The game began with deep concern about quarterback Kevin Hogan and the status of his injured left ankle. He had sat out most of the previous week's practice in hopes of being healthy for this critical road game, and reporters monitored his every move as he took warm-ups before the game, returned to the locker room for treatment, emerged with his ankle wrapped, and was pronounced ready for action. Cardinal fans exhaled for the first time in a week (though there would be even bigger injury concerns later), and the game was finally underway.
Things couldn't have started out better for the Cardinal offense, which featured running back Christian McCaffrey on an opening drive that would give the Beavers a good notion of what the rest of the game would bring. Christian the Lion rumbled with authority, taking the ball on the first five official plays of the series (there was a pass interference play that erased an attempt to Michael Rector) for a total of 35 yards. After a nice 12-yard pass to Devon Cajuste converted a 3rd and 4, McCaffrey rushed for five more yards before giving way to the touchdown machine, Remound Wright, who plunged in from a yard out to give his Cardinal a 7-0 lead.
When the Stanford defense wasted little time dropping a three and out on Oregon State's freshman quarterback Seth Collins, it looked like the game might get out of hand early, but two plays after this thought ran through my mind, a football was floating free in the air, having bounced off the hands of Stanford receiver Trenton Irwin. The ball may or may not have been tipped by the defensive back, but the result was all that mattered -- an Oregon State interception near midfield that gave them a chance to breathe.
Collins settled a bit, completing two passes on the ensuing drive, but the big difference was the OSU running game. Running back Storm Woods carried three times for fifteen yards, jet sweeping wide receiver Victor Bolden rushed twice, and Collins himself -- a shifty runner who's been better so far with his legs than his arm -- had three carries, including a one-yard touchdown run on a read option to cap the drive and tie the game.
That score must've given Beaver fans hope, but it took only three plays for the Cardinal offense to reassert themselves. On first down from the 28, McCaffrey lined up in the wildcat and handed the ball off to Bryce Love for an eight yard gain; on the next play McCaffrey went back to his usual tailback spot and took the ball from Hogan for a powerful 22-yard burst, putting the ball on the OSU 42.
What happened next was a thing of beauty, a play which defines Stanford football in this decade more than any other. The Cardinal lined up in a heavy set with three tight ends bunched against the linemen, Greg Taboada on the left, Dalton Schultz and Austin Hooper on the right. Hogan crouched under center, fullback Daniel Marx sat behind him, and McCaffrey dotted the i. After yielding thirty rushing yards on the previous two plays and facing what looked like a goal line set, the OSU linebackers and safeties could only have been thinking run, so it was no surprise when they bit hard on Hogan's fake to McCaffrey and left the tight ends -- all three of them -- in single coverage. Schultz was the inside tight end on the right, and he ran a corner route, clearing out the middle of the field for Hooper, who was running a post. By the time Hogan looked up from selling his fake, Hooper was already a step behind the defense. Hogan's pass hit him perfectly in stride for the touchdown.
There might not be another team in college football who can run a play like that, lining up with three tight ends and a fullback -- many teams don't even have three tight ends or a single fullback on their rosters -- and coming away with a 42-yard touchdown, but that is the essence of Stanford football, and it never gets old.
Undaunted, the Beaver offense came back out and picked up where they had left off with their strong running game. Collins threw only one pass on the drive -- an incompletion -- but the Beavers added some pace in hopes of catching the Cardinal defense off guard, and it worked well. Following that Collins incompletion Oregon State faced 3rd and 2 at the Stanford 23, and they brought in freshman tight end Ryan Nall and lined him up in the backfield. Nall had two carries for four yards in the season opener against Weber State, but hadn't touched the ball since then, so it's likely that the Stanford defenders had no idea who he was. He introduced himself quickly. He took the handoff and pounded straight ahead for nine yards, then nine more yards, and then the final five yards for the touchdown. Collins had snapped the ball on that 3rd and 2 play with 14:30 to play in the second quarter; Nalls crossed the goal line at 13:59. At no point did the Stanford defense seem to know what was happening to them.
The score was still tied at 14 when the Cardinal mounted another drive starting at its own 30, and it was more McCaffrey. The young lion started the series off with a seven-yard gain, carried twice more for six and three yards a couple plays later, but had his first big play of the game two plays after that. Remound Wright had just converted a tough 3rd and 1, and McCaffrey lined up in the backfield on first down. As Hogan dropped back to pass, McCaffrey circled around the line of scrimmage, faked a linebacker to the ground, and found himself wide open over the middle. Hogan hit him in stride, and McCaffrey galloped 38 yards to the OSU 5. Two plays and two timeouts later, Wright finished things up with his second one-yard touchdown run of the game, and the Cardinal had a lead that they'd never relinquish.
OSU's ensuing possession was hugely important, but not because of the field goal they'd eventually kick. Defensive lineman Aziz Shittu appeared to sprain his ankle midway through the drive and had to be helped off the field and eventually carted into the locker room. At no point this season has there been a comfortable degree of depth on the defensive line, what with the season-ending injury to Harrison Phillips, the mysterious disappearance of Brennan Scarlett during this game's first quarter (the current rumor is that he could be lost for the season), and now the loss of Shittu. His long term status clearly wasn't known as he hobbled off the field, but it was clear that the Cardinal would likely have to finish out the game with Solomon Thomas and a cast of backups. Oregon State was already running the ball fairly easily, rolling up 111 yards rushing in the first half, and there was real concern that things would only get worse in the second half.
But things changed in the third quarter. Oregon State looked to be spiraling when Stanford linebacker Joey Alfieri recovered a fumbled snap on the OSU nine yard line just two plays into the half, but the Beavers dodged that huge bullet when the Stanford offense faltered and Conrad Ukropina missed his first field goal of the season, a 28-yard chip shot.
They weren't as lucky the next time the Cardinal got the ball, though, as Hogan and company put together a couple first downs before getting to 2nd and 4 at the OSU 49. From there Hogan sent Michael Rector down the right sideline and threw an ill-advised pass even though the speedy wide receiver had drawn double coverage. All three players -- Rector and the two defenders -- reacted to the ball as it arrived, and it looked like an almost certain interception. But then for some reason, just as I expected the ball to be knocked down or picked off, Rector turned and started running away from the play. It made absolutely no sense -- until I realized that it was a touchdown. The ball had somehow squeezed through four hands and found Rector's. Stanford 28, Oregon State 17.
The OSU offense was on the field for eighty-four seconds before kicking it back to the Cardinal, and Stanford didn't take much longer than that to score again. At this point in the game McCaffrey was doing his best Tyler Gaffney impersonation, punishing the OSU defense with one carry after another. Hogan handed him the ball on the first five plays of this drive, and CMac responded with gains of 5, 11, 13, 8, and 7 yards. Shaw subbed Barry Sanders in to give his workhorse a break, and Sanders pounded it in from 11 yards out. Stanford suddenly had a comfortable eighteen- point lead at 35-17.
McCaffrey would rush for an eye-popping 91 yards on ten carries in the third quarter alone, further establishing himself as the focal point of the Cardinal offense and the best running back in America west of Leonard Fournette.
Oregon State scored on the opening drive of the fourth quarter to draw within eleven points again, but that hardly mattered. Hogan handed the ball to Sanders on the first play of the next drive, and all Sanders did was burst through the line of scrimmage, sprint towards the left sideline, truck through a would-be tackler, and run the rest of the way untouched for a 65-yard touchdown that would make any father proud, even his.
That would be the last score of the game, leaving the final at 42-24.
We'll learn more about the injuries in the days and weeks to come (expect Aziz Shittu to miss at least a handful of games), but for now consider how far this team has come in the past three weeks. After that disheartening loss to Northwestern in the season opener, the Cardinal has rattled off three straight wins and erased concerns about the dormant offense.
After scoring only six points in that opening loss, the Stanford offense has finally found itself, topping forty points in consecutive games for the first time since early in the 2013 season. After sixteen games without a hundred-yard rusher, it's suddenly happened twice in a row as McCaffrey ran for 115 yards against USC and an easy 206 against the Beavers. (Here's more on McCaffrey. He became the seventh back in Stanford history to top 200 yards, and his 206 was the fifth-best total in program history. When you add in his receiving and return yardage, the Lion totalled 303 all-purpose yards.)
And what about Hogan? It wasn't long ago that folks in the fanbase were questioning him, but look at these numbers. He was 5 for 14 for 67 yards in the first 25 minutes against Central Florida. Since that point he's 39 for 52 for 716 yards and 7 TDs. That's good enough for me, and it should be good enough for you.
But more important than any of that, all of Stanford's team goals are still in place. These road wins over USC and Oregon State put the Cardinal atop the Pac-12 North standings, and give the team the inside track to the conference championship game. Stanford has only two more road games on the schedule, less-than-daunting trips to Washington State and Colorado, probably the two worst teams in the Pac-12, and with Oregon suddenly exposed, the Cardinal appears to be the team to beat in the North.
It's only September, of course, and Stanford still has to play Oregon, UCLA, and Notre Dame, but there's reason for optimism. If Kevin Hogan can stay healthy and if coaches Lance Anderson and Randy Hart can somehow piece together enough bodies up front to stem the tide of injuries, this team could end up being special. Only time will tell.