In the early going on Saturday afternoon it looked like Kevin Hogan and the Stanford Cardinal would simply run Oregon State into the ground. Picking up right where they left off against Colorado, the Cardinal dominated both sides of the ball throughout the first quarter as they forged a 14-0 lead and threatened to turn what had been expected to be a close game into a blowout.
Stanford's first scoring drive was a 93-yard thing of beauty. Facing a real defense for the first time (sorry Colorado fans), Hogan looked poised and comfortable as he directed the offense, rolling right and left with equal effectiveness, finding open receivers, and scrambling deftly away from pressure. On the first touchdown drive alone, Hogan was 4 of 5 for 55 yards and rushed for 14 more. (Statistically, Hogan was even better than last week, finishing 22 of 29 for 254 yards and 3 TDs and running 11 times for 49 yards.) Stephan Taylor closed out the series with a one-yard touchdown dive.
The Stanford offense was back out on the field 82 seconds later, and Hogan went back to work. On 2nd and 4 from his own 26, he rolled out to his left as fullback Ryan Hewitt floated ahead of him into the left flat. There was one defender caught in no man's land between the two of them, so all Hogan had to do was reel him in until he could loft the ball over him to Hewitt. Hogan's scrambling is definitely a threat, but it's mobility like this that has truly transformed Stanford's offense. Hewitt gathered in the pass, then trucked down the sideline for a 24-yard gain that moved the ball to midfield.
On the next play, though, Hogan showed why he's still a work in progress. With the running game potent again, play action is back in the Stanford repertoire, and they broke it out here. In a beautifully designed play, Hogan faked the handoff to Taylor then dropped back to pass. Wide receiver Devon Cajuste had lined up as a tight end on the left side of the line, and now he was streaking up the middle of the field unguarded. It was a certain touchdown, but Hogan's pass sailed five yards beyond Cajuste's reach.
It was a missed opportunity, but a few plays later it wouldn't matter. After another incompletion, Hogan hit his next three passes, the last another rollout to Hewitt, this one to the right. Hewitt made one defender miss, then bulled his way through two others on his way to the end zone and a 14-0 lead.
The Stanford defense, meanwhile, was looking dominant. Oregon State's first two possessions resulted in -4 total yards, but head coach Mike Riley and his staff made the necessary adjustments, allowing the offense to gain some traction as the second quarter opened.
Oregon State running back Storm Woods (whether that is his actual name or not) chewed up yardage in huge chunks, gaining 35 yards on just four carries (plus a nine-yard reception) as the Beavers moved quickly down the field. When Terron Ward ran it in from seven yards out, it was the first rushing touchdown allowed by the Stanford defense in 17 quarters. More importantly, the Stanford lead was cut in half at 14-7.
After a Stanford three-and-out, the Beaver offense was right back out on the field, and they dished out more of the same. The running lanes had been closed in the first quarter, but suddenly they were open. Quarterback Cody Vaz had been running for cover on his first two possessions, but now he had time to survey the field. Starting at their own 18, the Beavers moved the ball effortlessly and didn't even see a third down until they reached the Stanford 12. Ward was shut down for no gain on 3rd and 1, but a Vaz sneak on fourth down kept the drive alive.
The Stanford defense stood tall, though, and forced an incompletion on 3rd and 2, and the Beavers had to settle for a field goal to cut the lead to 14-10. In the end, it would be defensive stands like this that would turn the game in Stanford's favor. Three different times the Beavers would drive deep into Cardinal territory only to be sent off the field with three points instead of the big prize. Had they cashed in just one of those three failed drives, the outcome would've changed.
Unfortunately for Stanford, the second half opened exactly as the first half had ended, with the Beavers moving the ball at will. Aside from 16 yards on the ground from Storm Woods, this drive was all Cody Vaz. The Beaver quarterback completed 4 of 7 passes for 54 yards, including the eventual touchdown when the Beavers pulled out a 3rd and 16 from the Stanford 22. The Stanford defense has struggled this season on 3rd and long, mainly because they've only rushed three defenders in those situations. They brought more pressure on Saturday, and even though they typically had more success, they didn't on this play. Vaz found Markus Wheaton on a short crossing pattern, and Wheaton did the rest of the work, dancing his way around the Stanford defense on his way to a touchdown and Oregon State's first lead of the game. Beavers 17, Cardinal 14.
The Cardinal's next drive ended after three plays when Ryan Murphy intercepted a deflected pass and set up the Beavers with a 1st and 10 at the Stanford 27. The Cardinal defense managed to hold the line, but an Oregon State field goal pushed their lead to 20-14. When the Oregon State defense followed that score with a three-and-out and set up their offense on the Stanford side of the field, things looked dicey. When Trevor Romaine hit his third field goal of the day to open a 23-14 lead, things looked worse.
On Stanford's first three drives they ran 26 plays, gained 194 yards, and scored two touchdowns. Their next five drives looked like this: punt, fumble, missed field goal, interception, punt. They ran 17 plays and gained just 78 yards, with 57 of those yards coming on one possession. Even the most optimistic Stanford fan could've been excused for thinking dark thoughts, but the ensuing drive brought with it signs of hope.
Hogan found Ertz early in the drive for one first down, than scrambled for 15 yards to earn another a bit later before arriving at 2nd and 6 at the Oregon State 40 yard line. He took the snap from the shotgun, but the pocket collapsed quickly, too quickly for him even to scramble. In a sign of his growing understanding of the offense, however, Hogan knew exactly where his checkdown receiver was supposed to be, and just as he was going down for what would've been a sack, he turned to his left and flipped a pass out to Taylor.
Taylor caught the ball two yards shy of the line of scrimmage, and Oregon State cornerback Rashaad Reynolds rushed up into position to make the tackle. Taylor gave him the hint of an inside move, then darted around him to the sideline and turned on the jets. Safety Anthony Watkins raced over to cut off the sideline, but Taylor cut back into the field at the 15. Watkins seemed ready to make the tackle at the 10, but Taylor dismissed him with the prettiest stiff arm you'll ever see. If he'd been made of bronze, they'd have stopped the game, put him on a trophy, and called it the Kulabafi. He was in the end zone just a blink later, and the Cardinal had cut the lead to 23-21.
A quick word about Mr. Taylor. On Saturday afternoon he pushed his season rushing total past the thousand-yard barrier for the third year in a row, an accomplishment unmatched in the annals of Stanford football. A quick perusal of the Stanford record book shows that an argument could be made that Taylor is the greatest running back in Stanford history. With three games left on the schedule he trails Darrin Nelson by just 202 yards on the all-time rushing list, and with just 76 more yards he'll be the owner of the second-, third-, and fourth-highest single-season totals in school history. He's also just three touchdowns short of Toby Gerhart's career mark, so when #33 hangs up his jersey two months from now, he will probably hold every significant Stanford career rushing record.
But after the game on Saturday night, the talk was still about this single play. Taylor has carried the ball 746 times in his Stanford career (another school record) and has caught 84 passes, but David Shaw was asked after the game if this forty-yard touchdown might've been the greatest play of Taylor's career. His answer was simple: "I'd say yes."
Taylor's touchdown breathed life into the Cardinal, but they still trailed. The two offenses traded empty possessions before the Stanford defense came up with the break they needed. Vaz dropped back to pass on 2nd and 15 from his own 25 but was flushed out of the pocket. He made a move to avoid a Stanford defender just as he crossed the line of scrimmage, but then the ball suddenly squirted loose and lay on the turf until Stanford lineman Josh Mauro fell on it. It marked the twentieth straight game the Stanford defense had forced a turnover, the third-longest such streak in the nation, but more importantly it set up the Cardinal offense on the OSU 29.
Taylor did most of the work on the ensuing drive, carrying the ball three times for 24 yards, but it was Hogan who finished it. A holding penalty had pushed the Cardinal's 1st and goal back to the 13, and a run call was sent in from the sidelines. As Hogan stepped to the line of scrimmage, however, he checked into a passing play. (Shaw would later say that Hogan changed approximately 40% of the plays on the afternoon, an impressive total for a redshirt freshman in his first career start.)
On this play Hogan had Zach Ertz lined up in the left slot with man coverage. It was Jordan Poyer, probably the best cover corner in the Pac-12, but Hogan knew it wouldn't matter. Ertz faked the corner route, then stepped around and behind Poyer to run a slant to the post. Hogan hit him on the numbers in the back of the end zone for six points and a 27-23 Stanford lead. (The two-point conversion failed.)
The feeling of the game had changed dramatically, but with more than five minutes remaining, there was no need for Oregon State to panic. In fact, they might've been a bit too casual. Facing 4th and 2 from their own 43 with almost four and a half minutes to play, they punted. Even a single Stanford first down might've doomed the Beavers, but Hogan came up a yard short on a bootleg to the right, and the Cardinal was forced to punt.
OSU took over on their 16 yard line with 3:46 to play and 84 yards of green between them and the end zone. Vaz quickly completed a 21-yard pass to Connor Hamlett to move the ball to the 37, and it looked as if the Beavers might make things interesting. The next play gained nine yards, and suddenly the clock didn't matter. The Stanford defense would have to stop the Beavers, or the game would be lost.
A false start pushed Oregon State into a 2nd and 6, and a short gain followed that to bring up 3rd and 4. The Beavers were obviously not going to be punting the ball, so they had two plays to gain those four yards. Vaz dropped back to pass and felt the Stanford pressure almost immediately. He backpedalled to avoid defensive end Henry Anderson, but linebacker Alex Debniak corralled him and pulled him down for a twelve-yard loss. It's difficult to imagine what this play must've meant for Debniak, a fifth-year senior who had been honored earlier as part of Stanford's Senior Day, but his voice shook with emotion as he discussed the sack during the post game press conference. Without question, it's a moment he'll carry with him forever.
Vaz was injured on the play, so backup Sean Mannion came in off the bench for Oregon State's last chance on 4th and 16. His pass fell incomplete, and the game was all but over. After Kevin Hogan brought the offense back out on the field and knelt down three times, it was official. Stanford 27, Oregon State 23.
So Stanford sits at 8-2 with a #13 ranking in the current BCS poll. The next few days will bring questions about the Oregon Ducks, and the next few weeks will determine the Cardinal's bowl destination (the Rose Bowl is still a very real possibility), but it doesn't make sense to think about all that right now. Right now, savor the victory.
[Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]