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October 11, 2013

Five Things: Next Four Games

With the first of two bye weeks in the rear view mirror, the second segment of the 2013 schedule gets underway Saturday for Oregon State when the Beavers travel to the Palouse to face improved Washington State. Later, the Beavers travel to California (Oct. 19) and host Stanford (Oct. 26) and Southern Cal (Fri. Nov. 1) before enjoying the second bye on Nov. 9. Here are the top five storylines for the next stretch of games:

1. Can Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks sustain their frenzied record-setting pace?: Exiting the bye week, Mannion and Cooks are atop the national charts in seven different statistical categories. Mannion is first in passing yards per game (403.6 yards per game), total passing yards (2,018), touchdown passes (21), total offense (390.2 ypg) and points responsible for (130). Cooks, meanwhile, is first nationally in total receiving yards (807) and receiving yards per game (161.4 ypg).

Mannion's current 67.2 completion percentage (160-of-238) is just a tick behind the school single season record established by Sean Canfield (67.9 percent) in 2009. Canfield is currently the career completion percentage leader at 64.1 percent (552-of-861). Mannion stands at 65.2 percent (665-of-1,020) with seven games remaining in his junior season.

The next four opponents are ranked No. 44 (Washington State), No. 91 (Cal), No. 43 (Stanford) and No. 19 (Southern Cal) nationally in passing efficiency defense, so the throwing lanes and passing windows figure to get a little narrower. Mannion must be highly accurate with his throws and Cooks will find the coverage a little tighter.

2. Are the Beavers finally getting healthy?: Outside linebacker Michael Doctor remains sidelined with a broken foot, but several other players, particularly along the offensive line, are on the verge of being ready to return to game action. Grant Enger, Gavin Andrews and Josh Mitchell began practicing full speed last week before the bye, along with fullback Tyler Anderson. Their reappearance should bolster a unit that has allowed just six sacks in five games - one for every 41 pass attempts. - but has come under scrutiny for OSU's struggles in the running game.

Enger is expected to start at right guard, while Isaac Seumalo will be back full-time at center after starting just two of the first five games there. However, when Mitchell went down in the San Diego State win with a sprained ankle, Seumalo shifted back to center from right tackle and was replaced by freshman Sean Harlow. Mike Riley said Tuesday that Harlow and Andrews (out with mono) could divide snaps at right tackle.

With the offensive line again intact, will Storm Woods return from a concussion and give the stagnant OSU running game a boost? Despite missing the past two games, Woods remains the Beaver's leading rusher with 152 yards on 45 carries, an average of 2.4 yards per attempt. Even though his longest run from scrimmage is nine yards and he has struggled to find running room, Woods would be welcomed back with open arms by Riley.

3. Who's the fastest gunslinger in the Pac-12 North?: The next two weekends for the Beavers features three of the top throwing quarterbacks in the Pac-12 North squaring off - Mannion, Connor Halliday of Washington State and freshman Jared Goff of California. Last Saturday, Halliday and Goff combined for 126 pass attempts and 1,025 yards through the air in WSU's 44-22 road victory at Berkeley.

With Mannion, Oregon State ranks second nationally in passing yards per game (420.7 ypg), while WSU is eighth at 359.7 ypg. Who is fourth? Cal. If OSU holds steady, they would shatter the Pac-12 record for highest average passing yards per game by 47.3 yards. Since kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. PT, it figures to be a long night in Pullman.

If the averages hold up, there will be 104 pass attempts in the Oregon State-Washington State game on Saturday night and 105 pass attempts in the OSU-Cal game on Oct. 19. Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but Saturday night's game in Pullman probably won't turn out like the 19-6 game last year when the Beavers prevailed over the Cougars at Reser Stadium in a game with 597 yards of total offense.

Ironically, the two most opportunistic secondaries in the Pac-12 will be on the same field on Saturday as Washington State leads the conference with nine interceptions and OSU is second with eight. Then again, they get plenty of work defending the pass during the week in practice.

4. Can anybody knock off Stanford?: When you move beyond the faking injuries controversy that erupted between Stanford and Washington in the aftermath of the Cardinal's 31-28 victory last Saturday, you realize Stanford is a ruggedly good team worthy of their Top 5 national ranking.

However, the Cardinal possess one glaring vulnerability - pass defense. They are currently ninth in the Pac-12 and 94th nationally in passing yards allowed (260.8 yards per game). Their next four opponents (Utah, UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon) all average at least 286.4 yards through the air, led, of course, by the Beavers with 420.6 ypg. Will its difficulties stopping the pass prove to be the Cardinal's undoing?

The Cardinal survived the scare from the Huskies despite giving up 350 passing yards because they forced a red zone interception (halting an 18-play, 73-yard drive) and stopped Washington on downs at midfield in the final six minutes of the game. If Mannion and Cooks bring their 'A' games and OSU maximizes their scoring opportunities without turning the ball over, the Beavers have a shot to topple the Pac-12 defending champions at Reser Stadium.

5. Are the Trojans ripe for the taking?: The Exit Lane has closed with the September 29 firing of Lane Kiffin hours after Southern Cal was embarrassed, 62-41, at Arizona State. The fact Kiffin was terminated prior to the Trojans' lone bye week (they have 13 games because they traveled to Hawaii) wasn't a coincidence. Interim coach Ed Orgeron has close to two weeks to get USC ready for Thursday night's clash with Arizona in Los Angeles. Statistically, the Trojans still have one of the most talented defenses in the Pac-12, ranking first in rushing defense (99.6 ypg) and second in total defense (306.8 ypg).

Prior to the Debacle in the Desert, USC had allowed only 44 points in four games, so something went horrifically wrong against the Sun Devils. Did the Trojans simply stop playing for Kiffin? Clearly, AD Pat Haden felt so or he wouldn't have made the move. What happens if the Beavers win the expected track meets on the road against Washington State and California, and then find a way to knock off Stanford at home? All of a sudden, the Friday night matchup with the Trojans becomes perhaps the biggest home game in recent memory because of the divisional and national implications.


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