Fiesta Preview: Stanford vs. Oklahoma State

Though it isn't quite the ending we wanted at the beginning of the season, Monday's Fiesta Bowl caps another stellar season for Stanford. The program that won one game in 2006 is set to play in its second straight BCS bowl game, with just two losses over the last two seasons combined.

Of course, the season isn't over yet, and the hype for the Fiesta Bowl has been steadily building for a month. Third-ranked Oklahoma State comes into the game sporting an 11-1 record, a Big 12 title and a massive chip on its shoulder thanks to being passed over for the BCS championship game. With Stanford ranked No. 4, this game has all the ingredients necessary to become a classic.

The Bootleg is proud to bring you full coverage of the Fiesta Bowl. Read on for some of the biggest storylines surrounding both squads in the buildup to kickoff, and come back throughout the contest, where we'll be updating the message boards throughout the game and providing a complete postgame wrap-up.

Last time out: It seems like an eternity since either team has played a game, with a month elapsing between the end of the regular season and the first of the BCS bowls. Stanford closed its season on Nov. 26 with a 28-14 victory over Notre Dame, while Oklahoma State dismantled Oklahoma, 44-10, in the Bedlam game on Dec. 3. Both teams suffered late-season losses that knocked them out of contention for a spot in the BCS championship game: the Cardinal fell to Oregon on Nov. 12, while Oklahoma State lost in double overtime to Iowa State six days later. Though the Cowboys looked red-hot against Oklahoma, the long layoff between the regular season and the bowls has a tendency to kill momentum, so it will be interesting to see which team shakes off the rust more easily.

Duel of the quarterbacks: With two high-powered offenses facing off against middling defenses, the Fiesta Bowl could easily turn into a shootout decided by which team has the ball last. A lot will hinge on the play of the quarterbacks, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden. Both players piled up accolades during the season, though Luck is more hyped, with his second-place finish in the Heisman voting, New York Times profiles and status as the presumptive No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. Both teams also use vastly different offensive systems. The Cowboys' spread attack puts more emphasis on quarterback play and mobility, while the Cardinal employs a run-first, pro-style attack that physically wears down opposing defenses. While Stanford has seen many spread offenses in Pac-12 play, pro-style attacks are relatively rare in Big 12 country, so the adjustment is likely to be larger for Oklahoma State's defense.
When asked about it at Stanford's media day, Luck had nothing but praise for Weeden. "I think he can make all the throws, monster arm. You can tell he is very comfortable in his offense," he said. "You can tell he has a mastery of the offense."

Blackmon presents challenge: Stanford's glaring weakness on defense this season has been the weak play of its secondary, which could cost the Cardinal dearly in the Fiesta Bowl as it attempts to shut down star Cowboys receiver Justin Blackmon. The junior has won the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top receiver, in each of the last two seasons, and tore up the Big 12 for 113 receptions, 1,336 yards and 15 touchdowns this year. Stanford's coaching staff has made stopping Blackmon its top priority on defense, and head coach David Shaw wasn't shy about saying so at the Cardinal's media day.
"He is the best receiver in the nation," Shaw said of Blackmon. "He is great after the catch. He is a big, physical kid. He makes tough catches look easy. As soon as his feet hit the ground to jump up to make a catch, he is at full speed. He is a difference maker. He is a game changer. We don't talk about stopping guys like him; we talk about trying to contain them."

Offense gets favorable matchup: Though it will struggle to find ways to keep Blackmon from breaking open huge plays, the Cardinal can take some comfort in the fact that the Cowboys don't exactly have college football's best defense. Oklahoma State ranks 61st in points allowed among FBS teams this season, and gave up over 445 yards per game on average during the season. The Pokes' run defense was a particularly sore point, surrendering 180 yards on average. That's good news for the Stanford offensive line and for starting running back Stepfan Taylor, who rushed for 1,153 yards in 2011. Overall, the Cardinal averaged 208 yards per game on the ground this season, utilizing a deep stable of running backs to continually supply fresh legs.

Last game for Luck, seniors: The cloud hanging over Stanford's presence at the Fiesta Bowl has been the program's likely regression next season, as many of the team's top players will depart after this season. Luck's name is obviously the biggest, but the Cardinal will lose many starters on both sides of the ball. Nevertheless, in interviews this week the seniors have remained focused on the Fiesta Bowl, delaying decisions on heading for the NFL until after the season is over.

Prediction: Stanford and Oklahoma State are two well-matched teams that have a lot on the line in the Fiesta Bowl. For the Cardinal, a victory would put the exclamation point on what is probably the best run in program history and send Andrew Luck out with a bang. For the Cowboys, a win would serve to validate their argument for inclusion in the BCS title game and open up a possible split national championship.
I see this game turning into an offensive battle fairly early on. Both sides will score a lot of points, but the Cardinal's ability to grind down its opponents will prove to be the decisive factor, as Stanford successfully burns the clock in the fourth quarter to narrowly hold on. Final score: Stanford 41, Oklahoma State 38.


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