Beat the Beavers' Offensive Line
The Cardinal's defensive performance in Corvallis ranks amongst the most impressive in Stanford football history. The Cardinal held Oregon State, the nation's leading passing offense, to an average of 3.8 yards per play. Most remarkably, they did so despite being left out to dry by their own offense, whose underperformance (2-for-9 on third down) eliminated any hope for a period of extended defensive rest. The Beavers possessed the ball for over 38 minutes of game time, yet Stanford's rugged unit never broke under the resulting strain.
Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion had only been sacked nine times all season entering the game, but Stanford's stifling onslaught of pressure never relented. The big boys up front, flexing their muscles like they did their last time on Oregon soil, took Mannion down eight times in Saturday's game alone. Their 13 tackles for loss combined to take 76 yards away from the Beavers.
Mike Riley's team never had the chance to showcase its trademarked aerial shows. Trent Murphy told me that Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason called a bevy of heavy blitzes early to shock the Beavers' offensive line, which included true freshman Sean Harlow at right tackle, into jumpy submission. As the game wore on and the Beavers resorted to more screen passes, Stanford transitioned toward a three-man rush, but Trent Murphy, Josh Mauro, and others just kept rupturing the already-dazed Oregon State offensive line.
"We were running like junkyard dogs out there," Murphy told me afterward. "We were all over the place."
Win the Screen Pass/Deep Pass Mental Game
In addition to leading the nation in passing, Oregon State also checked into Saturday's game as the NCAA's most prolific producer of explosive plays. The Beavers, who had accrued an NCAA-best 57 plays of 20 yards or greater through their first seven games, finished with just one play of more than 20 yards against Stanford. An energetic, disciplined, and physically bruising unit proved to be Oregon State's kryptonite. Before the game, Mason told me that it would be imperative for his players to correctly read the Beavers' pre-snap cues so they'd have an idea of what to expect on a play-to-play basis. Riley mixed between deep passes and screen passes frequently in an attempt to throw Stanford off-balance. It was a strategy that had worked wonderfully for Oregon State's prolific passing attack in the weeks leading up to this game.
But Trent Murphy is a rare talent, and he's not easily thrown off balance. No. 93 is one of the few players in the country who's able to maintain a reckless pass rush while also defending the screen pass. He has the wingspan, quickness, and anticipation skills necessary to fully cover two markedly different plays at once, and that versatility was Stanford's ticket to defensive dominance at Reser Stadium. In the first half, Mannion thought he had Murphy suckered in too deep on a blitz, but Murphy stunned him by freezing his rush and swatting away the screen pass attempt. He proceeded to bruise the quarterback on a standard dropback just plays later, snuffing out the Beavers' downfield passing attack before it had a chance to ignite.
Stick to the Running Guns
A week prior, when Tyler Gaffney bruised UCLA by way of 36 carries, the identity crisis that stalled Stanford's offense at Utah was a problem of the past. The bully was back -- or so it seemed.
The Cardinal's sense of uncertainty returned at Oregon State. Despite gashing the Beavers' physically overmatched defense for 7.3 yards per carry, David Shaw and Mike Bloomgren called Gaffney's number only nine times in the first half. Even without Devon Cajuste, Stanford toyed with a five-wide receiver formation while removing the power running game from the core of its offensive identity. The ground attack's backbone vanished, and Kevin Hogan, who had played a very efficient game against UCLA, returned to his Utah level of inconsistency in the pocket. Hogan's final line reflected those struggles well: 8-for-18, 88 yards.
The Cardinal did turn to the ground more regularly in the second half, but they still did not do so enough. Gaffney's final numbers (22 carries, 149 yards, 6.6 yards per carry) confirm exactly what the eyes observed: Oregon State did not pack the punch necessary to stop Stanford's ground attack. But questionable passing calls (some of which led to sacks) and a critical late game delay of game penalty, which turned a third and three into a third and eight, thrust the Cardinal into undesirable passing situations that they could have avoided with a firmer commitment to their physical advantage.
This problem isn't unique to Stanford football. Remember that Jim Harbaugh's San Francisco 49ers suffered through a similar identity crisis when they lost to Andrew Luck's Indianapolis Colts earlier this season. Fittingly, the Colts, with former Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, employed an offense that was nearly identical in design to the one that had bought the Cardinal so much success. They ran the ball 40 times on the game while the 49ers departed from their usual pad-popping strategy and only handed it off 23 times. Indianapolis won 27-7, leading Harbaugh and another former Stanford offense coordinator, Greg Roman, to re-evaluate their strategy and take San Francisco back to its power running roots. The 49ers' offense has regained health and consistency since, ripping off five consecutive wins. It would behoove David Shaw and Mike Bloomgren to bring Stanford's offense back to its basics in a similar fashion.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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