Let me preface this preview with a caveat: No one, including myself, truly knows how good this Oregon State team is right now.
The Beavers, led by quarterback Sean Mannion and wide receiver Brandin Cooks, have put up video-game numbers on offense all year long. At the same time, the Oregon State defense has had trouble stopping anyone, even Eastern Washington of FCS fame (who beat the Beavers 49-46) and San Diego State (who put up fewer points at Air Force than against OSU).
There are two very different ways to interpret these Beavers. The optimists say that Oregon State has a great offense and a young defense that just wasn’t ready for the start of the season but is now playing good ball. To be fair to this group, Oregon State has only given up an average of 19 points per game in its last three contests: Beaver wins against Colorado, Washington State and Cal.
But the skeptics, who include myself, aren’t buying these “successes” just yet. Yes, the Beavers have taken care of business against the teams put in front of them, besides Eastern Washington, so I can’t say with any type of certainty that they are bad. However, I think that people are overstating how good this team actually is, based on what we’ve seen so far.
If the Beavers are good enough to take down the Card, it will almost certainly be because of their passing offense, so that is what I’m going to focus the rest of this preview on.
Oregon State’s offense is, at its core, the highest-powered version of a cat-and-mouse game that you can imagine. It has two main strengths: deep passes to Cooks and screen passes to keep defenses off-balance.
Stanford head coach David Shaw was effusive in his praise of Oregon State’s deep-passing game. Again, ignoring the weakness of the Beavers’ competition, OSU’s deep passing has been astoundingly efficient.
Mannion is completing 69 percent of his passes and averaging 427 yards per game through the air, both great numbers. And Cooks, his top receiver, already has 76 catches for 1,176 yards (that’s 168 yards per game!) and 12 touchdowns.
If there is any weakness on Stanford’s defense, one-on-one coverage by the cornerbacks — especially the cornerbacks besides sophomore Alex Carter — might be it. Stanford does not historically have its best cornerback follow an opponent’s top receiver around, and Shaw told us earlier this week that every one of his corners would cover Cooks. That could leave some openings for Mannion to find Cooks on a game-changing play.
Stanford’s most effective tactic in stopping this deep ball is probably its pass rush. Mannion takes a lot of seven-step drops, which require prolonged protection, and that will provide opportunities for Stanford’s best pass rushers to get hits on Mannion. If Oregon State’s line somehow keeps Mannion clean, it could be a long night for the Stanford defense.
Oregon State’s best chance of keeping Mannion off his back is going to come from mixing in the screen pass. The Beavers run pretty much every type of screen that exists, and that could make Stanford’s rushers a little hesitant in their pursuit of Mannion.
For all those reasons, expect the back-and-forth between screens and deep passes to sometimes work and sometimes fail disastrously. Whoever makes the most of these big-play opportunities, whether by forcing turnovers or hitting deep touchdown passes, should have the edge, and that’s why it’s the key to the game.
The Daily tried to keep Sam Fisher off his back Tuesday night, to no avail. Send Sam some Nyquil at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.