It seems strange to say that the nation’s leading passer and leading receiver are going largely unnoticed, but that’s exactly what’s happening with Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion and wideout Brandin Cooks. The Beavers enter Saturday’s matchup with Stanford unranked in the AP Poll despite riding a six-game winning streak and boasting the country's most prolific passing tandem through eight weeks.
Part of that can be attributed to the team’s 49-46 loss to FCS Eastern Washington in Week 1, a game that knocked the Beavers out of the polls and out of the public’s collective consciousness. The team held a players-only meeting after that defeat, and it served as a teaching moment in a lot of ways. In 2011, when both Cooks and Mannion were freshmen, Oregon State lost to Sacramento State in Week 1 and spiraled to an eventual 3-9 finish. They didn’t want that to happen again.
“There’s something to be said about having that wake-up call early,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said, “getting some things corrected and getting back to preparing and playing.”
One thing that didn’t need much adjustment was the play of the offense, which has put up staggering numbers to date. Mannion leads all FBS quarterbacks with 2,992 passing yards and 29 touchdowns. He's thrown just three interceptions, a big improvement over his freshman and sophomore campaigns, when he tossed a combined 31 picks.
In the past, Mannion would attempt to force throws into tight windows in order to make a play. Now, he’s comfortable throwing the ball away when his receivers are blanketed. Mannion goes through his progressions and has shown a willingness to check down to underneath routes, utilizing running back Storm Woods if no one is open downfield.
“When I think about where I am now to where I was a year ago, I personally feel like I’ve made a lot of improvements in a lot of areas,” Mannion said. “I’ve tried to not make the same mistakes twice. A lot of it comes with physically getting stronger and being able to be more accurate with my throwing. At the same time improving the mental aspect of the game as well. One thing coach Langsdorf really emphasized is checking the ball down is never wrong. Even if you throw it away, it’s not the end of the world, either.”
It doesn’t hurt that Mannion has an All-America-caliber wideout in Cooks. The team’s second-leading receiver with 67 catches and 1,151 receiving yards in 2012, Cooks has filled the void left by the departure of Markus Wheaton, who was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of last spring's NFL draft.
Cooks leads the FBS in receptions (76), receiving yards (1,176) and receiving touchdowns (12) entering Oregon State’s game against the Cardinal. The junior drew a lot of praise from opposing coaches during the Pac-12 teleconference this week, and it's doubtful he'll continue sneaking up on foes. Still, Cooks is finding ways to get open despite facing frequent double teams.
Cooks learned a lot from Wheaton, who saw his share of attention from opposing defenses throughout his career with the Beavers.
“He taught me not to get frustrated when I’m getting doubled and I’m not getting balls thrown my way,” Cooks said. “Just trust that the other guys on the other side are going to make plays and be able to open you up. That’s what it’s all about. You can’t be selfish in this.”
Part of what makes the Oregon State's offense so successful is its variety of playmakers. Coach Mike Riley involves his tight ends, uses a deep playbook and trusts his veterans to come through. That starts with Mannion and Cooks, who have developed a rapport both on and off the field.
The pair made a habit of getting together and throwing five to six days a week during the offseason. Both spend a lot of time in the film room. Knowing where a receiver is going to be or when a throw is going to arrive goes a long way, and that's easy to see in the simpatico bond between Mannion and Cooks.
“It’s not just business,” Cooks said. “It’s also a great relationship. He’s a great friend of mine and a wonderful person on and off the field.”
Both players were former four-star recruits, according to Rivals.com, so they weren't exactly diamonds in the rough. Cooks held offers from UCLA, Boise State and Washington, among others, while Mannion was recruited by UCLA, Washington State and San Diego State. However, it's strange to see two players recording such gaudy numbers with little to no fanfare from the college football world at large.
Whether it’s a product of the Eastern Washington loss or the fact that Oregon State plays so many late-night West Coast games, the Beavers (6-1, 4-0 Pac-12) seem like the best kept secret in the country. Not that that’s a bad thing. If Oregon State keeps winning -- and an upset of the Cardinal this weekend would go a long way – the Beavers won’t stay a secret for long.
“Obviously you want people to notice you, but you can’t keep us under the radar for so long if we keep doing what we’re doing,” Cooks said. “That’s the beautiful thing about this game. It can change in a minute.”
Video: Breaking down the top college football matchups in Week 9
• Oregon State RB Storm Woods: The sophomore tailback has averaged just three yards a carry thus far, and the lack of a dependable ground game has limited the Beavers at times. But Woods has been able to make his presence felt in other ways. He's been good in pass protection, and he is another dangerous weapon for Mannion as a check-down option, compiling 28 catches for 290 receiving yards.
“He’s been huge for me in the receiving game,” Mannion said of Woods. “When I think about last game I can think of at least two or three check downs where he turned a three-yard gain into a 10-yard gain.”
• Stanford WR Kodi Whitfield: When fans think of the keys to Stanford's success over the past few seasons, receivers typically aren't the first players who come to mind. But with Ty Montgomery and now sophomore Kodi Whitfield helping out quarterback Kevin Hogan, the Cardinal's passing attack is taking pressure off the power-run game and keeping opponents from being able to stack the box.
Whitfield (11 catches, 135 yards, one touchdown) made arguably target="_blank">the best catch of the season last Saturday against UCLA, and he seems to be getting more comfortable every week. It's only a matter of time before he delivers a true breakout game.
Andy Wooldridge, Building The Dam: "Night game after night game after night game. Most of the country has gone to bed before the Beavers have played their three best games, which were also the only times the Beavers have been on the 'good' channels. Two of the others were invisible to most, relegated to the Pac-12 Network. And being so late, often the Beavers' games don't even make it onto the highlight shows, even when there are plays that are worthy. Nobody has hardly seen them."
David Lombardi, The Bootleg: "After all the carnage that we saw in the top 10 this past weekend, Stanford is back in decent position to make a run at the title game. If the Cardinal beat Oregon State this weekend, I think they'd be on the inside track to qualify for at least the Rose Bowl (Jan. 1), because even a loss to Oregon would likely mean a 10-2 finish and BCS qualification. If Stanford wins out, it needs two more questionable dominoes to fall so that it can play for it all: Ohio State must lose (it plays at Michigan and in the Big Ten title game) along with Florida State (it plays at home versus Miami and at Florida before the ACC title game)."