Oregon State opens Pac-12 play tonight, taking on 21st. ranked Stanford in the first game of the weekend. It will be the stiffest test yet for the rebuilt Beavers, even if Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan's sprained ankle prevents him from starting or finishing the game.
After a non-starter of an effort on the road at Northwestern in their opener, Stanford rebounded with a solid if ugly win over Central Florida in their only home game so far, and then made a statement that pushed them back into the polls, and into the early lead in the Pac-12 race, coming from 2 touchdowns down to pull away from USC in the LA Coliseum.
Oregon State played their best game of the season in a come from behind (3 times) win of their own over San Jose State last Saturday, but this weeks Bay Area visitor is a entirely different matter than the Spartans were, everything that Michigan was that caused the Beavers problems in Ann Arbor and more.
Stanford has won the last 5 meetings with Oregon State, a couple in blowouts and others in much more frustrating fashion for Beaver fans, who watched at least 2 winable games get away. The common denominator though is the Cardinal have been a sound team, one that may or may not be better than their opponent (some clearly were, some not so much), but always capitalized on errors and shortcomings of the Beaver teams they were up against.
At least we won't be treated to a visit by the Leland Stanford Jr. Marching Band this year; the irreverent bunch being restricted to their own campus this season in light of prior transgressions.
Whether Hogan can play effectively all evening probably determines whether Oregon State can compete all evening or not. Hogan made his first start against Oregon State, and has been a Beaver killer ever since. He's not always played nearly as well as he sometimes has during his career, but he's a senior quarterback in the Pac-12 who has held that job for several years, and should be able to keep the Cardinal on track against an Oregon State team that hasn't been able to put together a complete game yet.
If Hogan is sidelined, Stanford will have someone who took a couple of snaps last year in Ryan Burns, or someone who hasn't, and only completed 1 pass in the spring game, in Keller Chryst. Hard to believe Oregon State would have a serious experience advantage at quarterback at any point this season, but that's exactly what could come about for a second game in a row, due to opponent's injuries.
If Oregon State can minimize miscues, and catch a break, they can hang in this game, and in fact have a chance to win. But mistakes of any form are always going to be hard to overcome for this team, and of all opponents, even with a complete newbie at quarterback, Stanford is one of the worst teams to go up against if you aren't playing not only a clean game, but a controlling one. Just ask anyone from USC.
Beyond that, Oregon State must get their tight end receiving going. That's unlikely to win the game, at least directly, but Victor Bolden becomes more of a threat instantly if an opponent has to invest any appreciable effort on stopping the TEs. So does Storm Barrs-Woods.
Woods is the next key, and the win over San Jose State was an excellent illustration of that. Quarterback Seth Collins, the third leading rusher in the FBS among quarterbacks, needs to continue on that pace, having a productive game, but must also not be the leading rusher. For Oregon State to be at its best, that production needs to come from behind Collins.
That's easier said than done, given that Stanford, and the Stanford system of physical defense and ball control, has held Oregon State to less than 100 yards rushing for the last 6 games in a row. The Beavers, and every other Stanford opponent, will see their chances improve drastically if they can change that.
The defense will do alright as long as they aren't left out on the field all evening, though another takeaway would certainly help.
And as we were all reminded the last time Stanford came to Corvallis, field goals must be made whenever available and the offense isn't able to put the ball in the end zone. Every point will be at a premium.
Stanford will also have to play down, but at some point we will see Kalani Sitake's defense cause just that to happen, and the Oregon State offense better be ready to take advantage of it.
Beaver Believer Believes The Keys To The Game Will Be:
1. Stop the run game. If Kevin Hogan is out or limited then the Stanford offense is going to be run based, though it already is. Much like the Michigan game if the Beavers can't stop the run then the Cardinal will pound away until nothing is left but black and orange dust. It will be up to the front seven to hold their gaps and not lose in their individual battles. It will be the most important battleground of the game.
2. Play the field position game. The Beavers cannot be afraid to punt in this game. To be hyper-aggressive is all well and good for a narrative, but more often then not the correct move is just to force back the opponent and trust the defense to hold up the Stanford attack. As stated earlier it will be a challenge for the defense, but it will be even worse if they miss it and leave the D with a short field to defend. You have to trust your players and it starts by playing the game your way.
3. No turnovers. As stated above, give the defense every opportunity to execute. They need the chance to get a stop and two of the three scoring drives for San Jose State last week were off of turnovers. If given the chance the defense might be able to get the stop, but they need the maximum amount of chances.
This is the best opponent that OSU has faced so far by a considerable amount. It is going to require a 100% performance from the Beavers, perfect execution and no mistakes are required. With a large crowd, especially boatloads of students, that might be just the boost that the Beavers need, but I can't see it. 27-20 Stanford.
After the start of the season, even with Oregon State's non-overwhelming opener against Weber State, it looked like this match up against the Stanford Cardinal could be a promising one for the Beavers. Even though the Cardinal defense was solid overall, Stanford looked completely flat on offense against Northwestern. Kevin Hogan struggled, the running game only mustered 85 total yards, and the offense did not score a touchdown. The next game saw a nice overall bounce back against UCF, but this is a 0-3 Knights team so it was hard to judge if Stanford was truly on the road to recovery. However, the impressive upset win over the then #6 ranked USC Trojans in LA showed that the Cardinal were indeed righting their ship.
On the Oregon State side of things we have seen more of an up and down and up and down and up and down type of trajectory coming into this early Pac-12 match up. The Beavs have shown some exceptional defense at times, and other times have been a bit rough around the edges. The offense has not found any consistency at all, but there have been glimpses of potential.
So what is possibly going to have to give in this game for the Beavers to grab their own conference upset over the #21 ranked Cardinal?
Offensive balance, balance, controlling the clock, and more balance. The theme of the Oregon State practice week, and talk amongst the players and coaching staff has very much seemed to revolve around matching Stanford's physical play. The Oregon State defense will be challenged, but they seem to match up much better than the OSU offense does against the Stanford defense.
I have harped over the last couple of games on the need for the Beaver's offense to find a consistent balance of running and passing. The game against San Jose State showed a little more of this, especially in terms of a balanced rushing attack with Storm Barrs-Woods' huge 151 yard rushing performance combined with Seth Collins' over 100 yard game rushing. But the passing game still only mustered 135 yards.
This will have to change for if the passing game does not open up the field more, Stanford's defense will be pinning their ears back and stacking the box. In short the offense needs to avoid three-and-outs, needs to spread the Stanford linebackers thin with the passing game, and allow the rushing game breathing space to help control the clock. Yes, this is all standard thinking in many ways, but the margin for error will be small against a well coached, athletically physical, and mentally smart defense like Stanford's.
The defense needs to be confident, well rested, and not intimidated. Again, this seems right now to be the more favorable match up for Oregon State, but there is a sense the Beavs have the 'aura' of physical Stanford play in their heads. I believe the energy of the returning OSU students and opening conference game environment at home will help the defense play aggressive at the outset.
I also believe the defense has established an overall confidence, and definitely more of an identity on their side of the ball versus the Beavs' offense, but if things start to go Stanford's way I do worry the Cardinal offense could get into the defense's head. This will lead to skilled and physical players like Christian McCaffrey and Austin Hooper controlling the game, and as such relieving the pressure off of an injured Kevin Hogan. This is very much opposite of what the Oregon State defense wants, for they want to stifle those players and pressure Hogan to take advantage of the QB's less than 100% health. And if not in the Oregon State defense's heads, at the least Stanford could grind down the defense physically. This is again another area I have been harping on and the offense needs to control much more of the clock to keep the OSU defense well rested.
Mistakes at a minimum. Special teams miscues, penalties, and turnovers are not an option Friday night. As noted above, most likely Stanford will take full advantage of miscues. Indeed, they will be looking for them. This game very much stacks up more like the match up against Michigan, and not playing smart football will only enhance possible mismatches. It is a football game played by human beings, so mistakes are going to happen but Oregon State needs to limit and tone down their miscues if OSU is going to have a chance of winning this game.
This is going to be a challenging and grinding game. I do see a potential for it to be a good challenge, for even if the Beavs can't get the win, they still have a chance to play a good Pac-12 opponent tough and take away an excellent growth mindset. At the same time though, there is a potential here for it to add up as a mismatch totally in favor of the Cardinal, which could lead to more sloppy, fixed, and static play on Oregon State's part that will not help this team find itself. I don't think OSU needs to play a perfect game to win, but they need to play a very much improved game versus what we have seen in the first three games of the season. There will be a ton of home field energy and even some possibility of a letdown on the Cardinal side, especially if Kevin Hogan cannot play or is playing at a less-than-optimal level. Again, however it plays out, I do not see this as an easy game, but a win Friday night would go a long ways to establishing an identity for this team and football program.