There is some unexpected alliteration among the top quarterbacks in the nation: Heisman Trophy hopefuls Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota have been joined by Oregon State’s Sean Mannion.
The 6-foot-5 OSU junior has passed for 2,511 yards with 25 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He is averaging an eye-popping 418.5 yards passing per game to lead all FBS quarterbacks, and he is the leader in total offense with an average of 406.3 yards per game.
A more traditional drop-back passer, Mannion is completing 32.3 passes per game (fourth nationally) and has a quarterback rating of 166.6 (11th) while leading a team that is ranked No. 1 in passing offense.
“I think he’s a grounded guy that doesn’t lose sight of why this is happening,” Beavers coach Mike Riley said. “It’s not an accident. He’s well prepared, he’s got experience and he’s got the talent. He understands that preparation is the key.”
For comparison’s sake, Manziel has 1,835 yards passing with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions for No. 7 Texas A&M, but he has also run for 438 yards and five scores and has repeatedly shown that he can take over games — with last Saturday’s 41-38 come-from-behind victory over Mississippi a case in point.
Mariota has passed for 1,724 yards and 17 touchdowns for second-ranked Oregon, and he has yet to throw an interception. The unflappable sophomore is also capable on his feet, with eight rushing touchdowns. As with Manziel, Mariota benefits from a higher national profile than Mannion.
Other quarterbacks in the national conversation include Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater.
However, Mannion is starting to generate more buzz, including a fledgling “HeisMannion” hashtag on Twitter.
His accomplishments come despite an offensive line that has been in flux. He has also been lauded for carrying the Beavers while their running game has faltered. In Oregon State’s 52-24 victory over Washington State this past Saturday, Mannion passed for 493 yards and four touchdowns. The Beavers rallied from the third-quarter deficit with five unanswered touchdowns.
Brandin Cooks, Mannion’s favorite target, caught 11 passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns, raising the total touchdowns between the two to 18, a new school record.
“Have we? Oh geez. I didn’t even know,” Mannion said of the new mark.
In equally humble fashion, Mannion is all about his teammates.
“We feel good about our team,” he said. “We feel we’re getting better and better each week. Honestly, from our perspective, we let our play take care of itself. If we can continue to play good football, only good things are going to happen for us.”
Oregon State was undecided at quarterback heading into the season. Riley was evaluating both Mannion and senior Cody Vaz, both of whom saw success last season when the Beavers went 9-4 after winning just three games in 2011.
Mannion started Oregon State’s first four games last season but injured his left knee and required arthroscopic surgery. Vaz stepped in and won the next two games, giving the Beavers their best start since they also went 6-0 in 1907.
Mannion finished with 2,446 yards and 15 touchdowns, with eight starts in 10 appearances. Vaz, hampered late in the season by an injured left ankle, passed for 1,480 yards and 11 touchdowns in seven games and five starts.
Riley settled on Mannion a week before this season’s opener against Eastern Washington.
“Sean’s attributes are obviously his ability to get the ball just about wherever you want on the field,” Riley said at the time, “along with his knowledge about where we’re going and what he should do with the ball.”
Oregon State was ranked No. 25 in the preseason, but the opener was a disaster as the Beavers fell 49-46 to the lower-division Eagles. They have rebounded since then, winning five straight and going undefeated so far in three conference games.
The Beavers travel this Saturday to California (1-5, 0-3), which is adjusting under new coach Sonny Dykes. The Golden Bears are certainly wary of Mannion because they rank last in the Pac-12 in pass defense, allowing opponents an average of 321.8 yards per game.
“He’s just a good player,” Dykes said of Mannion. “He makes good decisions, he’s very, very accurate, and he gets the ball out on time. They execute their offense very well.”
Dykes should probably confer with Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre. Mannion passed for six touchdowns in a 44-17 victory over the Buffaloes late last month.
“He’s kind of a daredevil when he throws it,” MacIntyre said. “He threw into double coverage three times against us and three times Cooks came up with it. We should have had three picks, but Sean Mannion can throw the football.”