The first half of Stanford football’s 27-23 road loss to Washington last week was nightmarish. The Huskies scored on their first three possessions to take a 21-0 lead, junior quarterback KJ Costello threw two costly interceptions, and senior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside — Stanford’s best player — went down with an ankle injury that knocked him out for the rest of the game and has him sidelined this week against Oregon State. Indeed, that miserable half was a microcosm of the horrendous past month and a half for the Cardinal. Since then, seventh ranked Stanford beat Oregon in an overtime thriller on Sept. 22, the Cardinal have lost four of five games and have fallen from the College Football Playoff discussion into a discussion about whether or not they will make a bowl game.
But thankfully, the Washington game did not end at halftime. In the second half, Stanford outscored Washington 23-6 and was a couple of botched drives away from stealing a win in Seattle. Costello was fantastic even without his best target. The gunslinging junior went 29-43 for 347 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first quarterback to throw for 300 yards against the vaunted Washington secondary all season. The struggling Cardinal defense held the Huskies to 141 yards and kept Washington out of the endzone for the last 42 minutes of the game. Yes, Stanford came up short, but even in defeat, the last two weeks against Washington State and Washington have proven that there is reason to believe in the Cardinal future: KJ Costello.
The junior is having an all-conference worthy season. He’s second in the Pac-12 and 17th in the nation with 279.1 passing yards per game, and his 19 passing touchdowns ranks third in the Pac-12 and 17th in the nation as well. Costello has shown remarkable growth from last season, and he may well be a first-round NFL draft pick by the end of next season. But for now, he gets to face an Oregon State defense ranked 129th out of 130 FBS teams in total defense. Though few thought it would take this long to achieve, Stanford can reach bowl eligibility for the 11th straight year with a victory over the Beavers. Here’s three keys to that elusive sixth win.
1. Unleash the offense
Stanford hasn’t faced a defense this bad since at least the UC Davis game and maybe not all season. Oregon State has been absolutely abysmal defensively. The Beavers are allowing a nearly unbelievable average of 537 yards and 44.8 points per game, both in the bottom three nationally. The Cardinal offense should be able to pick their score on Saturday night (Ohio State chose to put up 77 on Oregon State in the season opener). As usual, all they have to do is put the game in the hand of KJ Costello.
When Stanford chooses to accept its offensive identity and throw the ball all over the yard, the Cardinal can have one of the best offenses in the Pac-12. But when they choose to play “Stanford football” and repeatedly pound it straight up the middle, they end up looking like the team with the 125th ranked rushing offense in the country. Perhaps the most telling sequence came early in the fourth quarter against Washington, where Stanford took advantage of good field possession and with one long Costello pass to sophomore tight end Colby Parkinson, the Cardinal were set up with first-and-goal. They then proceeded to run three straight times and were forced to settle for a field goal. If they could have scored a touchdown there, they would have won the game with the final touchdown (or tied thanks to the missed extra point). Coming away with just a field goal allowed Washington to go up by two possessions again with a field goal of their own, and Stanford could not complete the comeback. The Cardinal decided to turn away from their greatest strength — the passing game — right when they needed it most, and it cost them the game.
Frankly, Stanford can probably do whatever they want offensively on Saturday. The Oregon State rushing defense is perhaps even worse than their passing defense, but the fact still remains: This Stanford team must pass to win. And Costello may never get a better opportunity to reach 400 passing yards. Stanford’s offense should dominate the Beavers. We’ll see if David Shaw and crew let it.
2. Slow down Jermar Jefferson
Who would have thought that Oregon State freshman running back Jermar Jefferson would have twice as many rushing yards as Stanford senior running back Bryce Love entering this game? Obviously, Love has been hindered by injuries and poor offensive line play, but Jefferson has been a quiet revelation for the Pac-12 this year. The former three-star prospect came in with little national attention, but he has blossomed into a potential all-conference running back as a true freshman. Jefferson leads the Pac-12 with 12 rushing touchdowns and is third with 1,092 yards on the ground. Slowing him down will be key for Stanford’s defense against a surprisingly potent Beavers offense.
As bad as the Oregon State defense has been, head coach Jonathan Smith’s offense has been fairly explosive. The former Washington offensive coordinator seems to have taken all the Huskies’ offensive prowess with him to Corvallis. The Beavers are averaging a respectable 417 yards per game, and it’s not just Jefferson. Senior QB Jake Luton is leading a passing offense putting up 249 yards per game. The Beavers offense can hurt this beleaguered Stanford defense through the air, and if Jefferson gets going as well, Oregon State would have a legitimate chance to pull the upset.
3) Just win, baby
The Cardinal in a funk. They’ve won one game since Sept. 22. In that span, they have played five Power Five teams with a winning record, including two in the Top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings. Now, they get to play a 2-7 squad that might be the second worst team on the schedule behind FCS UC Davis. Stanford desperately needs a win, and Oregon State is the perfect cure for the common losing streak. The Beavers can score, but they can’t stop anybody. Costello and crew should have a field day, and the Cardinal should pick up an easy win. Don’t overthink this, Stanford.
Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.