For better or worse, the current state of Stanford football is bringing back vivid memories of the 2012 season: a smothering defense bailing out an inconsistent offense over and over…and over.
On a night when the Cardinal offense suffered an identity crisis, the defense put on one of its grittiest performances of the season — capped by a thrilling goal line stand, no less — to help No. 6 Stanford outlast No. 25 Oregon State 20-12 within the hostile confines of Reser Stadium and move into sole possession of second place behind Oregon in the Pac-12 North standings.
Even the nation’s most prolific quarterback-wide receiver duo could not unlock Stanford’s defense, as the Cardinal sacked Beavers passer Sean Mannion eight times — Mannion was sacked just nine times in his last seven games — and limited wide receiver Brandin Cooks to 80 receiving yards and a touchdown. Though the dominant defensive performance was a collective effort, fifth-year senior outside linebacker Trent Murphy made his presence known in the backfield with 3 ½ tackles for loss, including 2 ½ sacks, and tipped passes even when he could not get to Mannion.
“Defensively, I thought we played extremely well against the No. 1 quarterback and No. 1 wide receiver in the nation,” said head coach David Shaw. “It was a great game plan by [defensive coordinator] Derek Mason, an outstanding game plan. We knew [Oregon State] was going to make some plays, but to hold down Cooks was phenomenal.”
Down by eight points, Mannion and company had a chance to tie the game when a 28-yard punt return and two ensuing receptions by the explosive Cooks gave the Beavers the ball at the Cardinal 7-yard line with 20 seconds remaining and no timeouts left. But the Cardinal defense held its ground and forced four straight incompletions — senior safety Ed Reynolds knocked the ball out of receiver Kevin Cummings’ hands in the end zone on the last pass attempt — to seal the road victory.
Though senior running back Tyler Gaffney rushed for 149 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries, the Cardinal offense did its defensive counterpart no favors for most of the game. Junior quarterback Kevin Hogan had perhaps the shakiest performance of his career, going 8-of-18 passing for just 88 yards while completing only three passes to Stanford’s most dangerous offensive weapon, junior wideout Ty Montgomery.
“Offensively, we didn’t play well enough,” Shaw said. “We missed too many things in the passing game — our quarterback, receiver and coach. We can do so much better. Ty Montgomery needs more opportunities with the ball in his hands.”
The first quarter proved to be a defensive battle with Stanford going three-and-out twice and Oregon State unable to jumpstart its passing game. The Cardinal drove down to the Beavers 17 on its second possession of the game, but a botched handoff between sophomore quarterback Dallas Lloyd and senior running back Ricky Seale in the read-option package resulted in the first of two inopportune turnovers committed by Stanford.
Beavers kicker Trevor Romaine nailed a 50-yard field goal at the start of the second quarter to give his team a 3-0 lead, but the Cardinal defense shut down Oregon State’s aerial attack for most of the first half. The Beavers mustered just 99 yards of total offense while Cooks was held to two receptions for 2 yards through the first two quarters. Twice in the second quarter, the Beavers went for it on fourth-and-short while in field goal range, but were stopped both times.
“[We did] what we do best: stopping the run,” said Reynolds, who came up with four solo tackles in addition to his game-sealing pass breakup. “In the back end, play top down, put a top on [Cook] where you limit his explosive plays, because on film, that’s where he’s been great at all year.”
Just when it seemed as if the Cardinal was in danger of facing a three-point deficit heading into halftime, Hogan found Montgomery down the sideline for 37 yards on third-and-12 to put Stanford at the Beaver 31 with 27 seconds left in the first half. Two plays later, Hogan made his best play of the night with a 23-yard scramble down to the Beavers’ 4-yard line. Hogan then handed the ball off to Gaffney, who somehow stayed on his feet and powered his way into the end zone after initially running into a wall of linemen.
The Cardinal carried its momentum into the first play of the third quarter, when junior cornerback Wayne Lyons forced a fumble on the kickoff that fell into the hands of senior linebacker Joe Hemschoot. Two plays later, Gaffney punched it in from nine yards out for his second touchdown of the night to give Stanford a 13-3 lead — sophomore Conrad Ukropina’s PAT attempt was no good.
Mannion and Cooks finally began to establish a connection as the two hooked up for an 8-yard touchdown in the waning moments of the third quarter, but Stanford struck back when the Cardinal offensive line opened up a huge hole that allowed Gaffney to burst free for a 32-yard touchdown run and give Stanford a 20-9 lead. Meanwhile, the Cardinal defense continued to hold down the fort in the fourth quarter, with senior inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley playing excellent pass coverage and on his way to collecting a game-high 13 tackles, eight of which were solo efforts.
But just when Stanford was on the verge of putting the game away, Gaffney uncharacteristically lost a fumble at his own 25-yard line to give the Beavers new life.
“It was unacceptable,” Gaffney said. “They put trust in me, and I lost a little focus. I couldn’t tell what happened, but it was unacceptable.”
Stanford’s defense did not break and forced Oregon State to settle for a field goal, but the Cardinal offense went three-and-out on its next possession, setting up the Beavers’ furious last-minute drive and the Cardinal’s goal line stand.
“Offensively, we put our defense in some tough spots,” Shaw said. “I want to give [Oregon State] credit, as mad as I am with our effort on the offensive side. Their pass rush was so phenomenal. I know it was loud — and we’ve been to loud stadiums before — but they got after us on the pass rush. It wasn’t just [Beavers defensive end] Scott Crichton — and I’ve always respected that man — but it was the whole group up front.”
With the victory against Oregon State, Stanford remains in control of its Rose Bowl destiny, and, though it will need a lot of help, a national championship berth is still possible, even if unlikely. The Cardinal now turns its attention to undefeated No. 2 Oregon following a bye week for both teams.
How would have Stanford’s performance on Saturday fared against Oregon?
“It wasn’t good enough to beat Oregon or good enough to be in the game against Oregon,” Shaw said.
Stanford and Oregon will battle for Pac-12 North supremacy on Nov. 7.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.