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Vaz, Riley make new believers


It took me about a quarter Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium to make a quick study of what Mike Riley has spent 3 1/2 years doing as his doctorate.

Professor Riley does a pretty good job with just about every facet of the college football game, but he’s a specialist with quarterbacks. After all, Oregon State’s head coach is an old signal-caller himself, the guy who led Corvallis High to the state championship in 1970.

This is the guy who has brought along such winners as Jonathan Smith and Derek Anderson and Matt Moore and Sean Canfield at Oregon State, like an expert artist molding with clay.

So when Riley told me maybe a year ago that Cody Vaz is good, and he was in the mix of things in the competition for Oregon State’s starting QB role, maybe I should have believed him.

And when Riley told me last week that the Beavers would be just fine with Vaz at quarterback in place of the injured Sean Mannion, I probably should have taken his word for it.

But I doubted. So did many of you.

After all, Vaz — a redshirt junior who had spent more than three years on the OSU campus as an understudy — hadn’t played a down since 2010, and hadn’t started a game since his senior year at St. Mary’s High in Stockton, Calif.

And while the kid owns a rocket arm, he’s only 6 feet tall. I — we — figured the combination of stature, rustiness, nerves and lack of experience might prove his downfall in the pits of despair known as Provo, Utah, where very few opponents emerge victorious against Brigham Young.

Curses! Wrong again.

Vaz’s baptism under fire was spectacular. His poise was palpable. He threw short and he threw deep and he threw precisely most of the afternoon. He led his troops in just the same way Mannion would have — with quiet confidence.

It was a tribute to Riley, who had helped prepare Vaz for just that moment.

Any backup quarterback is just a play away from being on the field. And that position, more than any, requires mental preparation. Vaz did his homework and kept his attitude right. And Riley never lost faith in the quarterback he recruited as a potential starter out of high school.

“To me, Cody’s always been a good player,” Riley said Sunday night. “It’s like I kept saying — he has been getting ready for this time. He has competed very well to get the opportunity to play. One of the problems for him is we don’t often play two quarterbacks.

“But going back to (training) camp a year ago, he was really impressive and was in the mix to start for us. He hurt his back and missed about a week of a real hard competition between three quarterbacks (Mannion, Ryan Katz and Vaz). Katz wasn’t healthy during that time, either, and Sean got the bulk of the work and separated himself.”

Since spring ball, though, Vaz and Mannion have shared turns in practice — again, Riley preparing his team for the likelihood that at some point, the starter was going to go down.

“I’ve really felt like we have two (quarterbacks) here who can win,” Riley said. “Cody got a chance to prove it Saturday.”

Vaz has an easy smile and a laid-back demeanor that works well with his teammates. Inside, the butterflies might be churning, but you’d never know it by the way he looks or the way he plays.

It bodes well for the eighth-ranked Beavers, who face Utah at Reser Stadium Saturday with history on the line. An Oregon State team has never started a season 6-0. An Oregon Agriculture College team has, though — that legendary F.S. Norcross squad of '07. That’s 1907.

“How many games did they play that year?” Riley asked with a chuckle.

Told the Orangemen finished 6-0 and outscored the opposition 138-0, Riley chuckled again.

“Guess they were a heck of a team,” he said.

So are the '12 — 2012 — Beavers. Vaz deserves a mountain of credit for keeping the ship headed in the right direction. So does Riley, with whom panic he has never been introduced.

Vaz will start Saturday when the Beavers put their perfect slate and ranking on the line against the Utes at what should be a sold-out house at Reser. There’s an outside chance, though, that Mannion may be available for duty, too.

Mannion’s surgery last Wednesday went as smoothly as possible. The surgeon told Riley that the torn meniscus — part of an old injury, incidentally — was minor and the surgery “really clean.”

“It was pretty good news,” said Riley, who still doesn’t expect Mannion ready for Utah.

But for Washington the following week in Seattle?

“I think he could be,” Riley said.

For now, Vaz is the guy. Riley knew he could handle it, and so did the teammates who have grown to respect the career backup over the years.

I came late to the party. Better late than never.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers