If you watched every minute of Stanford's 15-14 non-loss against Oregon State, you saw a comet singe the edge of Earth's atmosphere, a duckling waddle across a freeway without being touched, a mine field flawlessly navigated by an old man with a white cane. The Cardinal avoided sure disaster on that Thursday night and won a game it had absolutely no business winning.
How did it all happen? To begin with, there was no Bryce Love. The best college running back in America had injured his ankle during the third quarter of the win over Oregon, but ten days later he wasn't yet ready to play. The decision was easy to understand. Even though the porous Oregon State defense would have given up 200 yards or more, further bolstering Love's burgeoning Heisman campaign, there was no need to play him if he wasn't one hundred percent. The Beavers, after all, were winless in conference play. Most figured that the Cardinal would show up in Corvallis on Thursday night, insert Cameron Scarlett into Love's spot in the backfield, roll up forty or fifty points, and head back home. It didn't quite go that way.
Oregon State didn't score in the first quarter, which wasn't surprising, but neither did Stanford. In fact, the Cardinal didn't even threaten. Scarlett carried the ball five times in the first two series, and his runs looked like this: two yards, two yards, two yards, two yards, one yard. Meanwhile quarterback Keller Chryst, who had made such great strides since returning from his concussion, wasn't doing much better. He completed just two passes for eight total yards. The OSU offense was equally inept, but that did nothing to alleviate the concerns about the team in white.
Chryst looked better on the third drive, completing six passes to four different receivers for 70 yards, but two penalties and an inability to run the ball stopped the Cardinal short of the end zone, and they had to settle for a 40-yard field goal from Jet Toner on the fifth play of the second quarter.
The third time on the field was the charm for Oregon State also, and this drive made it clear that the Cardinal would be in for a fight that would last all night. Led by quarterback Darell Garretson and tailback Ryan Nall, the Beavers mounted a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a touchdown and a 7-3 Oregon State lead. The Beavers exploited Stanford's thin defensive line, repeatedly gashing the defense with running plays through the middle of the line, one uppercut after another. The drive lasted more than seven minutes, and by the end the Cardinal looked battered and exhausted.
Later in the second quarter, perhaps looking to run out the clock and head to the locker room with a 7-3 lead, Garretson kept the ball on a simple read option play with less than a minute to play in the half. But he fumbled the ball, and Stanford's best defensive player, Harrison Phillips, recovered it on the OSU 16 with 51 seconds left before halftime. It was a golden opportunity for the Cardinal to grab a lead it didn't deserve, grab some momentum, and leave the field feeling good about the second half. But instead Chryst and the offense went backwards. Three incompletions and a delay of game penalty pushed the ball back to the 23. Toner's field goal pulled the Cardinal to within one at 7-6, but four important points had been left on the table.
Oregon State's first possession of the second half was disastrous for the Cardinal. After holding the Beavers down and earning what should've been a momentum-building three-and-out, the defense had to stay on the field when an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Ben Edwards turned a 4th and 1 into a 1st and 10. Two plays later linebacker Joey Alfieri was flagged and ejected for targeting. (By rule, Alfieri sat in the locker room for the rest of the game, and he'll miss the first half this week against Washington State.) The very next play was an 18-yard touchdown run from Tyner Thomas, and the score was suddenly 14-6.
Normally a lead like that wouldn't mean much for the Cardinal, but when Chryst is struggling, touchdowns are like soccer goals, few and far between.
The rest of the third quarter was relatively uneventful, save for a few Stanford gaffes. Off-setting penalties washed out a 42-yard touchdown pass from Chryst to Trenton Irwin, forcing the Cardinal to settle for a field goal to cut the lead to 14-9, but the struggles weren't limited to the offensive side of the ball.
Oregon State put together a clock-eating drive to start the fourth quarter, but they were greatly aided by a controversial roughing the kicker penalty on 4th and 13. (It appeared to some, including head coach David Shaw, that Justin Reid had been blocked into the Oregon State punter, but the officials disagreed.) Even though the Beavers wouldn't score, they gnawed 6:24 off the clock, giving the ball back to the Cardinal with only nine minutes to play in the game.
At this point, Keller Chryst was in full disaster mode. He looked nervous in the pocket, and his passes were consistently errant. The result was a painful three-and-out, and when the Cardinal defense presented him with the ball again with 4:56 to play, the offense produced another three-and-out, the last play being what appeared to be a game-clinching sack.
Oregon State took over at their own 32 with only 3:31 to play. David Shaw had a handful of timeouts in his pocket, but all the Beavers really needed was a single 1st down to seal their first conference win. On 2nd and 6 Thomas Tyner rushed for seven yards, earning that 1st down and all but securing the victory.
Shaw had no choice but to burn a timeout, but all that really did was give Stanford fans time to contemplate the magnitude of what they had just watched. Favored by almost three touchdowns against a team without a conference win and with an interim head coach who looked young enough to have NCAA eligibility remaining, Stanford had done more than stumble. They had crash landed on the national stage in a performance so awful that analysts were beginning to wonder if they had inadvertently helped Bryce Love's Heisman campaign. After all, if the offense was this bad without him, maybe he was even better than we thought.
Suddenly it didn't seem to matter what was ahead. A team that can't win in Corvallis would surely have no hope in Pullman and would likely be embarrassed against Washington at home. A loss to Cal was no longer out of the question, and a pummeling at the hands of Notre Dame seemed certain.
This was the spiral we all enjoyed during that timeout; five minutes was long enough to write a doomsday script for the rest of the season that was far more plausible than what would happen next.
Garretson handed the ball to Ryan Nall, and fifth-year senior Peter Kalambayi made the play of his life, stripping the ball out of Nall's arms and onto the Corvallis turf. Harrison Phillips, naturally, was right there and fell to the ground, collecting the ball and the hopes of Mighty Card nation into his massive arms.
And just like that, all things were possible again.
And just like that, we all remembered the current state of the Cardinal offense. Yes, there had been a stay of execution, but it certainly felt like the governor might call back at any minute to send us all back to the chamber. As if he were reading from the same pessimistic script, Chryst came out and gave us three straight incompletions to bring up 4th and 10 from the Oregon State 40.
I would love to tell you that I was hopeful, that I believed in Keller Chryst at that moment, that I was thinking about Richard Sherman converting 4th and 20 against USC, but I wasn't. I was standing in my living room, two or three feet from the television screen, wishing and hoping for a miracle I had no right to expect.
And then it happened.
Keller Chryst dropped back and threw an absolutely perfect pass over the middle to tight end Kaden Smith. Smith's role in this win will be forgotten because this entire game will be forgotten, but his catch was even more spectacular than Chryst's throw. He was tightly covered, but reached high above his head, just a bit higher than the defender in front of him, and gathered the ball in for a 25-yard gain to the OSU 15.
Almost as miraculous as all that, Chryst completed his next two passes, and eventually the Cardinal arrived at a point of reckoning at the Beaver 3 with 24 seconds left on the clock. It was time for the end zone fade, and everyone knew it. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, noted practitioner of the end zone fade, ran a simple route towards the right side of the end zone, turned and posted up, and easily gathered in Chryst's lob for a touchdown and a 15-14 lead. It was as if the hunter had decided to give Bambi's mother a handful of carrots and let her bound back into the woods. Happily ever after.
Chryst threw three more lobs to Dr. JJ in an attempt to get the two-point conversion and a field goal lead, but after two pass interference penalties and a final incompletion, the Cardinal was left to trust the defense to keep Oregon State off the board over the game's final twenty seconds. The Beavers naturally, and easily, popped plays of 16 and 15 yards, so it wasn't until Brandon Simmons intercepted Garretson's pass at the two-yard line as the clock fell to zeros that the game was finally, mercifully over.
Just another business trip, just another win.