Ten games into the 2012 season, Stanford can call itself a complete football team again. Saturday's defining 27-23 victory over Oregon State did the trick.
Resurrection of Efficient Offense
Along came Kevin Hogan. With his striking athleticism and accurate arm -- er, fire extinguisher -- he doused the flames of a sputtering offense and restored Andrew Luck-like efficiency to the Farm against the Pac-12's second-ranked defense. His 22-for-29, 254-yard, two-touchdown performance screamed four words: bring on the Ducks. There's no better time than now, with Oregon's defense depleted by injuries.
Hogan's fantastic play-action work firmly re-established the presence of the Stanford backfield in the Cardinal passing game. Ryan Hewitt's four catches, 52 receiving yards, and stiff-arm touchdown all came on simple bootleg roll-out passes. There was nothing complicated about them: Hogan's athleticism and smooth short delivery made the basic plays -- the ones the Cardinal starved for in their losses to Washington and Notre Dame -- work well. Hewitt's receiving productivity in this one game alone surpassed the numbers he accrued in eight games with Josh Nunes at quarterback.
Of course, it was Stepfan Taylor's spectacular 40-yard catch and touchdown run that closed the third quarter and reinvigorated a trailing Stanford team. That play was also fueled by a check-down throw -- this one a spectacular Hogan effort as he slung the ball to Taylor while being dragged to the ground. On Tuesday, no. 8 told me that his original intention was to run the football, but that he found the star back out of the corner of his eye at the last moment. Great quarterbacks display the peripheral vision that Hogan exhibited there.
Short-to-intermediate accuracy targetting Zach Ertz was just as important. The birthday boy hauled in nine catches for 75 yards, including Hogan's winning 13-yard scoring laser beam. On that play, no. 8 quieted any doubts about his pocket passing ability, calmly rifling a strike to Ertz, who had beaten standout Oregon State cornerback Jordan Poyer in single coverage. The tight end mismatch will likely be present again this week, particularly against a Duck defense with limited healthy bodies in the secondary.
Still Room for Work
Hogan must still improve in the deep passing game, especially after a pair of missed opportunities against Oregon State. He overshot a wide open Devon Cajuste on what would have been a sure touchdown and was intercepted on a poor streak throw to Jamal-Rashad Patterson. But his remarkable efficiency on the throws that truly mattered, combined with athleticism that accrued 60 scrambling yards, was more than enough to loosen the box of the Oregon State front. Stepfan Taylor gashed the nation's fifth-ranked rushing defense to the tune of 119 yards on 19 carries, becoming the first back in school history to record three 1000-yard seasons in the process. A finally complete Stanford offense sent a strong message to its final two regular season opponents.
Perhaps most notable was the complexity of Stanford's offensive success. The Cardinal didn't just catch the Beavers off-guard and rack up early points; they successfully counter-adjusted to Oregon State's excellent initial adjustments and rediscovered the end zone against a good defense in a way that solid, efficient offenses do. It was a game of runs: Stanford scored the first 14 points, then the Beavers rattled off 23 unanswered. But the Cardinal would own the last laugh, striking back with 13 straight to finish the game. In this heavyweight match-up, David Shaw's squad absorbed its own mistakes and Oregon State's blows effectively enough to roar back and deliver the knockout punch.
A Complete Effort
Stanford's defense counter-adjusted in a similar way to its offense. To neutralize the Cardinal's ferocious nation-leading pass rush, the Beavers resorted to quick passes to speedy wide receivers Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks. For the most part, quarterback Cody Vaz avoided sacks early on -- but he couldn't avoid being hit. The blows took their toll as the game progressed, all the way until the Cardinal defense finally reached Vaz.
With Stanford trailing by two points in the fourth quarter, Josh Mauro hit the quarterback, and he hit him hard. Two plays later, he jumped on top of his surprising fumble. At long last, relentless pressure forced an Oregon State mistake. That Beavers' mistake created momentum, and the Cardinal secondary found its second wind -- buoyed by fiery sideline pep talks from Chase Thomas and Shayne Skov. Storm Woods' fine rushing day (15 carries for 95 yards) would end there, as would any semblance of Cody Vaz success. After Ertz registered the go-ahead touchdown, the Cardinal defense went into 'fourth quarter vs. USC' mode. The front seven unleashed a possessed rage to reach the quarterback, and fifth-year man Alex Debniak got that job done on his senior day by knocking Vaz out of the game and forcing a last-gasp fourth and long behind Sean Mannion.
That insatiable motor to win returned for Stanford down the stretch, and it was enough to overcome an uncharacteristic four-turnover effort. The Cardinal entered the game leading the Pac-12 in turnover differential (+11). Oregon State left the game having overtaken the Farm Boys in that category, but they also exited Stanford Stadium without a win.
After the game, Cardinal linebacker A.J. Tarpley proudly tweeted that dinner was at In-N-Out Burger -- a humorous jab at Oregon State's post-road win tradition, one that wouldn't be realized after a hard-fought loss in the Bay Area. Instead, those protein style Double-Doubles will now fuel Stanford's attempt to shock Oregon and overtake the inside track to the Rose Bowl.
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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