Stanford’s defense, sturdy and stout, faces another stiff test Saturday with a trip to Corvallis, Ore. Also known as Mannionville. Also known as Cookstown. Also known as We’regonnachuckit'tilyoustopitberg.
The Cardinal have won the past three meetings, outscoring the Beavers 103-36 during that stretch, but this Beaver is a different animal. And Stanford coach David Shaw knows it. Save for one play, his defense didn’t see Mannion last season when he was locked in a my-turn-your-turn quarterback competition with Cody Vaz, who nearly upended the Cardinal in Palo Alto. But Shaw recognizes Mannion’s growth and maturity from the 2011 edition he faced in Corvallis.
“You see a quarterback who is so much more composed,” Shaw said. “He knows what he’s doing. He knows where he’s going. He threw the ball into a lot of tight coverages last year. This year you don’t see that. You see the ball well-placed. We’ve always known how talented he was. A few years ago he’d have one of those games where he would throw for 300 and a couple of touchdowns, but two bad interceptions. You don’t see that anymore. You don’t see the bad passes.
“You see accuracy. You see intelligence. You see a quarterback that is composed and a quarterback that is looking like a guy that is going to be a good one at the next level also. He’s got the stature. He’s not a big runner. But he’s great in the pocket as far as sliding away from pressure and finding the quiet spot in the pocket as we call it and delivering the ball. He’s done a great job.”
That’s going to put a strain on a Stanford secondary that sits in the middle of the conference in terms of pass defense efficiency. Quarterbacks are completing 62 percent of their throws against the Cardinal -- third highest completion percentage in the league -- and they’ve given up 12 touchdowns through the air, which is tied for eighth in the conference.
To combat this, Shaw said Stanford is going to need to play team defense. The front seven needs to create pressure and sacks and the secondary has to play assignment-sound football. One of Stanford's defensive strengths is it's very good at creating pressure from just its base defense without sending extra blitzers.
This creates an interesting conundrum. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Mannion has thrown 15 of his 29 touchdown passes against five or more pass-rushers, six more than any other AQ quarterback. Impressive, considering that only 17 other FBS quarterbacks have thrown as many as 15 touchdowns this season against all types of pressure.
“One of our philosophies, we don’t want a quarterback sitting back there comfortable in the pocket delivering the ball down the field,” Shaw said. “At the same time, it’s our defensive backs’ charge to keep the ball in front of them. Don’t let the ball get over our heads. Play as deep as the deepest and play top down, as we call it, and hopefully we can slow them down.”
Despite the absence of a consistent running game -- more than 85 percent of OSU’s offensive production has come through the air -- the Beavers have been pretty good at keeping Mannion upright. He’s been sacked only nine times, which is tied for third in the conference. OSU coach Mike Riley said a lot of that has to do with Mannion making quicker decisions in the face of pressure and simply getting rid of the ball quicker.
Just as Mannion will be a test for the Stanford secondary, Riley knows Stanford’s defense offers an equally difficult challenge.
“I think they are very athletic and tough,” Riley said. “They really compete. It’s a good looking group of guys. They are always well-coached and sound in what they do. It’s the most athletic group on defense that we’ve seen so far.”
Still, Riley said he’s hopeful the Beavers can establish some sort of running game to take the pressure off Mannion and the air attack.
“It sure would be nice,” said Riley, whose team averages just 73.7 yards per game on the ground. “They have such a good front. If you play too much one-dimensional football with them and let those guys go, it’s very difficult. It would be nice if we could find a consistent run game to complement what else we need to be able to do to win.”