By George Chen
It was a game of blown leads and inspiring comebacks, of frustrating turnovers and flawless plays, of high emotions and relentless physicality, of meeting adversity and overcoming adversity and of mistakes and redemption.
In short, it was everything college football has to offer.
Oregon State kicker Trevor Romaine had just nailed a 44-yard field goal right through the uprights with five minutes left in the third quarter. Stanford fans fell dead silent, incredulously watching their team’s early two-touchdown lead and Rose Bowl dreams dissipate in the blink of an eye.
In the visitor’s section, Oregon State fans erupted in a sea of orange, sensing that the Beavers were poised to deliver the final cut and parade out of the Farm with a trail of felled Trees in their wake. After all, the Beavers had just rattled off 23 unanswered points and had all the momentum on its side.
But the Trees stood.
Overcoming four turnovers and a nine-point deficit with the third quarter winding down, No. 13 Stanford (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12) stormed back to upend No. 16 Oregon State (7-2, 5-2) 27-23 on an emotional Senior Day and kept is conference championship and Rose Bowl aspirations alive.
“I’ll just start off first telling you guys what I said to the team,” head coach David Shaw said. “Got emotional in there…For the seniors] to go through their careers, the state that Stanford football was in four-plus years ago, these guys came in with a great attitude, they’ve worked extremely hard to make this a great place for football.”
The first half was a tale of two quarters for the Cardinal.
A lost fumble by tight end Zach Ertz wasted Stanford’s opening drive of the game, but the Cardinal offense operated seamlessly on its next two possessions following a pair of three-and-outs by the Beavers.
With Kevin Hogan making his first career start under center, the Cardinal seemed to score at will in the early going. Bad position field on Stanford’s own 7-yard line didn’t faze Hogan as the redshirt freshman found three different targets–Levin Toilolo, Stepfan Taylor and Kelsey Young–for completions of over ten yards. Hogan and Taylor picked up big chunks of yardage with their feet on back-to-back plays, before Taylor punched it in for a 1-yard touchdown run on third-and-goal. The 13-play, 93-yard drive was Stanford’s longest drive of the season and gave it an early 7-0 lead.
“[Hogan’s] earned our trust,” Shaw said. “When you start a new guy at quarterback early in the week, we knew he could handle quite a bit, but we didn’t know how much. But by the end of the week we knew we could give him the ability to change protections, runs to passes and passes to runs.”
The Cardinal’s next possession ran just as smoothly. To get things rolling, Hogan rolled out to his left and dumped the ball off to fullback Ryan Hewitt, who ran with it for 24 yards to midfield. The pair would hook up two more times on the same drive, with the last one resulting in a 12-yard touchdown that came off the play-action bootleg. Just like that, the Cardinal extended its lead over the Beavers to two touchdowns.
It seemed too good to be true and it was, because Oregon State responded emphatically in a hurry.
The Beavers finally found some rhythm on offense to start the second quarter. Quarterback Cody Vaz easily connected with wideouts Brandin Cooks and Markus Wheaton underneath the coverage while running back Storm Woods saw some daylight and picked up four first downs. On second-and-three, Terron Ward found the endzone from seven yards out to cut into Stanford’s lead 14-7.
Oregon State’s defense also started to lock down, sacking Hogan on the next drive and forcing the Cardinal to go three-and-out for the first time that afternoon. Five consecutive completions by Vaz had the Beavers knocking on the door once again, but a critical pass bat-down by Chase Thomas on third-and-two held Oregon State to a 19-yard field goal.
With Hogan running the two-minute drill efficiently, it seemed as if the Cardinal would be able to put up some points right before the half ended. But the unthinkable happened. Taylor, who hadn’t fumbled in his last 261 touches, lost the ball at the Beavers 21-yard line. Although the Stanford defense controlled the damage, the team headed into the locker room with a 14-10 lead instead of the two-possession cushion it could’ve had.
“That’s uncharacteristic of us, and the team will hear about it loud and clear on Monday because that’s not us,” Shaw commented on his team’s four turnovers. “And it was two of our guys, two of our best players: Stepfan Taylor and Zach Ertz. Thankfully they came back, and made some plays to win the game. Shakespearean to a certain degree.”
Whatever adjustments head coach Mike Riley made earlier in the game worked because the Beavers’ offense came out in the third quarter firing on all cylinders. Helped out by offside penalties called on nose guard Terrence Stephens and inside linebacker Shayne Skov, Oregon State moved the ball methodically with a steady balance of run-and-pass attack. The Cardinal defense seemed to wake up when it forced the Beavers into a third-and-16 situation at the Stanford 22, but a wide-open Wheaton took Vaz’s short pass for a 22-yard touchdown.
For the first time all game, the Cardinal found itself trailing.
It didn’t help that on the Cardinal’s ensuing possession, Hogan’s pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and picked off by safety Ryan Murphy. But the Stanford defense remained stout when it needed to be, sending Cooks and Woods backwards on their carries and forcing the Beavers to settle for a 42-yard field goal.
Four minutes later, the consistent Romaine sent another 44-yarder right down the middle, capping a stretch that saw Oregon State explode with 23 unanswered points and take a two-possession lead.
Taylor’s redemption couldn’t have come at a better time.
On second-and-6 at the Beavers 40-yard line, Hogan escaped what appeared to be a sure sack by checking down to an isolated Taylor on the left side of the field as he was going down. Taylor dashed down the sidelines, cut back to the middle, convincingly stiff-armed a defender onto the ground and rumbled into the endzone for a 40-yard touchdown that got the team back into the game as the third quarter ended.
“If [Hogan] doesn’t see his progression, I try to stay in his ear to hit the check down and that I’m open,” Taylor said. “He didn’t see anything downfield and I was downfield and he saw me, so I was able to score. That was where I’m supposed to be if I’m not blocking anybody. He saw me and I was able to get the ball.”
The Doak Walker Award semifinalist would finish the game with nineteen carries for 119 yards, 47 receptions yards and two touchdowns. Prior to his costly fumble in the second quarter, Taylor became the first running back in school history to have three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
“[Taylor’s] done something that nobody’s been able to do,” Shaw said. “I can’t say how proud I am of that guy.”
Stanford got a much-needed break when Josh Mauro landed on the lost fumble by Vaz, who had been careful with protecting the ball all afternoon. Setting up shop at the Beavers’ 29-yard line, an unflappable Hogan drove the offense down the field for the go-ahead, 13-yard touchdown strike to Ertz.
“I just saw good coverage,” said Hogan, who finished the game 22-of-29 passing for 254 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. “They were playing man. Anytime you can get Zach one-on-one, not many people can cover him, if any. He ran a great route to get behind the defense. And made a great catch for a touchdown.”
As it has done all year, Stanford’s defense clamped down when it needed to and did not allow the Beavers to cross midfield on their last two drives of the game. Alex Debniak sealed the deal with a 12-yard sack that took Vaz out of the game, rewarding the Cardinal’s gutsy performance on Senior Day with a victory.
“You want to win your last home game,” said Taylor. “You owe it to your teammates, especially the seniors. You go through the whole season and you don’t want this last one to get away.”
Taylor and the seniors didn’t let this one get away.
Looking to pull off the huge upset and capture the elusive Pac-12 North Division title, Stanford travels to Autzen this Saturday to square off against big, bad No. 2 Oregon.