CORVALLIS — Brandin Cooks appreciates that his coach feels the need to take blame for Cooks' underwhelming numbers the past two weeks, but the junior receiver isn't buying it.
In the wake of Oregon State's 31-14 loss to USC, a game in which Cooks tallied just 88 receiving yards, Beavers coach Mike Riley criticized himself, saying he has to find more ways to get Cooks the ball. (Though Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf devise the gameplan together, Riley calls the plays.)
The past two weeks, Cooks has totaled 168 receiving yards against Stanford and USC combined, well under his 149.3 per game average. He's still squarely in the nation's lead for most receiving yards (1,344), but if you've watched OSU this season, you know this much: In order for the Beavers to win, Cooks has to do some damage.
"Coach Riley, he's doing what he has to do to win," Cooks said. "If I'm doubled every play and getting bracketed, somebody else is open. I saw some quotes about he 'failed' to get me the ball. He didn't fail; he's doing what he need to do for our offense. He's cooking some stuff up in the kitchen right now, but hey, if I don't get the ball, I just want to win."
No matter where the Beavers are playing, everyone in the stadium knows Oregon State's goal is to get the ball in Cooks' hands. Four weeks ago after he torched Washington State for 137 yards, Riley said the key to keeping Cooks in the mix is to move him around. But against Stanford and USC, two of the best defenses in the Pac-12, that didn't work. (Double coverage on Cooks, and a vicious pass rush that forced quarterback Sean Mannion to throw quicker than he wanted to, didn't help.) Though he's made some terrific catches in double coverage this season — his grab against Colorado on Sept. 28 comes to mind — Cooks can't, and doesn't, expect Mannion to throw in his direction every time.
"There's stuff that Coach Riley is dialing up now," Cooks said with a grin spreading across his face. "There's nothing you can really do against Cover 2 and double teams. The quarterback has his reads, and once you see a certain coverage, he's on to the next person."
Cooks and Mannion talked over the bye weekend about "being on the same page" when it came to running certain routes, and Cooks said Tuesday that he thinks the game is slowing back down for the junior quarterback. Against USC, Mannion was probably guilty of pressing a little, Langsdorf said, which led to some bad throws. It's not necessarily that he missed Cooks, but he didn't always read the defense correctly, and rushed himself. A few more check-downs to the running backs would help too, because then defenses would have to respect the short(er) passing game, which could pull some coverage off Cooks.
But things won't get much easier this week in Tempe.
Arizona State leads the Pac-12 in passing defense, allowing just 206.4 yards per game (19th in the country). Sun Devils coach Todd Graham on Tuesday gushed about the play of seniors Alden Darby (boundary safety) and Osahon Irabor (boundary corner), saying that their improved technique has allowed them to "operate as one" and shut down opposing receivers.
But Graham also called Cooks the best receiver, and most explosive player, in the Pac-12, acknowledging that his defense would be busy.
"He runs the ball well on the speed sweeps, he's lethal on receiver screens and reverses, he's very effective on intermediate routes and then he'll burn you deep," Graham said of Cooks. "And he's an unbelievable route runner."
Graham added that Cooks "is really special" on special teams, where he leads the Pac-12 with 176.6 all-purpose yards per game
This week, as the Sun Devils bring defensive pressure with yet another tough front seven, Cooks said it's the receivers' responsibility to get open quickly.
"We have to have an internal clock: 'OK, our quarterback is under duress, we need to get open faster than normal," he said.
With Oregon's loss to Stanford last Thursday — a result Cooks wasn't surprised by — the Beavers will be back in the race for the Pac-12 North if they can get their act together this week. But Cooks isn't thinking about that.
"We just lost two in a row, so we're worried about getting a win," he said, adding that he feels like "practice has been rolling the last few days, we're just flying around."
Surely, if the Beavers are to "get our groove back," their best player will have to produce more. Cooks knows it. Opposing defenses know it. And Riley knows it, given his repetitive "it's my fault" line last week.
But Cooks hasn't lost confidence in the guy calling the plays. It felt like everyone needed a pep talk following the USC meltdown, so as they walked down the hall together the receiver turned to his coach, told him to keep his head up, and that he still believed in him.
"I will never let him think," Cooks said, "that he failed."
And if he delivered the message like a coach would, Cooks probably pointed out what most in charge usually do: There are more games, so stop hanging your head, and get ready for the next one.