administration that removed the original Paterno statue from outside of Beaver Stadium in July 2012. What are the university administrators thinking? Do they understand they never should have made the removal of the statue permanent? Do they understand how much they rushed to judgment to vilify Paterno? When will they do their part to restore Paterno’s place of honor in Penn State history? The locals are doing their part.
In typical Mike Riley fashion, when asked to name his biggest concern heading into spring ball, the dean of the conference coaches countered with a quip: “Do I have to just name one?”

[+] EnlargeStorm Woods
Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY SportsStorm Woods may be one of the keys to a more balanced attack this season.
Well, at least he doesn’t have to worry about a quarterback competition this spring. But there are several to-do’s on his checklist. Among them: Rework the offensive line, solidify the defensive line, shore up the secondary and pick a backup quarterback.

Oh, yeah: “Find a way to replace 128 catches,” he said, referring to Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks, who left school early for the NFL draft.

It’s actually the success of Cooks and quarterback Sean Mannion that led to one of Riley’s biggest pet peeves last season: the inability to successfully, consistently, run the football.

Several times last year, Riley stated that he wanted the Beavers to be more balanced. Then again, when you have a strong-armed quarterback such as Mannion and a phenomenal receiver such as Cooks, the temptation is there to air it out as much as possible.

But with Cooks gone, Riley said he’s looking to make a return to a more balanced rushing attack. In 2011, the Beavers averaged just 86 yards per game on the ground -- last in the conference. Then, in 2012, they brought that number up to a respectable 124 yards per game. But they slipped again in 2013 with just 94 yards per game on the ground.

“I think ... what caused the most problems for us in the season offensively was when we got to the real good defenses,” Riley said. “We played the top three defenses in the league three weeks in a row -- Stanford, Arizona State and USC -- and not running the ball is really a detriment to winning those games. We didn’t. We’ve got to be more balanced.”

The Beavers rushed for more than 100 yards in five of 13 games last season. In six games, they gained 74 yards or fewer, including a season-low 10 against San Diego State and 17 against Stanford. However, the final two games offered a glimpse of what Riley wants his offense to look like. The Beavers rushed for a season-high 231 yards in a Civil War loss to Oregon and 195 yards in the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl victory over Boise State.

“Those were two good-looking football games offensively,” Riley said. “That is a way better picture of our ideal look. Good balance, good play-action passes. I think it really helps the offensive line. It helps the quarterback. It helps in protection if you can run the ball.”

Storm Woods and Terron Ward are already separated by an “or” on the depth chart and the status of the offensive line further complicates things. The Beavers have to replace three starters on the offensive line: left tackle Michael Philipp, left guard Josh Andrews and right guard Grant Enger. Though standout center Isaac Seumalo returns, he’ll miss spring ball with a foot injury and Josh Mitchell will miss the session with a shoulder injury. Both are expected back for fall camp. Returning tackle Sean Harlow is tentatively slated at left guard, but he’s versatile enough to move around the line and will get some snaps at center.

“You’d love to start developing the chemistry with the starting five as soon as you can,” Riley said. “Because of competition reasons and injuries, we’re not even going to be close to that in spring ball. We just have to develop players and then find out who fits into that top five.”

As for the guy who is handing the ball off, there’s no debate this spring. Mannion is back after a record-setting 2013 season. The battle to be the backup, however, is up for grabs between Brent VanderVeen and Kyle Kempt.

“It is an open competition,” Riley said. “Even though Brent is a year ahead, I think we need to let that thing evolve and let those guys compete to see who is going to be the backup.”
Two years ago, the Pac-12 had an Oregon problem. The Ducks had won three consecutive conference titles and were among the favored to make it four. They didn't. Now the Ducks, and the rest of the Pac-12, have a Stanford problem, as the Cardinal have won two titles in a row.

[+] EnlargeDevon Kell, Marcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsA fully healthy Marcus Mariota should again be one of the Pac-12's top Heisman candidates.
Further, considering that USC won six consecutive conference crowns from 2003 to 2008, it's fair to say the Pac-12 has a diversity problem. It didn't used to be like that. From 1995 to 2002, seven teams won conference titles. The only repeat winner? Washington State.

Is 2014 the season for a new color scheme at the top? Will the South (Division) rise again? (We're eyeballing you, UCLA.) While we're at it, will the conference, which last won a national title in 2004, break through this fall, finishing atop the inaugural four-team College Football Playoff?

These are the big-picture questions that start to get answered as Pac-12 teams begin spring practice. Stanford got rolling Monday. Arizona, Washington and Colorado hit the field next week. Oregon and UCLA won't get cracking until April 1, and the Ducks and Oregon State won't finish until May 3, officially sending us into the long, hot days of the summer offseason.

As is the case most years, there's a little old and a little new in the Pac-12 this spring.

Start with the head coaches. USC and Washington will hit the field for the first time with new guys in charge, making Oregon State and Utah the only two conference teams headed by the same guy since the 2010 season. Neither coach is much of a stranger. USC hired Steve Sarkisian away from the Huskies, and Washington turned around and lured Chris Petersen away from Boise State.

The bigger area of turnover was coordinators. Just three teams didn't make any changes on the top of their offensive and defensive units: Arizona, Colorado and Washington State.

There will be more stability at quarterback. Ten teams welcome back their 2013 starters, if we can be optimistic enough to include Utah's Travis Wilson, who will practice this spring with no contact but still has not been fully cleared to continue his career due to a pre-existing medical condition.

Arizona and Washington will stage full-on competitions to replace B.J. Denker and Keith Price, respectively. Wilson's uncertain status makes the Utes' QB situation complicated, while at USC, touted redshirt freshman Max Browne is expected to provide a strong challenge to incumbent starter Cody Kessler.

Meanwhile, the returning QB talent is strong. Oregon's Marcus Mariota and UCLA's Brett Hundley will be near the top of every preseason Heisman Trophy watch list. Arizona State's Taylor Kelly and Oregon State's Sean Mannion aren't too far behind.

The situation at running back and receiver is not as strong. The top four rushers from 2013 are gone: Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, Washington's Bishop Sankey, Stanford's Tyler Gaffney and Arizona State's Marion Grice. The top three receivers -- as well as USC's Marqise Lee -- also are off to the NFL: Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, Colorado's Paul Richardson and Oregon's Josh Huff.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sarkisian
Kirby Lee/University of Southern California/Collegiate Images/Getty ImagesSteve Sarkisian has switched divisions but takes over a USC team that finished third in the Pac-12 South.
There are a lot of voids across the conference on defense as well. Just one first-team All-Pac-12 performer is back -- Ducks CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu -- and just four on the second team. The six players who led the conference in tackles for a loss are gone: Stanford's Trent Murphy, UCLA's Anthony Barr, Oregon State's Scott Crichton, Arizona State's Carl Bradford, Utah's Trevor Reilly and Arizona State's Chris Young.

While Stanford and Oregon -- it used to be Oregon and Stanford -- will remain the favorites among many, both have big questions on defense. The Ducks will be projected ahead of the Cardinal, however, because of Mariota's return and Stanford having to replace Gaffney and four starting O-linemen.

Yet this go-around, Stanford has the winning streak in the series and consecutive crowns and Oregon has the chip on its shoulder.

"It's not that we should [have a chip on our shoulder]. It's that we need to," Oregon running back Byron Marshall said. "Like you said, Stanford has kind of had our number the past couple of years. … As one of the leaders on this team, it's my job to remind everyone that [Stanford] beat us the last two years. It hasn't really been a close game. It might be close by score, but they've dominated us in both performances. We need to have a chip on our shoulder in order to get where we want to this year."

That last line pretty much applies to every Pac-12 team this spring.

The conference was as deep as it's ever been in 2013 and a record six teams ended up ranked in the final Associated Press poll, but the conference produced just one BCS bowl team and no team finished in the final top eight.

Will a Pac-12 team advance from good to elite in 2014? Spring practice provides an important step toward that possibility.

Heisman Trophy contenders in Pac-12

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Despite being a top-two conference in college football, the Pac-12 was inexplicably shut out when it came to Heisman Trophy finalists. Of course, if the award took into account the entire season, both Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey probably would have been there.

After the bowls, would anyone have voted for Jordan Lynch over Mariota or Andre Williams over Carey? Doubtful.

Here's a look at the Pac-12's top five Heisman Trophy candidates in 2014:

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Steve Conner/Icon SMIOregon signal-caller Marcus Mariota finished the 2013 season on a high note, with a blowout victory over Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

Mariota shouldn't just be considered the front-runner from the Pac-12, he should be considered the favorite to win the award, period.

Yes, Florida State's Jameis Winston will still be around, but if he were to repeat as the Heisman winner, the Multiple Heisman Club would double in size. History isn't on his side.

Statistically, Mariota has been among the country's best quarterbacks in each of the past two seasons, which bodes well for his candidacy. Plus, Oregon will begin the season as the Pac-12 favorite and a national title contender.

There's nothing to question about Mariota's talent, as his decision to stay at Oregon for another season might have prevented him from becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. However, spurning the NFL for another year in college didn't help the Heisman chances of the past two Pac-12 quarterbacks who made a similar decision (See: Luck, Andrew and Barkley, Matt).

2. Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

Mariota wasn't the only Pac-12 quarterback who might have turned down the opportunity to be the first quarterback drafted -- Hundley fits that description, too. And when he decided to return to UCLA, the Bruins instantly became the favorites in the Pac-12 South.

If the Bruins, who finished ranked No. 16 last season, take a step forward next season, it'll likely be because of a big year from Hundley.

The schedule sets up well for Hundley, too. The Bruins have an East Coast game (at Virginia) to open the season, play Texas in Arlington, Texas, Oregon at home and finish the regular season with back-to-back home games against USC and Stanford. That's exposure.

3. Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA

In just five games, Jack made quite the impression running the ball. Take his stats and extrapolate them over a 13-game season and he would have finished with 694 yards and 18 touchdowns. That touchdown total would have equaled that of Heisman finalist Andre Williams.

Those would be pretty good numbers for a running back, but for a linebacker? Defense is where Jack belongs despite being named both the conference's Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year.

It might seem strange on the surface, but it's unlikely Bruins coach Jim Mora wants Jack to be a serious Heisman candidate. What it'll mean is that UCLA hasn't found a better option at running back, which is ideally what it'll do between now and its season opener.

[+] EnlargeKevon Seymour, Taylor Kelly
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesArizona State QB Taylor Kelly finished the 2013 season with 28 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions.
4. Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State

How good was Kelly this year? Good enough for the coaches in the conference to vote him ahead of Hundley and Sean Mannion onto the All-Pac-12 second team.

He threw for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while guiding one of the nation's highest-scoring offenses. The Sun Devils finished No. 11 in the country, averaging 39.7 points per game.

Like Mariota and Hundley, Kelly gets it done with his legs, too. He rushed for 608 yards and the same amount of touchdowns as Johnny Manziel (9). We know how the Heisman voters love their dual-threat quarterbacks.

5. Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State

Mannion will enter the 2014 season as the nation's active leader in passing yards (10,436) and will be in position to shatter Barkley's career conference record (12,327).

When the Beavers sat at 6-1, Mannion was firmly in the Heisman race, but a five-game losing streak took the wind out of those sails. He still set the Pac-12 single-season passing record (4,662) and was rated high enough to earn a third-round grade from NFL scouts.

Losing Biletnikoff Award winner Brandin Cooks will be tough to compensate for -- although the same was said about losing Markus Wheaton going into last season -- and winning counts. If the Beavers improve it'll likely be due to a better running game, which could hurt Mannion statistically.

Early entry talent drain for Pac-12

January, 6, 2014
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While the return of UCLA QB Brett Hundley for his redshirt junior season was the weekend's big news, an early-entry to the NFL draft talent drain is hitting the Pac-12 hard.

While a number of big-name players have not yet formally announced their intensions -- such as Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey, Stanford OG David Yankey, Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Arizona State LB Carl Bradford and Oregon State QB Sean Mannion -- already 17 players have announced they will give up their remaining eligibility to turn professional.

The deadline to declare is Jan. 15.

There has been good news at quarterback. Hundley joins Oregon's Marcus Mariota as pretty significant surprises that they opted to return to school, and that means the 2014 class of Pac-12 quarterbacks will be without peer in the nation by a wide margin.

Here's the early-entry list so far:

Dion Bailey, LB, USC
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
George Uko, DT, USC
Marcus Martin, C, USC
Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado
Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon
Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon*
Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon
Khairi Fortt, LB, California
Kameron Jackson, CB, California
Richard Rodgers, TE California
Jake Murphy, TE, Utah

*Lyerla was kicked off the team at Oregon in October.
Here's our take on Oregon State's win over Boise State in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

It was over when: It never really got started. Oregon State dominated on both sides of the ball from bell to bell. When Oregon State went up 38-6 with eight minutes left in the third quarter, sportswriters everywhere started typing (cough, cough).

Game ball goes to: The Beavers as a whole. There really wasn't a standout player in this win -- well, other than Oregon State CB Rashaad Reynolds (see below) -- but what was notable was a team that had lost five in a row playing perhaps its most complete game of the season. While it has been a tough year for Mike Riley, the bowl performance clearly suggests he has not lost his locker room.

Key stat: Oregon State, a team that struggled to run the ball and stop the run all season, averaged 5.9 yards per carry while the Broncos averaged 4.1 yards per carry. That reveals how the Beavers owned the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Oregon State rushed for 195 yards, Boise State 155.

Unsung hero: Reynolds returned fumbles 3 and 70 yards for touchdowns in the first half as the Beavers took charge of the game. Not sure if that qualifies as "unsung," but it was a pretty efficient way to make life easy for the Beavers.

What it means for Oregon State: It means Riley and Oregon State end 2013 with a winning record and a bowl win, as well as a team that sets up well for 2014. The Pac-12 North again won't be easy next fall, but what's coming back next August in Corvallis -- even without early NFL entries Brandin Cooks and Scott Crichton -- looks stronger than what came back last August.

What it means for Boise State: While Boise State fans will fret the first post-Chris Petersen performance, this bowl game doesn't mean much for the program. Sure, plenty of folks will be skeptical whether the Broncos can continue to be nationally relevant. But it's up to new coach Bryan Harsin and the Broncos as a whole to show the doubters it will be business as usual for the top non-AQ power. That can only happen next fall. And, by the way, the Broncos have a lot coming back.

To watch the trophy presentation of the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, click here.

Hawaii Bowl preview

December, 24, 2013
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Oregon State will take on Boise State on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET (ESPN) in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

Here's a quick preview:

Who to watch: Both teams have quarterback questions, though of a very different nature. Oregon State QB Sean Mannion put up big numbers this year for the one-dimensional Beavers, but he threw 11 of his 14 interceptions over the final four games. Will the time off get him back up to speed? Or will he again struggle with accuracy and decision making? Boise State has junior Grant Hedrick behind center, the backup to suspended starter Joe Southwick. The good news for the Broncos is Hedrick has been the starter since Southwick hurt his foot on Oct. 19 against Nevada. He went 4-2 and mostly played well.

What to watch: Oregon State is terrible against the run. It ranked 11th in the Pac-12 and 91st in the nation in run defense, yielding 193.2 yards per game. But that's not the worst of it. Opposing runners averaged 5.2 yards per carry, which ranked 107th in the nation and last in the conference. Boise State running back Jay Ajayi is outstanding. He rushed for 1,328 yards and 17 TDs, averaging 5.9 per carry this year. Meanwhile, the Broncos struggle against the pass, with opposing quarterbacks completing 64 percent of their throws for 248.4 yards per game. The Beavers with Mannion and WR Brandin Cooks should be able to take advantage.

Why to watch: It will be interesting to see how both teams react, because the more motivated and focused team likely wins. Oregon State is riding a dispiriting five-game losing streak, due in large part to a back-loaded schedule. Is it enough motivation knowing a victory gives the Beavers a winning record and a loss means a losing one for the third time in four seasons? For the Broncos, they are playing their first game since coach Chris Petersen, who built Boise State into a national power, shocked some when he bolted for Washington. They will be led by interim coach Bob Gregory before Bryan Harsin takes over. The Broncos should be motivated to show the nation the program will continue to thrive against AQ foes, even without Peterson.

Predictions: Kevin: Oregon State 38, Boise State 35. Ted: Boise State 38, Oregon State 35.
Oregon State was a team needing a touch of good news.

Losers of five straight -- including a heartbreaking one-point loss to rival Oregon in the season finale Civil War -- the Beavers closed out the year with an uninspired thud after jumping out to a 6-1 start.

Enter Brandin Cooks, the newly crowned best wide receiver in America. When he took home the Biletnikoff Award last week for the top receiver in the country, it was an opportunity for the Beavers to take a step back from the crush of negativity that had surrounded them the last six weeks and re-focus on the things they did well this season.

And a gracious Cooks was sure to tip his cap to everyone who helped make it possible -- including his quarterback, Sean Mannion.

“I have to thank Sean for everything he did to help me get this award,” Cooks said. “This isn’t just for me. It’s for my teammates and it’s for the program. It took a lot of things for me to get this so it all goes to my teammates.”

[+] EnlargeSean Mannion, Brandin Cooks
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesSean Mannion and Brandin Cooks have formed a productive partnership for Oregon State.
Mannion was a bit more reserved at taking some of the praise. True, Cooks is catching what Mannion tosses. But in Mannion’s mind, it’s all Cooks.

“It’s Brandin’s award,” Mannion said. “It’s not mine. He’s an outstanding player. He earned that award and I’m lucky I get to play with him. When I was watching him on TV, I was really proud to see him win. Not only is he a great player, but I know what kind of guy he is on and off the field. He’s a guy that will do anything for our team. It’s his deal and I’m just lucky I get to tag along for the ride.”

The ride will last at least one more game when the Beavers travel to Hawaii to take on Boise State on Christmas Eve in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. Cooks said he’ll make a decision on whether to turn pro probably a couple of days after the bowl game. Mannion said he hasn’t set a timetable for himself.

We know this. When the Beavers are clicking offensively, they can be tough to stop. Through the first seven games they averaged 44.1 points per game. Over the last five that number dipped to 21 points per game. Quality of competition over those last five weeks (Stanford, USC, ASU, Washington, Oregon) certainly has to be taken into consideration.

Mannion and Cooks have already set numerous single-season school records. And they’ve connected for touchdowns 15 times this year and 22 times in their careers, making them Oregon State’s most prolific QB-WR tandem.

After starting the first eight games with 30 passing touchdowns to just three interceptions, Mannion has slipped the final four games with just six touchdowns to 11 interceptions. Cooks said he has all the confidence in his quarterback that he can get them back on track against the Broncos.

“He looks as strong as he did during the preseason,” Cooks said. “He’s on fire right now and he looks like the Sean we all know. We’re confident in him that he’s going to get us this W.”

Added Mannion: “There are a handful of plays I really want back. Unfortunately those resulted in interceptions. But they are simple mistakes. They are things I can correct.”

For as much as Mannion is the leader by default of his position, Cooks has taken on a much stronger role as a voice of the team. That’s something he learned last year studying Markus Wheaton and the way he would lead. There were a lot of questions coming into the season about whether Cooks could get it done without Wheaton on the other side of him. But he took the knowledge Wheaton gave him and applied it to 2013. The end result is a record-setting season and the highest honor someone at his position can garner.

“All the little things he would do he passed down to me and that’s made me the receiver I am,” Cooks said. “I saw the way he acted and how he became the leader of the offense and I tried to do that. He was a huge part of my success.”

And now the Beavers will try to replicate that success for one more game and put a positive stamp on a season that had its share of highs and lows.

“We want to get back to playing good football,” Mannion said. “We got off to a real good start, but even then we really hadn’t played a complete game. We really want to finish on a high note and play a complete game against Boise.”

Civil War features two grumpy teams

November, 29, 2013
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If misery loves company, the Civil War might be more civil this season. At least, Oregon and Oregon State -- fans, coaches and players -- can commiserate with each other on what horrible losses and disappointing season downturns feel like.

The Ducks and Beavers arrive at their annual showdown with their mid-season swagger replaced by a limp. The Ducks, eyeballing the national title game much of the year, have lost two of three and now must contemplate their first BCS bowl-less season since 2008. The Beavers, 6-1 a month ago, had bounced back from an opening loss to Eastern Washington to regain a national ranking, but they are now riding a four-game losing streak that was capped by a miserable white flag performance against Washington.

The Ducks were blown out last weekend 42-16 by an Arizona team that had lost at home the previous week to Washington State. The Beavers gave up 692 yards -- 530 yards rushing! -- in a humiliating 69-27 home loss to the Huskies.

What went wrong for the Beavers? "What didn't?" replied coach Mike Riley.

"I would have to say that was as out of character as I've seen us play ever," Riley said. "I shouldn't say I'm at a loss, but we just have to coach better and play better."

Oregon also seemed to lose its poise last week. First, De'Anthony Thomas and Josh Huff caused a stir midweek by saying they weren't excited about playing in the Rose Bowl. That inspired national chortling about karma when the Ducks face-planted, thereby eliminating themselves from consideration from the slighted Granddaddy.

The loss also created some tension for first-year coach Mark Helfrich when the inevitable, "That wouldn't have happened to a Chip Kelly coached team," was broached by a fan base that hadn't suffered through a loss to an unranked team since 2009, Kelly's first season. Helfrich made no excuse for the Ducks’ woeful performance.

"We certainly didn't play up to our normal standard and like I said on game day that starts and ends with me," Helfrich said.

So what of the Civil War? Oregon is a three-touchdown favorite, but the real question is do both teams show up with something resembling their A-game? Or does just one?

"The team that handles wherever they are right now the best has the best chance to look good and play well," Riley said. "Now these guys are really good, so we're going to have to be so drastically different than we were last Saturday night. Can we do that is our issue?"

The Beavers’ biggest problem is obvious: They can't run the ball. They rank 120th in the nation with 72.8 yards rushing per game. Once they hit the second half of a backloaded schedule, opposing defenses were able to scheme up the previously potent passing game, and that has led to an offensive regression, particularly for QB Sean Mannion. He threw just three interceptions in the first eight games. He's thrown 10 in the past three.

Riley, however, brushed off talk that Mannion's confidence has taken a major hit.

"I get the question, but he's actually good," Riley said.

If Mannion starts slowly against the Ducks, it would be reasonable to wonder if Riley might turn to back senior Cody Vaz, who started five games in 2012 but was beaten out in the preseason by Mannion, a junior.

The Ducks’ quarterback, Marcus Mariota, hasn't slipped as steeply as Mannion, but he's proven fallible after becoming a leading Heisman Trophy contender through the first eight games. For one, he threw his first two interceptions of the year against Arizona, though the first wasn't his fault by any stretch. Second, he's beaten up, starting with a knee spring suffered against UCLA four weeks ago. He also appeared to get his bell rung late in the loss to Arizona, but he told reporters this week he has passed all concussion tests and will start against the Beavers.

Mariota is the least of the Ducks’ problems. Uncharacteristic offensive sloppiness and a flagging defense have been the larger issues. And, not unlike the Beavers last week against Washington, the focus and effort didn't seem very Oregon-like against Arizona.

"We did a little bit of introspection following the game, talked through that," Helfrich said. "Talked about exactly what we have to do to fix that. I think our guys responded well these last couple of days."

Both teams are headed to the postseason, so this won't be their final game. Yet both coaches know how their team performs in this game will be carried by their fans into the offseason, either as a representation of resilience or a red flag suggesting sagging morale.

Both coaches are counting on a bounce-back performance, one that means the game will reward the better team, not the one that can muster the least indifference.

"They flushed it well," Helfrich said. "The last couple of days have been very spirited, very physical practices. They are ready to get back at it."

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