CORVALLIS — Washington State and Oregon State will likely recall the days of the old pass-happy Pac-10 Conference when they face off today at Reser Stadium.
On one side there are the Cougars with new coach Mike Leach’s trademark Air Raid attack. On the other side are the No. 14 Beavers with sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion, who is passing with confidence after a trying debut last season.
Mannion was named the Pac-12 player of the week after passing for a career-high 433 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner to Connor Hamlett with 1:17 left, in Oregon State’s 38-35 victory at Arizona last weekend.
The week before, Mannion passed for 379 yards — his previous career high — against UCLA.
“I think a year of getting to play for Sean was really, really good,” Beavers coach Mike Riley said. “There’s nothing like playing for football players in the games, and that’s especially true for a quarterback. The other thing about him is he really likes this game and works hard at it and spends a lot of time at it. He’s truly a gym rat; he spent a lot of time studying film and studying what he had to do.”
Nationally, Oregon State’s passing offense is ranked fourth with an average of nearly 363 yards per game. Mannion is ranked 10th with 350 yards in total offense per game, and eighth with an average of 27 completions per game.
Leach, who knows a thing or two about passing after leading the nation almost every year he was at Texas Tech, is well aware of the problems Mannion can pose.
“Obviously, you’ve got to play the pass,” he told reporters this week. “But on those broken plays when he gets loose, coverage has to hold up because he’s got a real strong arm and sometimes when he gets loose, that stuff’s way down field, and if you don’t attend to it he can hurt you.”
Mannion has a pair of talented receivers to work with. Senior Markus Wheaton had 166 receiving yards and two touchdowns against Arizona.
Wheaton is averaging 134.3 receiving yards per game, just behind teammate and Pac-12 leader Brandin Cooks with 134.7 yards a game for the Beavers (3-0, 2-0 Pac-12). Cooks and Wheaton are ranked fifth and sixth nationally.
On the other side is Washington State sophomore quarterback Connor Halliday, who took over when senior Jeff Tuel injured his right knee earlier this season.
Halliday and Tuel are listed as “or” on Washington State’s depth chart, meaning either one could get the start today, but Halliday reportedly has been getting most of the first-team snaps in practice.
Last week, Halliday passed for 348 yards and a touchdown against No. 2 Oregon at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. But he also tossed a costly interception that the Ducks returned for a touchdown en route to a 51-26 victory.
Halliday has passed for more than 300 yards in three straight games. Washington State (2-3, 0-2) is ranked third in the Pac-12 with an average of 333 passing yards per game as the Cougars adopt Leach’s new scheme. Texas Tech led the nation in passing in six of Leach’s 10 seasons there.
Halliday’s go-to guy is Marquess Wilson, who had 12 catches for 182 yards against Oregon and became the Cougars’ career leader with 2,893 receiving yards. He is averaging nearly 100 yards in receptions per game this season.
Oregon State’s defense is allowing an average of only 83 yards rushing per game, ninth nationally. The Beavers are in the middle of the Pac-12 for overall defense, allowing opponents nearly 399 yards a game.
But they are allowing 315.7 yards passing — last in the Pac-12.
“I think when you’re playing teams that are really good at throwing the ball, they’re going to complete some passes,” Riley said. “It’s just a matter of you making some plays. We had way too many catch and long runs last week, and that’s what we’ve got to cut down.
“Guys are going to complete balls,” Riley added. “You’ve just got to make sure that’s where they end up, is where they catch them, then you’ll get a chance to make some plays.”
Washington State is struggling on defense. The Cougars have allowed opponents 20 touchdowns this season, second-worst in the league. They are giving up an average of 472 yards in total offense, 162 yards on the ground and 310 in the air.
The Beavers have won three straight to open a season for the first time since 2002. The three victories match the team’s win total for all of last year, when they went 3-9.
One of those wins last season was against Washington State. Mannion passed for 376 yards and four touchdowns to beat the Cougars 44-21 in Seattle.
Oregon State announced Friday that 45,674-seat Reser Stadium is officially sold out for today’s game. According to OSU officials, attendance today could be the largest home crowd in Oregon State history. It is the earliest sellout for a game in any season since stadium expansion in 2005.
Washington State at Oregon State
•When: Today, 3 p.m.
•TV: Pac-12 Network
•Radio: KICE-AM 940; KRCO-AM 690
Washington State at Oregon State
Today, 3 p.m.
• TV: Pac-12 Network
• Radio: KICE-AM 940, KRCO-AM 690