CORVALLIS — Two of the keys to No. 13 Oregon State’s surprising turnaround this season are Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, who don’t hesitate in proclaiming themselves the best receiving duo in the Pac-12.
Some of the numbers certainly back them up.
While USC’s Marquise Lee grabs all the headlines out West, Wheaton and Cooks are combining to average more than 211 receiving yards a game for the Beavers (7-1, 5-1).
Cooks, a sophomore, is averaging 113.25 yards, ranking him seventh among FBS players, while senior Wheaton is No. 13 with 98.4. Wheaton lost some ground when he left Oregon State’s game against Washington two weeks ago in the first quarter because of a concussion.
The only other school with two receivers ranked as high is West Virginia, which has No. 8 Travon Austin (111.13) and No. 11 Stedman Bailey (103.75).
“I guess it depends on who you ask,” laughed Wheaton when asked if he and his teammate were the best in the conference. “I think so. Definitely.”
Declared Cooks: “Yes. Yes, we are.”
Lee leads the Pac-12 and is second nationally with an average of nearly 143 yards. Together with teammate Robert Woods (72.9), they’re averaging just over 215 yards a game, more than Cooks and Wheaton but also with the dynamic Lee contributing disproportionate yardage. Austin Hill and Dan Buckner are together averaging about 186 yards for Arizona.
In last Saturday’s 36-26 victory over Arizona State, Cooks caught six passes for 116 yards with a touchdown, and Wheaton caught four passes for 108 yards with two scores. It was the third time this season that the duo had at least 100 receiving yards apiece.
For the season, Cooks has 906 receiving yards and four touchdowns, while Wheaton has 787 yards and eight scores. Wheaton has at least one catch in 31 straight games.
Asked for his opinion, coach Mike Riley said Wheaton and Cooks benefit greatly from their quickness. This spring Wheaton bested Oregon speedster De’Anthony Thomas in the Oregon Twilight track meet at Hayward Field, taking second in the 100-meter dash in 10.58 seconds (Thomas was third in 10.65 seconds).
“They are also very detailed guys,” Riley said. “They work at this thing hard. That combination is good.”
Oh, and as for the two being the best receiving tandem in the league?
“I agree totally,” Riley said.
Overall, Oregon is ranked 21st nationally in passing offense with 306.1 yards a game, but they’ve juggled two quarterbacks, Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz.
Mannion started Oregon States’ first four games, but injured his left knee and required surgery. Vaz, a junior who had not started a game since high school, led the Beavers to victories in their next two games.
Mannion, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, returned against Washington, but threw four picks in a 20-17 loss, the Beavers’ first of the season. Vaz took over last weekend against the Sun Devils, and has been named Oregon State’s starter for this Saturday’s game at Stanford.
Wheaton credited both with the duo’s success.
“I think a lot of it has to do with our quarterback. Both our quarterbacks are real good. They put it where it needs to be,” he said.
To which Vaz returned the compliment: “Just knowing that they can score whenever they get the ball in their hands — it’s huge for any quarterback. They make my job a whole lot easier.”
The Beavers face a considerable challenge in the 16th-ranked Cardinal (7-2, 5-1). The teams are playing for second place in the Pac-12 North to No. 2 Oregon, which hasn’t lost a game. Both Stanford and Oregon State still have the Ducks on their schedules.
That the Beavers are in this position is remarkable. Last season, they went 3-9 and many were calling for Riley’s dismissal. Oregon State was picked in the preseason to finish last in the league’s northern division.