This has been a long, strange season to say the least. After the peaks and valleys of September, the Cardinal settled into something of a malaise in October as fans lost faith in the quarterback and questioned the head coach. But November has brought a new quarterback and newfound optimism.
This Saturday Kevin Hogan and the Stanford Cardinal will host the Oregon State Beavers in what is essentially a Rose Bowl elimination game. Assuming that Oregon finishes the season unbeaten (beating both Stanford and Oregon State along the way), the Ducks will likely head to the National Championship game, leaving the Rose Bowl short a team. There are dozens of variables that come into play, but it isn't a stretch to imagine the Rose Bowl committee choosing the next-best available Pac-12 team, and the winner of Saturday's game will have the inside track towards making that claim.
Oregon State boasts in impressive 7-1/5-1 record, but how good are they really? The Beavers made an early statement when they beat Wisconsin, a team that was much more highly regarded on September 8th than they are now, and two weeks later beat UCLA, a team that wasn't yet playing to its potential. Aside from that they have no real signature wins, nothing like Stanford's win over USC, for example.
If they're to get this win, it will start with their defense. As excited as Stanford fans were about Kevin Hogan's performance last week, his success came at the expense of perhaps the worst defense in the conference. The Beavers have a defense to rival Stanford's. The Cardinal may lead the nation in yards rushing allowed, but OSU is only four slots back in fifth place overall.
The similarities continue on the other side of the ball. Just like Stanford, the Beavers are breaking in a new quarterback. Sean Mannion had the reins early on, but injuries and poor performance opened up an opportunity for his back-up, and Cody Vaz has taken advantage. He threw for 332 yards in his season debut against BYU four weeks ago, and he totalled 267 yards and three touchdowns in the OSU win over Arizona State last week.
This game is coming at the perfect time for the Cardinal. After a week of practice as the #1 quarterback, Hogan will get to measure himself against one of the top defenses in the country as he attempts to lead Stanford to its second big win of the season. But enough from me. Cliff Kirkpatrick covers Oregon State for the Corvallis Gazette-Times, so he knows more about the Bears than I could ever hope to learn. He was nice enough to field a few questions from me. Take a read...
Over the past week Stanford fans have divided their brain power equally between thinking about the emergence of Kevin Hogan and calculating Rose Bowl possibilities. How much talk is there in Corvallis about the Rose Bowl? Stanford fans view this as a de facto Rose Bowl elimination game. Would Beaver fans agree?
OSU fans realize the importance of the game and that the Rose Bowl is on the line every time the Beavers play from now on. The coaches and players are doing a good job of deflecting that kind of talk, but they know, too.
How good is this team, really? They impressed early with a win over a Wisconsin team that now appears to be average, and they probably caught UCLA before they hit their stride. There's a temptation to label the Beavers as an overrated team. Is that fair?
Overrated is a fair thing to say because the Beavers don't blow teams out. Every game has been close and sometimes they have to rally. Part of that is how coach Mike Riley operates. The only time he blows teams out is when they are inferior and it just happens. However, the Beavers can beat most teams when they execute and that's been happening.
Can you please explain the quarterback situation at Oregon State? Early in the season Sean Mannion seemed poised to become the conference's next great quarterback, but one knee injury and seven interceptions later, and he's on the bench. Has Cody Vaz claimed the job for good? What are his strengths and weaknesses as quarterback?
The QB situation is strange. Sean Mannion is still considered the future, but Cody Vaz is just playing better right now. Mannion has to get his confidence back after knee surgery. The doctors tell him he's 100 percent, but his mind has doubt and that led to mechanical problems with his passing, and then a bad game. Vaz has a lot of backers on the team, and Riley doesn't want to loose those guys when the backup is playing better than the starter. So, the hot hand is being played. As for Vaz's strengths he has a much quicker release than Mannion, and that helps cutting back on sacks.
Stanford has the #1 ranked rushing defense in America, and Oregon State's rushing offense ranks 108th. Will the Beavers become the third-straight Stanford opponent that fails to net positive yardage on the ground? Will Cody Vaz throw the ball 50 times? How good are Markus Wheaton and the rest of the Beaver receivers?
The Beavers will ran the ball. If they don't, then it will be a Stanford blowout. OSU threw 50 times last year when there was very little running game. That won't happen this year. And the combination of Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks receiving make the best duo in the Pac-12. No team can cover both of them on any play.
Kevin Hogan had a breakout performance last week to earn the starting job, but he accomplished that against one of the worst defenses in the country. Tell me about the Oregon State defense. Who are the stars on that side of the ball, and what type of problems do you think they might pose for Hogan and the Stanford offense?
Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn are tremendous pass rushers off the end. And the cornerbacks Jordan Poyer and Rashaad Reynolds are play-makers. Basically, if Stanford has to pass a lot it's going to be a long game for the Cardinal.
Finally, how do you expect this game to play out? What's your prediction?
OSU's passing game will move the ball and score. The run defense, while good, won't be able to stop Stanford on a regular basis. So it's going to be a much more offensive game than many think, and the Beavers win 24-13.