The Oregon State Beavers have been one of the biggest surprises of this college football season, storming through a tough early-season schedule and rising as high as No. 7 in the BCS rankings. But an injury and the first loss of the season have sparked a quarterback controversy in Corvallis as Mike Riley has decided to start Cody Vaz over Sean Mannion on Saturday.
The Beavers jumped out to a 4-0 record on the season largely on the success of the sophomore Mannion. Just a year removed from throwing 18 interceptions as a freshman, Mannion looked to have turned a corner. He was completing a high percentage of his passes, making plays down the field and avoiding turnovers, with just one interception in Oregon State’s first three games.
His turnaround season hit a snag, however, when the Beavers won ugly over the Washington State Cougars 19-6 in Corvallis. Mannion had his worst performance of the season, completing less than 60-percent of his passes and throwing three interceptions. As it turned out, Mannion suffered a knee injury during the game that he played through, though not all that effectively.
The injury turned out to be a meniscus tear which looked to sideline Mannion for 3-4 weeks. The Beavers inserted the junior Vaz as the starter for the next game against the BYU Cougars. Vaz looked great in his first start since high school, throwing for 332 yards and three touchdowns as he led Oregon State to a 5-0 start in Provo.
Vaz got a second start the following week against the Utah Utes and played well against a stout defense. He didn’t find the endzone, but he avoided any big mistakes and led the Beavers to the 21-7 win. Despite the initial timetable of 3-4 weeks of recovery for Mannion, doctors had cleared the sophomore prior to the Utah game and dressed as the backup and watched the Beavers improve to 6-0.
Mike Riley was then left with a decision to make heading into their game against the Washington Huskies: Mannion or Vaz? Riley ultimately chose to return to his opening day starter, saying that Mannion had won the job in fall camp, so he deserved to get it back. That would prove to be a costly decision.
As the Beavers headed north to Seattle to take on the Huskies, it was quickly apparent that Mannion had some rust to work through. The whole team struggled early and trailed 10-0 at the half, with Mannion looking lost on the field. The team bounced back in the third quarter, dominating play and tying the game back up at 10-10, highlighted with a 54-yard touchdown pass from Mannion to Brandin Cooks.
Things fell apart for the quarterback in the fourth quarter, however, as he threw interceptions on consecutive pass attempts. The second one led to a Huskies’ drive and touchdown that put them up 17-10. Vaz would come on in relief and led the Beavers on a touchdown drive that tied the game back up at 17-17 with under five minutes to play. The Huskies would respond with a long drive of their own that ended with the go-ahead field goal, handing Oregon State their first loss of the season.
On the night, Mannion finished the game 18-of-34 for 221 yards with a touchdown and four interceptions. It was a performance reminiscent of his freshman campaign when he led the Beavers to a 3-9 record. On the season, Mannion now has eight touchdown passes to eight interceptions and seven of those interceptions have come in Mannion’s last two starts.
That made Riley’s decision to go back to Vaz a bit easier. Obviously, there is something still negatively affecting Mannion’s play that needs to be ironed out. Vaz, meanwhile, has looked very good in his two games of relief and gives the Beavers a better shot at staying in the Pac 12 race and making a BCS bowl.
Mannion will be the future of this team, but Riley has to think about the present, shockingly. For now, he has to go with the quarterback who won’t kill his team’s chances of winning, and right now, that quarterback is Cody Vaz.