Led by Mannion, Oregon State treks to Berkeley to face off against Cal football

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It’s a new age for college football, and Sonny Dykes knows it.

“It’s almost like the steroid era in baseball,” he said. “A lot of the stats are so much bigger now than they were.”

The spread offense has done more than just speed up the game — it’s given squads the opportunity to rack up monstrous stats that were never possible under older, slower schemes.

Dykes concedes that the Pac-12 is a league of quarterbacks, but there is one who stands above the rest: Oregon State’s Sean Mannion, who currently leads the country in total passing yards.

“He’s having an incredible year, in my opinion,” said Cal quarterback Jared Goff. “This year, he’s kind of putting together almost like a Heisman year.”

On Saturday, the Bears (1-6, 0-3 in the Pac-12) will come face to face with Mannion when the Beavers (5-1, 3-0) storm Memorial Stadium at 7:30 p.m.

In his third season under center, Mannion is the experienced veteran Goff can only hope to be a few years down the road. Although Goff has amassed a staggering 2,036 yards and ranks fourth in the nation, Mannion beats him by a few all-important stats.

The junior’s 2,511 passing yards and 25 touchdowns are both FBS bests, and he completes 67 percent of his tosses.

Most of those passes, though, aren’t long balls — they’re screens and short-range throws that move the chains. The result is a complete lack of a running game, as Mannion’s short passes essentially eliminate handoffs and further beef up his own passing yardage. Opponents have racked up nearly twice as many rushing yards as the Beavers, who average just 2.6 yards a carry.

The Bears’ own run game has sputtered this season — but not by choice. With 2.9 yards per carry, the team’s numbers are only slightly higher than Oregon State’s.

Last weekend, however, running backs Khalfani Muhammad and Daniel Lasco combined for 20 carries and 102 yards against then-No. 11 UCLA. In an ongoing effort to see sparks on the ground, the coaching staff is tweaking the rushing game.

Brendan Bigelow, who entered the campaign as the Bears’ starting running back, recently switched to slot receiver. In the 34-10 loss to the Bruins, Bigelow caught two receptions for 18 yards, and this past week, he continued to take reps at the position.

“Get the ball in his hands in space is really what we’re trying to do,” Goff said. “Let him get the ball in his hands with blockers in front of him and let him make a play is really the goal of that.”

Bigelow’s switch could signal more screens — an echo of Oregon State’s offensive scheme.

Yet what the Beavers have produced with their offense is wholly unique. It’s practically decided by whatever makes Mannion comfortable. The payoff is a perfect record in the conference thus far.

“They’ve put him in good situations and have done a good job building the offense around him,” Dykes said. “They’ve simplified the game a little bit for him.”

The most surprising thing about Mannion’s meteoric stats, though, is the fact that they occur without the inflation of the spread. Oregon State is something of an anomaly in the Pac-12, eschewing innovation in favor of vintage appeal.

Head coach Mike Riley’s program doesn’t resemble anything contemporary, which makes for a radically different opponent for the Bears.

“They’re kind of a throwback Pac-12 offense,” Dykes said, “pretty similar to what a lot of the league was running four or five years ago and is now kind of unusual.”

In the new era of improbably big stats, that essentially pits old against new this weekend at Memorial Stadium.

Annie Gerlach covers football. Contact her at [email protected]

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