Saturday night's game against Oregon State had all the earmarks of a trap game. Coming between perhaps the two most difficult contests on the schedule (UCLA and Oregon) and featuring an underrated opponent led by the nation's leading passer and his favorite target, the nation's leading receiver, this game in Corvallis was a popular pick with those looking for an upset. It didn't turn out that way.
The game started inauspiciously for the Cardinal as the offense suffered a three and out on the game's opening drive, but the defense took the field and introduced themselves to Beaver quarterback Sean Mannion almost immediately. Josh Mauro sacked Mannion for a nine-yard loss on 3rd and 12, and Oregon State had to kick the ball right back.
Stanford's second drive was beautiful. Knowing that Oregon State couldn't match up against their offensive line, the Cardinal came out with a variety of different runs, each more fun and successful than the last. Tyler Gaffney ran for five yards and a first down, Kelsey Young ran his usual sweep for fifteen more, then Ty Montgomery even got a carry and picked up nine of his own before hauling in an eleven-yard pass to bring the ball to the OSU 17.
Here's where the Cardinal got a bit too cute. Hogan came off the field and on came the Lloyd Package. Lloyd and Ricky Seale looked to run the read-option, and replays made it look like they both wanted the ball. Who knows what really happened -- maybe Seale was too eager, maybe Lloyd was too indecisive. Either way, the result was a fumble and a terrible missed opportunity.
At the time, however, I wasn't overly concerned. They had made it look so easy in that drive that I had no doubt the rest of the evening would just be more of the same. How wrong I was.
Oregon State continued to sputter on offense, literally going two steps forward and three steps back on the drive following the fumble recovery. After passing for two first downs, Mannion took losses on three straight plays -- a six-yard sack by Ben Gardner, a four-yard loss on a pass completion, and an eleven-yard sack by Trent Murphy and Kevin Anderson.
When the Beavers next got the ball back, they started in Stanford territory thanks to a 41-yard punt return from Brandin Cooks to the Cardinal 39, and even though the defense stopped the drive at the 33, Oregon State's Trevor Romaine nailed a 50-yard field goal for the game's first points.
This is where Stanford fans started getting a bit frustrated, and it had nothing to do with that field goal. After dominating the Oregon State defense with the run game early in the game, the Stanford offense strayed from that basic formula and suddenly couldn't move the ball at all. On their second possession, the Cardinal had come out with a drive that was pure Stanford football -- basic power running to set up more esoteric running plays (sweeps and reverses) as well as downfield passing. The result was what we're used to seeing -- three first downs.
For much of the rest of the game, however, this formula was forgotten. It was as if Steve Jobs had woken up one morning and started making sewing machines instead of computers.
After Oregon State's field goal, Stanford's first play made perfect sense -- a handoff to Gaffney for seven yards. Instead of simply handing the ball to him again for what would surely have been a confidence-building first down, Hogan dropped back and threw incomplete to Charlie Hopkins, a converted defensive end. On third down, Hogan tossed another incompletion, this time to Jordan Pratt, a 28-year-old former minor league baseball player.
Hopkins and Pratt are probably nice guys, and I can't imagine how much work each must have done over the past year to get to where they are now, but in their careers they have a combined four catches for 25 yards. Perhaps they weren't the best options on those plays.
In contrast to Stanford, the Oregon State offense has a crystal clear identity -- they pass the ball. Mannion completed five consecutive passes to move the ball to the Stanford 31 before the Beavers eventually found themselves with a 4th and 3 at the 18. Conventional wisdom says that you should simply take the points in this situation, especially when you're an underdog playing at home and you already have a lead, but Mike Riley kept his offense out on the field. In what would become a pattern, the Cardinal defense stood strong.
Mannion looked to pass, but he was quickly pushed out of the pocket by Gardner, then pursued by Murphy, and he threw incomplete to kill the drive. I suppose you could argue that if you're trying to upset a highly-ranked team, you need touchdowns instead of field goals, but it wouldn't have been a bad thing to have taken those three points.
Oregon State's next possession was strikingly similar. After taking over on their own 17, the Beavers again moved the ball with disturbing ease -- and this time they were even running the ball. Tailback Storm Woods carried four times and gained 22 yards on the drive (he also caught a pass for eight more), and they made it all the way to the Stanford 34 where they faced a decision at 4th and 1 with just less than a minute to play. Again, Riley kept the offense out on the field.
This choice made more sense. Even though his kicker had made a fifty-yarder look easy earlier in the game, there was no guarantee he'd be able to duplicate that from fifty-one, and a punt from this deep in Stanford territory didn't figure to gain that much in field position. Added to all that, the Stanford offense hadn't done much to scare the Beavers. There was no reason to believe that a failed conversion attempt would come back to bite Riley. (As I watched the time running out as the Beavers were marching down the field, I tried to remember the last time a Stanford team had been shut out in the first half.)
So really, the choice was obvious, and Mannion tried to sneak for the first down. Sadly for the Beavers, Ben Gardner and Shayne Skov met him squarely and turned him back for another huge fourth down stop.
At this point I paused the game and jumped in the car to pick up Chinese for the family dinner, absolutely certain that David Shaw would ask Hogan to take a knee and burn the final forty-six seconds of the first half. As I sat in the restaurant five minutes later waiting for my food and stewing about the ineptitude of the Stanford offense, I pulled out my phone. Imagine my surprise when Twitter told me that the Cardinal had scored.
After proceeding home at safe speed, all the while trying to imagine how something so preposterous had happened, I sat down on the couch with my chopsticks and pushed play. After the first three plays, I was certain that Twitter was wrong -- Hogan incomplete to Ty Montgomery, Hogan complete to Kodi Whitfield for three yards, and then a false start on 3rd and 7 to bring up 3rd and 12. There was NO WAY that this drive was going to produce any points.
But then a funny thing happened. Hogan dropped back to pass and saw Montgomery streaking down the left sideline against single coverage. He wasn't really open, but Montgomery has developed to the point where that doesn't always matter. Hogan threw the ball to the two players, confident that his man would make the play. He did. Montgomery outleaped the defender and came down at the Oregon State 31 for a 37-yard gain. I almost choked on my honey seared chicken.
Suddenly the Cardinal was in business. Hogan found Davis Dudchock for a short four-yard gain that stopped the clock, but the big play came on 2nd and 6, when Hogan scrambled for 23 yards all the way down to the OSU 4. The play looked to have been a designed run, but when Hogan tried running to his left he ran into his own blocker and was bounced back into the pocket. After surveying the field for a second or two, he took off through the right side of the line, swerved his way through the defense, and nearly made it into the end zone. After a timeout to stop the clock at 13 seconds, Gaffney rumbled through the line for a touchdown to give Stanford the lead at 7-3.
Oregon State was set to receive the opening kick of the second half, but Wayne Lyons forced a fumble by Victor Bolden on the return and Joe Hemschoot recovered at the OSU 12. It took only two carries for Gaffney to find the end zone again, and the Cardinal had scored two touchdowns in 53 seconds to take a 13-3 lead. (Conrad Ukropina, still in for the injured Jordan Williamson, missed the extra point.)
The Beavers responded by driving the ball into Stanford territory, but when they reached 4th and 5 at the Cardinal 35, Riley once again chose to go for it, and the Stanford defense once again held to turn the ball over. After three plays and just 1:05 on the clock, however, Stanford punted the ball back to the Beavers. This time Mannion smartly avoided fourth down and took his team 12 plays in 90 yards for a touchdown to cut the Stanford lead to 13-9. (Another missed extra point.)
The Cardinal offense headed into the fourth quarter with another promising drive, but Hogan faced a tough 3rd and 14 from his own 35. Looking back, it was probably the most critical drive of the game, and Hogan came through. He had lots of time in the pocket, then stepped up as the OSU linemen pushed too far upfield, and fired a rocket off his back foot to Whitfield for eighteen yards and a critical first down. Three plays later, Gaffney burst through the line, got help from a strong block from Whitfield down field, and raced 32 yards untouched for his third touchdown of the game and thirteenth of the season. Stanford led 20-9, and a definite sense of relief spread through Nerd Nation.
A few possessions later Oregon State faced 4th and 9 from their own 40 with four and a half minutes to play. Perhaps because of the three previous failures on fourth down, Riley chose to punt. The Cardinal took over at their own 16, needing only one or two first downs to put the game on ice. The Beavers took their first timeout after a seven-yard gain by Gaffney on first down, and it looked like everything was playing into the Card's hands -- but then Gaffney fumbled on the next play and Oregon State was back in the game.
As it had done all game long -- all season long, really -- the Stanford defense came up huge and actually pushed the Beavers back two yards for Romaine hit a 39-yard field goal to bring OSU within a touchdown and a two-point conversion of tying the game.
Riley chose not to go for the on-side kick, so the Cardinal took over at their own 26 needing just one first down to seal the victory. The Beavers took their final timeout after stopping Gaffney a yard short of that first down, and Stanford faced 3rd and 1 with two minutes to play. Shaw sent out my least favorite formation -- the reverse wishbone, with seven offensive linemen up front, two in the backfield, and Gaffney behind Hogan. Gaffney took the handoff but was stoned at the line.
To make things worse, Brandin Cooks returned the Stanford punt 28 yards, all the way to the Cardinal 43. Even so, I wasn't overly concerned. The Stanford defense had risen to the occasion whenever it was needed, and I had no reason to expect anything different here, even with Ben Gardner on the bench out with an injury. (We'd later learn that Gardner's injury would end his season.)
After a questionable pass interference call on Jordan Richards and two completions to Cooks gave the Beavers a 1st and goal at the seven, somehow I still felt confident. Mannion threw three consecutive incompletions, none of them very close, and suddenly the game hung on one final play -- 4th and goal. Mannion fired a pass into the end zone, but Ed Reynolds closed on the play and met receiver Kevin Cummings just as the ball arrived, forcing the incompletion. The Cardinal defense had turned away the Beavers on fourth down for the fourth time, and this time they had sealed the win. Stanford 20, Oregon State 9.
It's understandable that some would dwell on the inefficiency of the offense, justifiably pointing out Hogan's abyssmal day. He was 8 of 18 for only 88 yards (37 on that one play to Montgomery). But Gaffney continued to be dominant, carrying 22 times for 145 yards and three touchdowns. As I wrote to a friend after the game, the problem isn't necessarily the offense, it's the playcalling. But that's a story for another time.
Instead, take a look at the defense. Oregon State had come into the game with one of the most potent offenses in the nation, led by two players (Sean Mannion and Brandin Cooks) who had been putting up absolutely ridiculous numbers. Even though Mannion threw a whopping 57 times, he only totaled 271 yards and was sacked eight times. Cooks might end up with 2,000 yards receiving this year, but he had only two yards in the first half, and he finished with only eighty yards, less than half the average of 168 he had coming in.
The loss of Gardner will certainly be difficult to overcome, but this defense has developed into exactly what we thought it would be -- one of the best in the nation. I can't wait to watch them against Oregon on Thursday night.
Go Mighty Card.
[Photo Credit: Steve Dykes/Getty Images]