This time last year, both the Oregon State Beavers and Stanford Cardinal were without established quarterbacks going into their matchup at Stanford Stadium. For the Cardinal, redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan would make his first career start against the Beavers, while Oregon State would counter with Cody Vaz, half of the quarterback tandem that led the Beavers’ offense.
What a difference a year makes.
In Corvallis, Cody Vaz is no more and Sean Mannion has emerged as one of the premier quarterbacks in the country. Under Mannion, the high-flying Beavers offense currently leads the nation in passing with an eye-popping 442 yards per game and is also top-10 in the nation in scoring with 44 points per game.
In Stanford’s corner, junior Kevin Hogan now has a full season’s worth of starts under his belt and has weathered every challenge ranked teams have thrown at him, to the tune of a perfect 7-0 record against top-25 teams, a Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl victory.
When No. 6 Stanford (6-1, 4-1 Pac-12) and No. 25 Oregon State (6-1, 4-0) clash in Corvallis on Saturday, Hogan and Mannion will each be trying to firmly establish their teams as the top challenger to the No. 3 Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 North.
The game will be an opportunity for the Beavers to prove themselves on a national stage against a true top-10 team and a stingy defense with the skill and talent of Stanford’s defense. Although the Beavers have the same record as the Cardinal at 6-1, Oregon State has yet to face a top-25 team and even dropped its first game of the season to FCS foe Eastern Washington.
Despite the struggles of the team, Mannion has had a first half of the season for the ages. Leading a pass-oriented Oregon State offense, the junior has already passed for 2,992 yards and 29 touchdowns with just three interceptions and ranks seventh in the nation in quarterback rating. He has yet to throw for fewer than 367 yards in any of his games and has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes this season in a varied passing game that looks to challenge the Cardinal defense more than a traditional scheme.
“They’ve got a great play-action scheme and the offensive line is playing really well,” said Cardinal head coach David Shaw. “They make you play honest, though, because they have so much…You have to account for the screen game. You have to account for the fly sweep. You have to account for the draw, for the spread draw, for the toss runs. So there’s so much you have to account for so that you can’t just pass rush.”
Most of the Beavers’ passes have gone to junior wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who has followed up a breakout sophomore season with an absolutely stellar first half of 2013. Cooks has already reeled in 76 passes for 1,176 yards and 12 touchdowns — over a third of the Beavers’ production through the air.
“They’ve done some really impressive things this year,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Ben Gardner. “Things that we haven’t seen from Oregon State in the past. Mannion and Cooks have been, really, the best combination in the country so far…it’s our job to make sure they’re not in the Heisman conversation the week after we play them.”
Disrupting the seamless chemistry between Mannion and Cooks will be essential for the Cardinal defense to put a stopper in the powerful Oregon State offense. The Cardinal has been trying to emulate Cooks’ on-field performance with a revolving door of receivers on the practice field, but the secondary will be met with one of its toughest challenges of the season when it meets the real Cooks on the field on Saturday.
While the secondary attempts to put pressure on Cooks, Gardner and the defensive line will look to pressure Mannion — one of the few drop-back, pocket-passing quarterbacks remaining in the Pac-12 — to ensure that the ball never makes it as far as Cooks.
“The back end and the front end really have to work together,” Gardner said. “It’s got to be tight coverage in the back end to allow us to get home and put pressure on [Mannion] and we’ve got to make sure that we’re getting there so that those guys don’t have to hold onto their coverage for too long…I think it suits our defense well.”
After a shutdown performance against UCLA last weekend in which the powerful Bruin offense was held to less than half of its usual output, the defense has reason to be confident moving into a game against an offense with a much more one-dimensional offensive game plan.
Although the Beavers’ lack of a running game could impair them to an extent on Saturday, an even more significant weakness on the Oregon State squad is its lackluster defensive play — a surprising flaw in a team that was among the top defensive squads in the conference last season.
With Hogan having recovered his pocket presence last week against UCLA and senior running back Tyler Gaffney coming off a career day, Stanford should have no trouble moving the ball all evening. Without junior wide receiver Devon Cajuste, who is out with a knee injury, the Cardinal will still need a receiver to step up to complement junior Ty Montgomery’s explosive potential.
It was also announced that senior placekicker Jordan Williamson would miss Saturday’s game after a nagging injury that also sidelined him last week against UCLA. Sophomore Conrad Ukropina, who converted all three extra points and was 1-of-2 on field goals, will kick in his place until Williamson’s expected return for the Oregon game.
As the final challenge on the Cardinal’s schedule before its collision with No. 3 Oregon on Nov. 7, Oregon State will be looking to play spoiler against a Stanford team that needs as much momentum as possible heading into its game of the year. Kickoff at Reser Stadium in Corvallis is set for 7:30 p.m. with television coverage on ESPN.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.