Stanford did what Stanford does Saturday night; win games with physicality, opportunism, and poise under pressure. Especially where Oregon St. is concerned. For the second season in a row, and the 3rd time in 6 years, the Beavers did most of what they needed to do to beat what has become one of the pre-eminent programs in not just the Pac-12, but all of college football. But they also made mistakes at critical times that handed the game to the Cardinal.
That's in no way meant to minimalize what Stanford has accomplished under Jim Harbaugh and of late David Shaw; winning isn't just about physical talent, its also about capitalizing on opportunities, and also putting opponents in position to make a mistake.
It appeared to be the case in the second quarter, with the unexpected return of "Wreckless Riley", when Oregon St. head coach Mike Riley not once, not twice, but three times elected to gamble on 4th down while in field goal position. All 3 times, the Beavers failed to convert, leaving potentially 9 points on the field instead of the scoreboard in a game they ultimately lost by 8 points, sending the crowd of 44,519, 44,000 of which were Beaver Belivers at the beginning of the evening, out into the cold.
The only thing more frustrating about games in which the Beavers self destruct is the aggravating post game softball batting practice session conducted by Steve Preece designed to produce quotes, but avoid having any actual tough questions asked about key decisions that didn't work out.
It would have been nice to be able to ask what the thought process was in those 3 early gambles that go against all measures of percentage football, especially given that 2 weren't even that close.
It's possible that the knee injury to long snapper Michael Morovic suffered earlier in the season is the most important factor in Stanford's win last night; recall that field goal Trevor Romaine clanked off the right upright last week in Berkeley. A timing issue with that snap caused the miss, and while it wound up not being material to the outcome against the Bears, one has to wonder if that was a conscious component of Coach Riley's decision making process. I know at the time it happened, my first thought was that it could be a problem down the road, once Oregon St. encountered actual opposition in the stretch run of the season.
The blocked extra point that subsequently made the mountain more difficult to climb hadn't happened yet, but another timing problem now lends support to the idea of not trusting the field goal squad to deliver what was well within Romaine's range.
It also seemed that after Sean Mannion missed an undefended Brandon Cooks for what would have been an uncontested touchdown early in the second quarter, which led to Romaine's career long 50 yard field goal that was easily good, and the only Oregon St. points until the last minute of the 3rd period, Riley spent the rest of the first half futilely chasing those points. Especially given that midway in the first quarter, the 2nd and 3rd of what would eventually be an incredible 8 sacks (after allowing only 9 in the first 7 games of the season) of Mannion had also pushed the Beavers back out of what would have been at worst a chip shot field goal into a punt.
Given that it was obvious early that Stanford would employ a wide variety of rush tactics to disrupt Mannion, and that its always absolutely imperative to get any points possible against the Cardinal system that routinely produces relatively close, low scoring contests compared to the shootouts that are increasingly prevalent in football today, point chasing at the expense of point scoring was a major tactical error.
As a result, pass heavy Oregon St. held the ball for over 17 minutes more than ball control Stanford, but the Beavers' failure to produce ANY points from 5 drives deep into Cardinal country cost them yet another golden opportunity to move into the upper echelon of the conference, not to mention the top 20.
It would have been good to know what the thought process was behind what were normally inexplicably bad decisions that may or may not have been the product of mitigating circumstances.
Regardless, the Beavers must now regroup, and get ready for a near must win situation in a short week, against a USC squad that's in a similar situation, as far as salvaging their season goes.
Of all teams, Stanford is the last one you want to take on to start a quick turnaround, as the Cardinal can always be counted on to beat you up physically and mentally, and last night was no exception.
Oregon St. hopes to have Connor Hamlett back by Friday, at the suddenly shallow tight end position. But whether Caleb Smith, who left the game with rib/back problems early in the game, will be back or not won't be known until later this week, when we see how quickly he's able to recover.
The injuries to the tight end position contributed to the "what-ifs" of last night; with Stanford siting in over the top coverage all night, the short passes to Kellen Clute and Tyler Perry, who combined for 10 catches, became an even more critical component of Mannion's arsenal. But while Clute and Perry have contributed all season, there are reasons they are #3 and #4 on the depth chart, behind Hamlett and and Smith. You have to wonder if that 3rd down pass into the end zone on Oregon St.'s final drive might be one the taller, stronger, and faster Hamlett or Smith might have been able to break away from the Stanford defense and get to, instead of it being beyond Clute's reach.
Just as in the Eastern Washington loss, with Sean at the trigger, at least the Beavers had a chance down to the last second. But for the second of four home games, there wouldn't be quite enough magic dust in his bag of tricks.
The other important injury issue to emerge was what was determined to be a "stinger" that knocked LB D.J. Alexander out of the game. Beaver fans will recall last year when Alexander struggled with a similar injury. His situation will be worth monitoring as the week wears on as well.