Some injury notes
The long layoff between the end of the regular season and tonight's bowl game helped Stanford get healthy, which will be critical for the Cardinal should they wish to defeat Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. The biggest names returning are tight end Zach Ertz and safety Delano Howell. Though both returned to action at the end of the regular season, they should now be close to full strength.
Howell's return to form will be especially key, since the Stanford secondary, the defense's weak link, is about to face its biggest challenge of the year in star Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, winner of the last two Biletnikoff awards. Meanwhile, Ertz' return to 100 percent health will allow David Shaw to utilize the full playbook, a good chunk of which consists of three tight end sets involving Ertz, Levine Toilolo and Coby Fleener. Not returning is Chris Owusu, who remains sidelined with a concussion. Shaw ruled out Owusu's return pretty early on, so his absence isn't a surprise.
It's almost time for kickoff. See everyone at the end of the first quarter!
End of first quarter: Stanford 7, Oklahoma State 0
Against all odds, the Fiesta Bowl has turned into something of a defensive struggle, when most commentators (including yours truly) predicted a high-scoring, defense-optional contest. Stanford missed a couple of big opportunities early, but the Cardinal defense held Brandon Weeden and the Oklahoma State offense to virtually nothing. Stanford will be hard-pressed to keep up that kind of defensive performance, but if it does, this game will end in pretty lopsided fashion.
Play of the quarter: Oklahoma State appeared to put Stanford's offense on the ropes early in the game. The Cardinal missed a field goal on its first drive, and went three-and-out after being handed a golden opportunity with an interception inside Oklahoma State territory. Unusually for Stanford, the Cowboy front seven was manhandling the offensive line, preventing the Card from establishing an effective power running game.
All that changed with about four minutes left to play in the quarter. Luck dropped back and had an eternity to throw the ball. He finally found a wide-open Ty Montgomery for a 53-yard touchdown pass over the middle. The strike put Stanford up 7-0 and deflated the Cowboy fans and sideline.
Defenses make mark early: With two of college football's best quarterbacks and highest-scoring offenses squaring off, it's pretty surprising that only one touchdown was scored in the first quarter. Stanford's defense has made the most of its opportunities, generally limiting Oklahoma State's passing attack. Remarkably, star wideout Justin Blackmon does not yet have a catch in this game. The Cardinal's tackling has improved dramatically as well, a good sign for this game. Stanford is the only team this season to hold the Cowboys scoreless in the first quarter.
For its part, Oklahoma State is doing what no opponent has managed to do so far: control the line of scrimmage against Stanford's offensive line. Barring a couple of bursts from Stepfan Taylor, Stanford's power running game has been mostly shut down through the first quarter, and Andrew Luck has relied heavily on short throws to his tight ends underneath.
Contrasts abound in offensive style: The first quarter gave a pretty good read on each team's offensive strategy. Stanford appears to be leaning on the power running game, running a lot of heavy formations that utilize extra offensive linemen and lots of tight ends. The deep throw for the Montgomery touchdown was the exception in Stanford's play-calling, not the rule. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State is almost the exact opposite. We've seen very little of Joseph Randle, and Weeden appears to be mixing short and long attempts.
Halftime: Stanford 21, Oklahoma State 21
As expected, the second quarter showcased each team's offense, though the defenses weren't entirely lackluster, either. Early in the quarter, Stanford appeared to establish a dominant position, scoring on a Jeremy Stewart touchdown run to go up 14-0. However, two big Justin Blackmon catches later, the score was tied up at 14. Both teams managed to score again before the quarter was up: Stanford on a Stepfan Taylor run and Oklahoma State on a short Weeden run late in the quarter. Obviously, it is anyone's game as we head into halftime.
Play of the quarter: With Stanford leading 14-7 with about six minutes left to go in the quarter, it still felt like the Cardinal had some of the momentum on its side. True, the offense had just suffered its second three-and-out of the game, but the defense had been playing fairly well up to that point. All that changed on a pass from Weeden to Blackmon, who easily broke a high Terrence Brown tackle before sprinting down the field for the Cowboys' second touchdown of the game.
Blackmon goes off: The Fiesta Bowl finally got to see why Justin Blackmon has two Biletnikoff awards to his name. The star Cowboys wide receiver had two catches in the second quarter: a 43-yard touchdown and a 67-yard touchdown. On both plays, Stanford's defensive backfield looked hopelessly overmatched, with no answer to Blackmon's combination of size and speed. The silver lining is that those were Blackmon's only catches of the quarter, meaning that the Card is doing a relatively good job of covering him—but the results have been disastrous the few times he has broken that coverage.
Stanford goes back to basics: Stanford came into this game determined to establish the run, and so far the Cardinal's rotation of running backs has been a nightmare for the Oklahoma State defense. Jeremy Stewart has me flashing back to last year's Orange Bowl with a couple of big runs, while Stepfan Taylor has been his usual dependable self. While Luck has been opening it up a little bit with his passing, look for Stanford to continue to rely on its power running game.
Ty Montgomery has a coming-out party: Just in the nick of time, it appears that Ty Montgomery has developed into the credible deep threat that Stanford has lacked this season. So far, Montgomery has three catches for 80 yards, including his 53-yard score in the first quarter. He also had a bit of an embarrassing moment in the second quarter, where he fielded a kickoff deep inside the end zone and began to take it out, only to be tackled by his own teammate, Jeremy Stewart, for a touchback. It was a freshman mistake that Montgomery didn't repeat on his next kickoff.
Second half prediction: The Fiesta Bowl's first half had plenty of excitement and big plays, even if wasn't the offensive shootout that many predicted. It's still very much anyone's game, but I believe Stanford looked like the better team in the first half. Once it got past its initial hiccups, the Stanford offense moved methodically down the field on its two scoring drives, finding the key to crack Oklahoma State's defense. By contrast, the Cowboys have relied on big, game-breaking plays from Justin Blackmon for the bulk of their scoring. Though Blackmon is an excellent receiver, he cannot carry the offense by himself, and the Cowboys offense needs to find more consistency to pull out a win in this one. My final score prediction remains pretty close to what I had in my original preview: Stanford 42, Oklahoma State 38.
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