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King’s Keys: Last chance

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As bad as the opening month of the season has been for Stanford football (1-3, 0-2 Pac-12), it could get worse. Just a road loss to perennial Pac-12 North cellar-dweller Oregon State (1-2, 0-0 Pac-12) this Saturday would bring the negativity surrounding the program to an unprecedented fever pitch. 

The Cardinal are already in unfamiliar territory. Head coach David Shaw just lost three consecutive games for the first time in his nine-year tenure as the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. And for the first time this decade, Stanford is in serious danger of missing a bowl game. The Cardinal still could win five of their eight remaining games to secure postseason eligibility. But a victory on Saturday in their easiest remaining game is crucial if they want any chance to still be playing in December. 

Stanford’s defense finally came to play last week after going AWOL for the previous two games against USC and UCF, during both of which the Cardinal surrendered 45 points. At home against No. 13 Oregon, however, Stanford gave up just 21 points and 320 yards to a Ducks offense led by possible #1 overall NFL Draft pick Justin Herbert. The Cardinal front seven collected four sacks and completely stymied the Oregon run game. 

The problem is that the Stanford offense was even more stymied by the Ducks defense. The Cardinal put up just 234 total yards, and senior quarterback K.J. Costello was held to 120 yards on 16 of 30 passing with an interception. The 21-6 defeat to the Ducks was somehow even more frustrating than the 45-20 loss at USC and the 45-27 beatdown at UCF that succeeded it. Cardinal looked dead offensively, and the Ducks seemed perfectly content to punt the ball back to Stanford over and over, knowing that the offense posed zero threat to score. 

Thankfully, Oregon State’s defense is not nearly as intimidating as its in-state rival. The Beavers ranked 129th in scoring defense last season ahead of only Connecticut. This should be a get-right game for the Stanford offense. It better be. Here are three keys to victory in what might be Stanford’s last chance to play as a favorite. 

1) Find an Air Advantage 

Largely thanks to a 45-7 blowout win over Cal Poly, Oregon State’s scoring defense has jumped up a whopping 12 spots to 117th overall. The Beavers are still surrendering over 40 points per game, however, and their passing defense allows 312 yards per contest. Stanford’s wide receivers should find plenty of open grass in the Oregon State secondary, and the Beavers’ pass rush will not present much of a challenge. But the Cardinal passing attack has been inefficient and unproductive, so something has to change if Stanford is to take advantage of Oregon State’s greatest weakness. 

Costello looked like a shell of himself in the UCF and Oregon losses, missing open receivers and struggling to push the ball downfield. Stanford’s passing game was its greatest strength last year. Despite the loss of its top three receivers, that was one area the Cardinal were counting on again this season. 

The passing game has yet to show any promise, but the potential is still there. Costello was the most efficient QB in the Pac-12 last season, and wide receivers junior Connor Wedington, sophomore Michael Wilson, and junior Colby Parkinson have all proven to be productive pass-catchers. If the Stanford passing attack can finally rekindle its 2018 form, the Cardinal should be able to move the ball with ease and score at will against the hapless Oregon State defense. 

2) Limit the Big Plays

The terrible Beavers’ defense masked a surprising truth from last season: the Oregon State offense was actually pretty good. With former Washington offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith as head coach, the offense’s success has carried over into 2019. The Beavers are averaging 440 yards per game, including 215 on the ground. Although he has been battling injuries this season, Oregon State running back Jermar Jefferson is one of the best in the Pac-12. He rushed for 183 yards and a touchdown in the Beavers’ close loss at Hawaii. Jefferson’s explosiveness is complemented by wide receiver Isaiah Hodgins, who caught nine passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns in Oregon State’s opening loss to Oklahoma State. The Beavers have playmakers. If those playmakers get loose, the Cardinal might find themselves in a shootout without enough ammunition. 

For the vast majority of the game against Oregon, Stanford’s defense held down the Ducks offense. But on Oregon’s three scoring drives, Herbert and crew made just enough big plays downfield to move the ball into scoring position. With Stanford clinging to an early 3-0 lead and looking to take control of the contest, the Ducks promptly went on a two-play, 55 yard scoring drive including a 36-yard touchdown reception by Jaylon Redd. Factor in two more long touchdown passes to tight end Jacob Breeland, and Oregon had more than enough separation to get past the Cardinal. The Stanford defensive line should be able to limit Jefferson’s effectiveness and create enough of a pass rush to slow down Oregon State QB Jake Luton. But the Cardinal defense must limit the handful of big plays that have killed it all season. If defensive coordinator Lance Anderson’s bunch can prevent the Beavers’ explosiveness, the Stanford offense should be able to make enough plays of its own to slip out of Corvallis with a win. 

3) Don’t Let Up

Stanford should open up a lead on Saturday. The Cardinal beat Oregon State 48-17 last season, and the Beavers remain the clear worst team in the Pac-12. Stanford may well be 11th in the conference, but it still holds a major talent advantage over Oregon State. Once the Cardinal grab that lead, however, they can never let their foot off the gas. 

Shaw tends to get very conservative when Stanford takes a first half lead. The opening win over Northwestern was a perfect example of that phenomenon. Stanford scored 10 points in the first half thanks to a potent passing attack, and then the offense completely shut down in an ugly second half where it relied on the run and never scored. Without a Casey Toohill strip sack of Wildcats QB Hunter Johnson late in the fourth quarter, that conservatism might have come back to bite the Cardinal. Stanford’s defense and rushing attack are improving, but they are not ready to grind out every close win. The Cardinal need to open up the offense and let Costello find his rhythm. And with the explosiveness of the Oregon State offense, no lead is safe. 

This is a game Stanford should win. This is a game Stanford needs to win. If not, the Cardinal will spend December wondering where it all went wrong. 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.