BOULDER – Three weeks ago Colorado’s defense was feverishly preparing for Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr. That matchup never materialized but the preparation was hardly wasted.
On Saturday the Buffs ‘D’ faces Oregon State’s Sean Mannion, and this is CU cornerbacks coach Andy LaRussa’s assessment of Carr and Mannion: “You’re preparing for basically the same guy; they’re both damn good quarterbacks. They both can sling the ball really well and both are really accurate. It’s going to be quite a challenge.”
It will be that way weekly as the Buffs wade into the Pac-12 Conference. Quarterback play in the Pac-12 this season appears to be typically superb; eight league members – including OSU at No. 3 and CU at No. 7 – are listed among the NCAA’s top 18 passing offenses.
LaRussa’s “same guy” comparison of Mannion and Carr is statistically sound. Mannion is second on the NCAA stat sheet in passing yards per game (401.0), while Carr is third (373.7). Mannion averages 33 completions a game (15 TDs, one interception), Carr 37 (12 TDs, one interception). Mannion leads the FBS in total passing yards (1,606).
If LaRussa’s corners have observed a difference on tape in the play of Carr/Mannion, it is this: Carr might be the more mobile of the two. But, noted LaRussa, “I don’t know that that changes anything. In our position you still have to cover guys as long as you can. (Mannion) does a great job . . . he’s kind of like Dan Marino or Payton Manning. They’re not the fastest guys but they find a way to keep the play alive and take downfield shots. So in that regard you have to stay in coverage.”
Added senior safety Parker Orms on Mannion: “He can still get out of the pocket and move. We have to put pressure on him; that’s the big thing we’re trying to do right now. If we can get pressure on the QB and have good coverage, we’ll have a good day on the defensive side of the ball.”
In its first two games – wins against Colorado State and Central Arkansas – CU’s secondary held up well compared to the 2012 season. But corners Greg Henderson, a junior, and Kenneth Crawley, a sophomore, haven’t yet faced a passing combination like they will in their Pac-12 opener.
Mannion’s top target is Brandin Cooks, a compact (5-10, 186 pounds) junior who leads the NCAA in receiving yards (639) and is second nationally behind CU’s Paul Richardson in receiving yards per game. Richardson averages 208.5, Cooks 159.8.
CU has allowed 240.5 passing yards a game – ninth in the Pac-12 – but only two TD passes. It’s only been two games, but that still represents a dramatic improvement from a dizzying 2012 season that saw the Buffs yield a nation-worst 39 TD passes.
“We know our assignments better, we know where we’re supposed to be on the field,” Crawley said. “I feel like everybody is more comfortable doing their jobs. The coaches have us better prepared.”
Crawley, tossed into the pass-mad Pac-12 last season as a freshman, said his increased comfort level is based on “the game coming to me way slower. And I’ve got more help over the top (usually from a safety).”
At Crawley’s position, comfort comes from confidence – and LaRussa has seen Crawley’s take a sharp upturn. “He’s got a lot of his confidence back and that’s a big part of it,” LaRussa said. “That’s a big intangible at that position. The way you carry yourself and let water fall off your back is big.
“You can’t let yourself worry about the last play; you worry about the next play. Go out and make another play. As easy as we can give up a play, we can come back and make a big play and impact the game.”
That’s what the Buffs’ corners – specifically Henderson – have done so far. Henderson has scored on a fumble return and an interception return, as has junior safety Jered Bell. Crawley also has an interception, giving CU three picks in two games. The Buffs had three picks total last season.
“We’re creating turnovers and that’s what helps us win ball games,” Orms said. “If we can create more and not allow as many big plays we’ll be a lot better than last year.”
Oregon State (3-1, 1-0) has not run effectively, averaging a conference-worst 55 yards a game. But CU coach Mike MacIntyre says the Beavers compensate with Mannion’s short passes, particularly the nine to 10 screen passes that are called per game.
“That’s a lot of screens in a football game,” MacIntyre said. “That also slows down your (pass) rush . . . so I consider that part of their running game. I look at them I say, ‘Yeah they run the ball but they’re also throwing 10 screens a game for 125 yards of passing a game.’ That’s really like a running catch or like a handoff to me.”
So credit Mannion with making those lengthy and accurate handoffs to guys like Cooks. Surprisingly, Beavers coach Mike Riley kept fans in suspense by waiting until five days before OSU’s Aug. 31st season-opener against Eastern Washington to name Mannion, a junior, the starter over senior Cody Vaz.
Both saw significant playing time last season, with Vaz taking over when Mannion suffered a knee injury in early October. Vaz led the Beavers in routs against BYU and Utah, but Mannion returned for OSU’s trip to Washington. He threw four interceptions in that loss, then shared the job with Vaz for the rest of the regular season. But Riley started Vaz in OSU’s Alamo Bowl loss to Texas.
Vaz has played in one game this season, completing four of six passes for 79 yards. So unless he’s forced to change his mind again, Riley has settled on Mannion. Obviously, he has the Buffs’ attention.
“He’s got a good arm and if he can stay in the pocket he can be consistent and carve up a defense,” Crawley said. “He can hurt you if you’re a DB and you mess up.”
NOTABLE: With the Green Bay Packers having a bye this weekend, former CU tackle David Bakhtiari attended Thursday morning's practice. Bakhtiari, who declared his eligibility for the NFL Draft last spring following his junior year, moved into a starting role at left tackle for the Packers. He spoke highly of the historic organization and said he believes he's adjusting well to the NFL. "I'm playing football -- which I love -- and getting paid for it," he said, grinning broadly . . . . Slot receiver D.D. Goodson will switch to No. 3 for Saturday's game at OSU. Goodson has worn No. 21, but is expected to see more duty on special teams. Safety Jered Bell, also a special teams contributor, wears No. 21 -- hence the number change for Goodson . . . . Freshman tailback Michael Adkins II is expected to see his first duty of the season against the Beavers. The 5-10, 200-pounder from San Diego Helix High School could work in a rotation with Christian Powell and Tony Jones. That pair and Donta Abron have been the only tailbacks used in the first two games . . . . Oregon State’s secondary coach is Rod Perry, who played for CU in 1973-74. Perry was All-Big 8 as a senior and earned honorable mention All-America honors. He was a fourth-round NFL draftee and played 10 seasons in the league (Los Angeles, Cleveland). Perry coached for 24 seasons in the NFL and has made two college stops (Fresno State, Oregon State).