Football: Oregon State, Stanford battle over Rose Bowl hopes, chance to challenge Oregon for Pac-12 North
On a chilly, rainy day in Corvallis, Ore. around this time last year, Andrew Luck didn’t need to be in his usual flawless form for Stanford to drop lowly Oregon State 38-13. It might have been a trap game for the Cardinal, but it was the Beavers who were left trapped when the four quarters were over.
Sandwiched between Stanford’s triple-overtime thriller against USC and the crushing loss to Oregon, the game was a mere afterthought in the grand scheme of things. The paths travelled by the two teams last season couldn’t have contrasted more; the Cardinal wound up earning its second straight BCS bowl berth while the Beavers would finish second-to-last in the Pac-12 North and miss the postseason.
What a difference a year can make.
This time around, everything is on the line for both programs: Pac-12 North title goals, conference championship dreams and Rose Bowl aspirations. A victory for Oregon State would be the cherry on top of its remarkable turnaround under head coach Mike Riley. A victory for Stanford would not only affirm its ability to beat the nation’s elites — no Luck needed — but also maintain its status as a rising powerhouse.
In a marquee matchup pitting two of the best defenses in the country, No. 14 Stanford (7-2, 4-1 Pac-12) plays host to Oregon State (7-1, 5-1) tomorrow in what is a de facto semifinal game for the Pac-12 North Division title.
“They are the quintessential Mike Riley team,” head coach David Shaw said of Oregon State. “They’re efficient. They’re not out of position. You don’t see them giving up a whole bunch of big plays. Defensively, they run to the ball, they don’t break contain. They don’t make mistakes.”
The Cardinal and the Beavers might be the two most similar teams in a conference that places so much emphasis on high-octane offenses.
Stanford and Oregon State boast defenses that are ranked first and second respectively in the conference in both scoring defense and rushing defense. In fact, the Cardinal sits atop the country in run defense (55.6 yards per game), sacks (4.4 per game) and tackles for loss (9.2 per game). The Beavers also aren’t too far behind on the national stage, with a rush defense (91.8 per game) that is ranked fifth overall.
While the Cardinal’s infamous front seven has left opposing offenses quaking in their boots on a weekly basis, the team’s secondary is also shaping up. True freshman Alex Carter has quickly developed into a hard-hitting cornerback, complementing sophomore Jordan Richards’ sound tackling play at strong safety, which has been critical in defending against both the pass and the run.
But the one player who has stood out above everyone else is junior free safety Ed Reynolds, the dangerous ball hawk who currently leads in the nation in total interception yards (221) and pick sixes (3).
“There are some things you can’t teach,” said Shaw. “You can’t teach instincts, you can’t teach anticipation. You teach guys scheme and you tell them where to go. But Ed does a great job of reading the quarterback’s eyes and understanding route concepts.”
Oregon State has a playmaking Reynolds of its own. The lockdown corner duo of Rashaad Reynolds and Jordan Poyer has taken care of business all year, with Rashaad Reynolds fifth in the nation in passes defended (1.75 per game) and Poyer leading the country in interceptions per game (0.71). Poyer sat out last week against Arizona State with a knee injury, but is expected to start tomorrow.
“I liked to talk about [Oregon Sate] the same way I talk about our team,” Shaw said. “Tough and aggressive. They don’t waver; they don’t change depending on the score. They play hard the whole game. I told my team [on Monday], ‘You’re going to have to beat a team like this. They’re not going to give you the game.’”
Up front, defensive end Scott Crichton has turned into a force to be reckoned with. The sophomore All-American candidate has already recorded nine sacks — seventh in the country — to go along with 14 tackles made for a loss.
“They don’t give up a ton of plays,” commented Shaw. “They play extremely hard, and they’ll hit your quarterback. You can’t take a play off blocking somebody because they’ll beat you because they don’t ever stop.”
Adding further to the similarities between Stanford and Oregon State is the recent changes at the quarterback position for both teams.
Shaw announced on Tuesday that redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan, who was 18-of-23 passing for 184 yards and two touchdowns in the Cardinal’s 48-0 blowout of Colorado last weekend, will be the starting quarterback against the Beavers.
“There’s no misconception that we’re going to take the entire game plan and throw it on a redshirt freshman’s shoulders,” Shaw said. “But [Hogan’s] shown that he can handle enough of our game plan that we don’t have to change what we do.”
Even players on the other side of the ball have voiced their faith in Hogan.
“The boy can sling it,” said senior inside linebacker Jarek Lancaster, who tallied two sacks against the Buffaloes. “I don’t see that changing. If anything, he’s got more confidence now that he’s playing in the big games. I expect a lot in this game.”
Senior running back Stepfan Taylor is expected to see more action after getting some important rest last Saturday. Just 53 yards away from a school record of three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, Taylor has come through during crunch time for the Cardinal all season.
“[Taylor’s] been carrying the ball a lot,” said Shaw. “And we don’t run a whole bunch of fly sweeps; we run between the tackles. We wanted to get the other guys in the field some time and give Stepfan a rest.”
For the Beavers, it’s Cody Vaz who has become the new signal-caller. After filling in for an injured Sean Mannion, Vaz eventually won the job following Mannion’s awful four-interception performance against Washington State, which handed the Beavers their only loss of the season so far.
“Mannion was playing at such a high level, you’d figure there was going to be a drop-off,” Shaw said. “But [Vaz] came in and won a big game for them. It didn’t seem like he was a young kid coming in and just throwing stuff against the wall….He’s been very effective running the offense.”
Vaz has plenty of weapons to work with, starting with wideouts Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton. Forming one of the most prolific wide receiver combinations in the country, Cooks is seventh in the nation in receiving yards per game (113.3) while Wheaton is 13th (98.4). Other than West Virginia, Oregon State is the only team in the country with two receivers ranked in the top 13.
“[Oregon State] is fast,” said Lancaster. “Those Oregon teams, they’ve got some speed. We know that, but I’m pretty excited about seeing how we match up with them. I feel like we’ve got a very, very good front seven, and we’ve got some great pass coverage, so we’ll see just how well their offense does against us.”
Tomorrow’s game is Senior Day for the Cardinal. In keeping with tradition, the players in their last year of eligibility will make “The Walk,” marking the final time that they will enter Stanford Stadium.
“It’s going to be a heck of a college football game,” Shaw said.
Stanford and Oregon State clash tomorrow in one of the biggest Pac-12 matchups of the season. Kickoff is at 12 p.m., with television coverage on FOX.