- Ted Miller, ESPN Staff Writer
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Oregon State Beavers coach Mike Riley's recent history with quarterbacks is interesting to say the least.
He's presently presiding over "The Great Sean Mannion versus Cody Vaz Competition," one that features two players with successful starting experience and few hints about whom Riley favors. Riley's most recent statement on the competition is both will play in the opener against Eastern Washington on Aug. 31. And then a new chapter will be written in this twisting drama.
This QB quandary was preceded by the surprising Ryan Katz to Mannion switcharoo in 2011, and everybody remembers the back-and-forth between Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao previous to that.
Yet if Beavers fans are worried Mannion vs. Vaz has the potential to get truly weird, well, maybe they should be. Riley was ringmaster for one of the all-time odd QB carousels in Pac-10 history: USC in 1995.
Riley, then the Trojans offensive coordinator, was sitting in his office during the preseason when John Robinson stopped by to say he wanted to resolve their QB competition between Brad Otton and Kyle Wachholtz. His idea was to play both. Otten would start, Wachholtz would play the second quarter. The idea was to alternate by quarter.
"That makes for an interesting dynamic in the QB room," Riley said.
USC was 8-2-1 that year. Successful season? The Trojans lost to both of their major rivals, Notre Dame and UCLA, so not really. On the plus side, in a game with major Rose Bowl implications, they came back from a 21-0 fourth-quarter deficit to tie Washington. The Huskies then lost the following week to Oregon, essentially giving the Trojans the conference title, even with the crushing 24-20 loss to the Bruins in the regular-season finale in Terry Donahue's final battle for the Victory Bell.
Northwestern was the Cinderella in the Rose Bowl, making its first appearance since 1949. USC was the Evil Stepmother. The Wildcats were on the cusp of something magical! And many of the folks relating that with flowery terms went to journalism school at Northwestern before becoming sportswriters.
As for the game itself, guess what one of the only coaches in the Pac-12 who doesn't presently run an up-tempo offense did to surprise Northwestern? Yep. He used no-huddle, two-minute offense on the first two series -- a pair of TD drives -- that was the cornerstone of what would become a 24-7 lead.
That fast start, however, presented a problem. Otton was in the zone.
"I went to John and said, 'I don't think we should change quarterbacks right now.' We didn't," Riley recalled. "Still to this day, I regret that."
That shows you two things about Riley you may already know: 1. He's willing to make tough decisions: 2. He's not the sort of hard case who can block out the human repercussions of those tough decisions.
Wachholtz had been every bit the match for Otton all season, seeing action in every game. In fact, entering the Rose Bowl, his numbers were slightly better. But on this grand stage -- The Granddaddy of Them All -- he stewed on the bench and didn't play.
Otton went on to complete 29 of 44 passes for 391 yards, much of that going to Keyshawn Johnson, who caught 12 balls for 216 yards and was named Player of the Game. The Trojans nearly blew it, as the Wildcats stormed back, but they ended up winning 41-32.
From the LA Times game story:
Robinson, too, saluted the 6-6 Otton, a junior, but also expressed sympathy for senior Kyle Wachholtz, the other half of USC's two-quarterback offense who never got in the game.
"It's unfortunate Kyle didn't get to play, but Brad was playing so well we just couldn't," Robinson said.
Otton appeared before the media with his right shoulder wrapped in ice. Wachholtz dressed quickly and left.
"I'm sure Kyle's terribly disappointed," offensive coordinator Mike Riley said after the first game this season when one quarterback went the distance when both were sound. "I felt Brad had a good grasp of the game, and I didn't want to make a change."
A few weeks ago, Riley admitted that Wachholtz didn't take the decision well -- "He shouldn't have," Riley said -- and that the emotions of that decision remain with him.
He repeated, "I personally have regrets about that game."
Otton would go to start in 1996 -- how many Weber State transfers start two years for USC? -- but the Trojans went a mediocre 6-6. Wachholtz, who would sell his Rose Bowl ring, admittedly due to his bitterness, would become a tight end in the NFL, though injuries cut his promising career short.
Riley has said he doesn't want to play two quarterbacks this fall, but he obviously isn't afraid to do so, or to make a change if he thinks it will help his team. It's also clear that he knows making a tough call has emotional consequences.
Nonetheless, there is a cold bottom line in all quarterback competitions.
Said Riley, "Who can we trust to be the most consistent player?"