Here are the main ingredients to Stanford success:
Kevin Hogan: Play Within Yourself
No. 8's play is a tantalizing -- yet frightening -- wild card against a defense as voracious as Oregon State's. The redshirt freshman will be making his first career start. He was highly successful in his initial extended action at Colorado last week, but the Buffaloes own the nation's worst defense. The Beavers will present a new set of nasty obstacles that Hogan must overcome.
The challenge starts with defensive tackle Castro Masaniai, a 354-pound Hawaiian who will frequently be lined up opposite Cardinal right guard Kevin Danser. The behemoth's presence on the inside will force Hogan to have at least moderate success throwing the football so that Stanford can keep the beer truck on his heels -- and possibly on the sidelines (if the Beavers are forced resort to their nickel package).
Masaniai is complemented on the defensive line by sophomore end Scott Crichton, a monster who has registered nine sacks and 14 tackles for loss on the edge. Again, Hogan will have to successfully neutralize this dangerous threat: proper shifts and audibles can help ensure that Stanford blocks Crichton and provides time for passing opportunities downfield.
But the most dangerous minefield that Hogan must navigate is the Beavers' secondary, which has registered 14 interceptions on the season. Cornerback Jordan Poyer has tallied five of those, good for second in the nation. The senior missed Oregon State's win over Arizona State because a PCL strain prevented him from fully bending his knee, but he's been practicing in the lead-up to Saturday's showdown.
At times last Saturday, Hogan looked tentative with the football in the pocket, which is understandable for a youngster seeing his first significant college-level action. But it's imperative that he's quick, crisp, and ready to throw the ball away whenever there's trouble on Saturday. Along these lines, more good recognition of underneath receivers -- particularly those coming out of the backfield like Ryan Hewitt and Stepfan Taylor -- is essential.
Stop the Run Without Cheating
Oregon State running back Storm Woods will likely return from leg injury, re-anchoring a solid ground attack that has the redshirt freshman averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Stopping running backs hasn't been an issue for the Stanford defense. The Cardinal have held their past three opponents to negative combined rushing yards and are leading the nation in run defense.
The Beavers, though, have a few tricks up their sleeve that can stretch and test the Stanford front. The most notable is Riley's oft-used fly sweep, which often calls blazing-fast wide receiver Markus Wheaton's number. It's the type of speed play that used to give traditionally slower Cardinal defenses fits -- just recall the damage that James and Jacquizz Rodgers inflicted against the Farm Boys in 2009's 38-28 loss in Corvallis.
Stanford's front seven is certainly better equipped to stop the fly sweep and Oregon State's other speed action now. Woods himself had high praise for the Cardinal unit.
"Their linebackers, they flow, run, tackle," he said. "The best linebackers we've seen all year and best front seven."
But the Cardinal must rely on tackle Terrence Stephens to clog the middle so that reinforcements are not suckered in to cheat near the middle of the line of scrimmage. If that happens, Derek Masons defense will be again vulnerable to a creative running game that can punish undisciplined defenses in space.
Expose a Possible Beavers' Weakness: Pass Protection
Quarterback Cody Vaz was sacked five times at home in the Beavers' win last weekend, an alarming trend in the wrong direction considering Oregon State had given up only 13 sacks all season entering that game. Riley's squad is so thin on the offensive line right now that their primary back-up at every single position up front is one guy: Derek Nielsen. If anyone is hurt or needs a breather, the walk-on sophomore is in charge of manning the resulting opening -- whether it be center, guard, or tackle.
The Stanford pass rush, meanwhile, is riding the most successful two-week stretch in program history. The Cardinal have racked up 17 sacks over these contests and will certainly be looking for more Saturday. If the Farm Boys can snuff out all the different dimensions of the Beavers run, they should be in position to take their shots at Vaz. That will be enough to pull off the big win at home assuming Hogan delivers a solid ball-control performance.
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports NEXT. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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