It seems that Sean Mannion and his aerial assault on the record books has taken an indefinite leave of absence. For the past two games, Oregon State’s offense has been predictable, while Stanford and USC have demonstrated quite clearly that the Beavers are not yet ready to compete with the upper echelon of the Pac-12. Despite an impressive run of games that saw the Beavers bounce back from their opening weekend loss to reach 6-1 on the season, they now sit at 6-3 overall with no clear wins left over their last three games.
After only one loss in their first seven games, it is a real possibility that Oregon State could finish at 6-6 overall. While that record would get them invited to a bowl game, the game itself would be of the lowest tier (Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, anyone?) and fans would likely find more valuable things to do than spend money on travel plans to see a disappointing Beavers team take a five game losing streak into the season finale. Considering that only two weeks ago Beaver Nation was entertaining dreams of a Rose Bowl appearance (provided that Oregon remained unbeaten and reached the BCS National Championship), the sudden melancholy lingering over the fan base should come as no surprise.
To understand what has changed over the last two games requires more than just a study of the statistics. Sure, fingers can be pointed at Sean Mannion for his efforts against Stanford and USC (combined statistics for the two games - 67/102, 548 yards, 2 TD, 3 INT). In the Stanford game, Mannion took a few coverage sacks that should have been throwaways, and in the USC game he made some poor decisions that resulted in two red zone interceptions. For a quarterback that entered the Stanford game with an opportunity to put the nation on notice, Mannion has looked more like the 2012 version of himself these last two weeks than he has the Heisman dark horse candidate of this year. It’s safe to say those longshot dreams of being invited to New York have been put to rest.
It might also be easy to point fingers at the running game, as the longtime staple of Beavers football has been nonexistent this season. The last two games appear to be no exception, as Oregon State tallied a total of 17 rushing yards against Stanford and 92 rushing yards against USC. A combined 109 rushing yards over two home games will simply not get the job done. The numbers appear even more atrocious if we note that wide receiver Brandin Cooks has accounted for 58 of those 109 rushing yards on only five carries. Only Washington State’s rushing offense is worse than Oregon State’s, as the Beavers average of 69.4 yards per game ranks 122nd out of 123 FBS teams.
The good teams figure out how to stop their opponent’s strengths, and force them into discomfort as they either attempt to discover new ways to win or stubbornly stick with a strategy that is being shut down. This is exactly what Stanford and USC were able to do in their respective games against Oregon State. Both Stanford and USC are factories for NFL bodies, a fact that becomes immediately apparent when watching a game live. The athletes that each school puts on the field are big. Seeing Stanford’s defensive line send three men blowing through Oregon State’s offensive line of five or more will leave a spectator shaking their head at the apparent unfairness of the situation. Physically, looking at Brandin Cooks take on the USC secondary is like watching a freshman in high school go up against a senior. Storm Woods, visually, looks like the college kid that he is. Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney and USC’s Silas Redd look like they could suit up on Sundays right now. With Oregon State unable to generate offense against superior athletes, the Stanfords and USCs of the college world simply double up Cooks and give Mannion a couple seconds to throw into coverage before the defensive line pressure reaches him.
This all leads to an easy explanation, right? Oregon State has long gotten by on the cleverness and grit of their three star recruits, and in these past two games the team stocked with five star recruits flexed their muscle. Except that a collective “oh well” from Beaver Nation overlooks a very important facet of these two losses—the run game was working. In these two games alone, against the most physical defenses that the Beavers have seen all season, Storm Woods and Terron Ward combined for 130 yards on 22 carries—an average of 5.9 yards per carry. Throw in the 58 yards by Cooks, and the Beavers ran for 188 yards on 27 carries, an average of 6.96 yards per carry!
In their losses against Stanford and USC, with a home crowd desperate for a primetime win, Mike Riley called 102 passing plays against 27 running plays. Due to negative yardage sacks of Mannion, the running game appeared to be ineffective. However, by looking at the numbers we find that Woods, Ward, and Cooks gained a hair below seven yards (on average) every time they ran the ball.
The outcome of the last two games is not solely on Mannion, even though he made some horrible decisions with the ball. The two losses cannot be pinned entirely on the defense, despite areas that clearly need improvement (talking to you, front seven). Back to back home losses cannot be shouldered by Oregon State’s most notable offensive stars (Cooks, Woods, Ward), as they clearly produced when given the ball in advantageous situations.
With the Beavers spending two straight games stubbornly putting the ball in the air despite the opposition being fully expectant of passing plays, and ignoring a seven yard average on the ground, the burden of these losses belongs to the man calling plays.
Sorry, Coach Riley. This losing streak is on you.