Column: Quarterback changes are the cause for lackluster finish
Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 01:01
Mike Riley is, without question, the best head coach the Oregon State football program has ever had.
His 81 career wins and five bowl victories are both Oregon State records. He turned a program that was the lowest of the low into a respectable and consistent contender in the Pac-10/12.
Riley is probably the best thing that ever happened to Oregon State football.
Ironically, the blame for a disappointing 3-4 finish to what was almost a magical season falls squarely on Riley’s shoulders.
His back-and-forth decisions at quarterback transformed a potentially historical year into a season that leaves Beaver fans wondering: “What if?”
It started four games in to the season. Up until that point it wasn’t even a question that sophomore Sean Mannion was the long-term starting quarterback for this Oregon State team. He played in all 12 games in 2011 (starting 10 of those 12) and played brilliantly in OSU’s 4-0 start.
He even looked poised to make the jump to the elite level of college quarterbacks.
Then he injured his knee and junior Cody Vaz was thrust into the spotlight. Not many people guessed Vaz would shine the way he did in his first game on the road against a tough Brigham Young team, but he was spectacular and received national praise.
After a serviceable second outing from Vaz that gave OSU its best start in school history, Mannion returned to the starting lineup for an Oct. 27 road game at Washington. It seemed everything was back to normal.
Though Vaz was incredible against BYU, it was still evident that Mannion possessed superior physical skills. He’s bigger, has a stronger arm and is a year younger than Vaz.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Mannion was the better long-term starting quarterback for the Beavers at that point in the season.
But when Mannion played poorly through three quarters in Seattle, Riley decided to pull the trigger and reinsert Vaz into the lineup.
The move made sense at the time. Mannion clearly was not himself and may not have been healthy, and Vaz had proven he could put up points. Not to mention, an undefeated season was on the line.
Riley did what he felt was best for the team at that time — a decision that was justified.
In retrospect, it might have been the worst thing Riley could have done for the future of this football team.
All of a sudden there was a legitimate quarterback controversy swirling around the team. When Riley decided to go with Vaz, he sent a message that he didn’t trust Mannion, whether he meant to or not.
Mannion had played, by far, his worst game of the season against Washington but he still had a chance to do what good quarterbacks do — make the necessary plays to win when the game matters most.
Matt Barkley would not have been benched in that situation. Geno Smith would not have been benched. So why pull Mannion when he has a shot to solidify himself as an elite quarterback, and OSU as legitimate BCS contenders?
It’s easy for me to rip the decision now, but the decision was rash and damaged Mannion in a way that is dire for any quarterback. It ruined his confidence.
Confidence is what matters most for arguably the most important and challenging position of any sport.
Mannion’s seemed all but shot.
After Riley named Vaz starter the following week against Arizona State, it looked like he had made his choice for the rest of the year.
But in another bizarre twist, Vaz went down with an ankle injury at the end of the loss to Stanford. Mannion was asked to fill in as if nothing had happened. As if he had never been benched at all.
Mannion threw four touchdowns in the next game against Cal, a 62-14 romp by OSU. But it was clear the Golden Bears had given up on the season.
Mannion ended up starting the final three games.
While Riley maintained all along that he had two capable starting quarterbacks, it began to look like he wasn’t sure if he even had one. It almost seemed as if he did not trust either of them.
When Riley finally announced that Vaz would start in the Alamo Bowl, it marked the fifth time he had changed between the two quarterbacks in seven games.
It doesn’t matter how mentally tough a player is. Repeatedly getting benched and then reintroduced into the starting lineup week to week is a roller coaster of emotions that will inevitably affect anyone.