Early in the fourth quarter Saturday, California's Todd Barr muscled past the Oregon State offensive line. The defensive end leveled Sean Mannion, lodging his navy helmet just below the Beavers quarterback's chin.
CORVALLIS — Early in the fourth quarter Saturday, California's Todd Barr muscled past the Oregon State offensive line. The defensive end leveled Sean Mannion, lodging his navy helmet just below the Beavers quarterback's chin.
The hit earned a roughing the passer penalty. OSU, which eventually notched a 49-17 win, moved 15 yards. Mannion regained his composure and continued engineering yet another touchdown drive.
But Danny Langsdorf still felt a bit uneasy. While sitting in his box seat high up in Memorial Stadium, the Beavers offensive coordinator contemplated the importance of protecting a star. If that play had gone a tad differently, he thought, we may have had to soldier into a daunting late-season stretch without the nation's leading passer.
That realization holds special significance as the Beavers prepare for an aggressive Stanford front seven this week. The No. 8 Cardinal boasts experienced linebackers and defensive linemen, a group capable of changing a game with a few signature knocks on an opposing quarterback.
"That front is the best that we've seen," offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said after practice Monday. "Their technique is sound, they're schematically sound and they're going to be physical. So it's going to be a tough challenge for us."
For the most part, the Beavers have kept Mannion upright this season. They're tied for 26th nationally with 1.29 sacks allowed per game, a notable achievement for a once-undermanned crop of pass protectors. They've refined their blocking technique, barked evolving assignments and typically provided Mannion plenty of time to find a target.
Such execution is a key reason the junior is piecing together a Heisman candidacy. Mannion, who has tossed just three picks with an FBS-leading 29 touchdowns, often diverts praise to his offensive line. It's easy to rack up gaudy numbers, he says, when you're not fretting over an oncoming defender.
But pass protection is a complex aspect of football. It involves tight ends, running backs, even receivers at times. And it alway shelps, coaches explained, when a team features an experienced leader under center.
"I think being able to have a quick release and a strong arm on the ball is huge," Langsdorf said. "We've had that numerous times this year where (Mannion) has had a really good completion percentage and thrown some throws away. That's really helped our protection, too."
Still, there are pass-protecting errors to remedy. The offensive line, newly healthy after enduring a rash of early season setbacks, continues to gel. And the tight ends, a crew generally more comfortable receiving than blocking, miss assignments.
Re-watching Saturday's film highlighted some of the imperfections, Langsdorf said. The Golden Bears, who rank near the bottom nationally in sacks per game, hit Mannion several times and sacked him twice for 19 total yards. At least one of the highlight-caliber plays appeared preventable.
"It wasn't great," Langsdorf said. "We don't want to have any hits on the quarterback."
That objective could prove difficult against the Cardinal. Despite losing a couple critical members from last year's "Party in the Backfield," Stanford continues to benefit from its relentless rush. It ranks at or near the top of the conference with 2.71 average sacks and 7.3 average tackles for loss.
With the consistent threat of a blitz, opposing quarterbacks regularly appear frazzled. They force passes into tight windows and tally costly turnovers. And it hardly helps that the Cardinal often switches looks, confusing teams as its physical linebackers and linemen move between a 3-4 and a 4-3.
"They're pretty sophisticated and they're physical," Langsdorf said. "And that's the thing about them that really shows up on film. They show you different looks and they play hard."
The Stanford front seven's laundry list of victims continues to grow this year. The Cardinal sacked San Jose State quarterback David Fales four times, forcing him to lean on short and midrange passes in Stanford's 34-13rout. It forced two interceptions, recorded 10 tackles for loss and notched three sacks in a blowout of then-No. 23 Arizona State. And the Cardinal tallied11 tackles for loss and five sacks in a narrow victory over then-No. 15 Washington.
So Beavers coaches were particularly strident as they pinpointed the intricacies of pass protection in practice Monday. After all, Stanford offers far more than a tough opponent. It poses risks for one of their top assets.
"It's scary," Langsdorf said of Barr's hit on Mannion. "It makes you cringe a little bit. You don't want to see anybody get hurt, especially that quarterback."