By Sam Fisher
Stanford’s football team has arrived at Murder’s Row. Oregon State, Oregon and UCLA, the last three opponents of the regular season, are a combined 15-3 in conference and 23-3 overall. That’s a tiny bit better than Stanford’s previous two opponents, Washington State and Colorado, who had one win combined, and that was only because they had to play each other.
It tells you something about the difficulty of the last three games when the No. 11 Oregon State Beavers might be the easiest test left. You always have to be careful reading too far into the rankings, but in this case, it’s certainly a sign of how evenly-matched these teams are. Here are a few key matchups that could make the difference in the game.
Stanford’s defensive line vs. Oregon State’s offensive line
Oregon State’s offensive firepower comes from its star receivers Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks. The two have combined for just shy of 1,700 receiving yards already this season. Stanford’s secondary will have to step up to keep those two in check. However, stopping Wheaton and Cooks doesn’t start with the secondary; it starts right up front, where Stanford has a huge advantage.
The Cardinal leads the nation in sacks with 40, which is a big reason why Stanford is 7-2 in spite of its inconsistent offensive play. Oregon State has given up 18 sacks, but five of them came in its last game against Arizona State. The Beavers offensive line showed that it has holes, and Stanford is the perfect team to take advantage of them.
The Kevin Hogan/Ryan Hewitt connection
Fullback Ryan Hewitt was a favorite target of Andrew Luck in 2011. Last year, Hewitt caught 34 passes for 282 yards and 5 touchdowns — pretty impressive numbers for a fullback. Through six games with Josh Nunes this season (Hewitt missed the first two games of the season with an ankle injury), Hewitt caught only three passes for 19 yards and no scores.
In the Colorado game, we could already see the difference Hogan makes to Hewitt’s productivity. Hewitt caught two passes for 18 yards, effectively matching his previous totals for the entire season. The first completion came on Hogan’s second play of the afternoon, which picked up a key first down.
Not all of Hewitt’s added productivity from Hogan’s insertion at quarterback appears on the stat sheet. On the very next play, Hewitt’s defender stayed back to respect his receiving ability, allowing Hewitt to easily kick him out and set up a Stepfan Taylor rushing touchdown.
This is a great example of how effective Stanford’s offense can be by just getting Ryan Hewitt involved. First and foremost, he provides an easy outlet for picking up the first down on a few key third-down plays throughout the game. Additionally, once Hewitt is involved in the offense, he becomes another threat for opponents to worry about, making the power run even deadlier. If Stanford can continue to take advantage of the apparent chemistry between Hogan and Hewitt, it could make a huge difference for Stanford against Oregon State.
Stanford limiting Oregon State’s big plays
Oregon State lives off the big play on both offense and defense. On the offensive side of the ball, one of the biggest sources of the big play is Wheaton, the star receiver.
Mike Riley uses Wheaton very similarly to how he utilized James Rodgers during his career at Oregon State. Not only is Wheaton a great receiving threat, averaging just shy of 100 yards per game through the air, but he also provides big plays on the ground.
Wheaton and Cooks have combined for 161 yards and a touchdown rushing this season. Mike Riley especially likes using Wheaton on the jet sweep to get the ball in Wheaton’s hands running at full speed toward the sideline.
Stanford needs to be aware of Wheaton and Cooks at all times. This will be tricky for Stanford, because the Card’s propensity to bring the blitz means that it’s conceivable that Wheaton and Cooks could see some one-on-one man coverage on Saturday. Alex Carter and Terrence Brown have the unenviable task of taking this on, so it’ll be up to Stanford to get to quarterback Cody Vaz before he can find an open man.
On the defensive side of the ball, Oregon State is fueled by the interception. In only eight games, Oregon State has 14 interceptions. Standout cornerback Jordan Poyer leads the charge with five of the 14 picks and the team’s only interception return for at touchdown. Poyer missed the Beavers’ last game against Arizona State, but is supposedly on track to play on Saturday.
These numbers are scary, but especially so with Stanford giving a freshman his first career start at quarterback. In limited action in his college career, Kevin Hogan has not faced any real adversity. How will Hogan respond if he gives up his first career collegiate interception against the Beavers, especially if it’s in a key moment?
Though none of us know the answer, everything we’re hearing out of the Stanford camp suggests Kevin Hogan won’t be fazed on the field. Senior wide receiver Jamal-Rashad Patterson jokingly referred to Hogan as “the most interesting man” in the universe, from the famous Dos Equis commercial campaign. And that brings us to our last key of the game.
Kevin Hogan vs. the pressure of his first career start
Kevin Hogan has given new life to Stanford fans. Though Stanford was 6-2 heading into Colorado, you’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of Stanford fans who were excited and confident heading into the home stretch. The only thing consistent about the Stanford offense was its inability to excite fans.
But in comes Kevin Hogan to save the day. In relief of Nunes, Hogan went 18 of 23 for 184 yards passing and two touchdowns to blow out the Buffs. The most spectacular thing about it was just how unspectacular it was. Most of his completions were caught near the line of scrimmage, but Hogan found the open receiver and him in stride. This allowed playmakers like Drew Terrell, Zach Ertz and Ryan Hewitt to use their athleticism. Combined with Hogan’s scrambling ability on some long third downs, this efficiency was deadly.
Hogan won’t have to do much more than that to beat Oregon State. However, he will need to continue to be efficient. If Hogan can keep that level head of his and consistently hit open receivers in stride, I think Hogan could make the quarterback role look pretty easy. If not, Oregon State could hang around long enough to pull off the upset and fully derail Stanford’s Rose Bowl hopes.
Sam Fisher has no shame in admitting that he wrote this preview while simultaneously applying to be the Dos Equis man’s personal shoeshine. Give him resume-writing advice at safisher “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter at @SamFisher908.