There were no misconceptions about the undertaking ahead of first-year Oregon Statehead coach Jonathan Smith: Getting the Beavers back to contention in the Pac-12 was going to take some time. Rallying from 28 points down to earn the program's first conference win since 2016, as the Beavers did Oct. 27 at Colorado, marked an important milestone for Oregon State in this process. Last week, they returned home to Reser Stadium to give USC a tough fight before the Trojans pulled away.
With some positive momentum, Oregon State (2-7, 1-5 Pac-12) visits a Stanford team that the Beavers nearly upended in Corvallis a year ago. A Bryce Love-less Cardinal escaped Reser with a 15-14 win. Love's ankle injury issues have remained a concern for the year-and-change since, and Stanford's overall up-and-down 2018 is a reflection of that.
Stanford (5-4, 3-3) surged to a perfect start and top-10 ranking, but since Love went out of the lineup in the fourth quarter at Notre Dame, the Cardinal have lost four of five. The last two were heartbreakers against Washington State and Washington, decided by a total of seven points.
Oregon State at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 10 at 9 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Stanford -24
Three Things to Watch
1. It's the power of run
In a conference that has undergone seismic shifts in philosophies and styles, a constant for about a decade is that Stanford will run the ball effectively. From Toby Gerhart, to Stepfan Taylor, to Tyler Gaffney, to Christian McCaffrey, to Bryce Love, the Cardinal have boasted impressive rushing numbers behind starring feature backs.
But this year, Love's injury issues have Stanford languishing at No. 11 in the Pac-12 in rushing. This is the Cardinal's worst season on the ground since 2014 — and thus, it should come as no surprise that it's shaping up as their worst regular season since then. But that only begins to describe Stanford's running game woes.
Stanford is averaging just 93.1 rushing yards per game, ahead of only Washington State and the Cougars' almost pass-exclusive offense. At 3.29 yards per carry, the Cardinal rank worst in the Pac-12. Defensive fronts loaded with eight defenders contribute to the low output, but no one in the three-man running back rotation has delivered a big performance, either. That could change against an Oregon State defense allowing just below seven yards per carry.
This season, the Beavers have allowed career-best performances from Arizona's J.J. Taylor, Arizona State's Eno Benjamin and last week, USC's Aca'Cedric Ware. A Stanford ball carrier may be next.
2. O-regon State
Oregon State's offense poses a legitimate threat to Stanford, which might seem a quizzical assessment with the Beavers ranked a not overly impressive No. 70 in the nation in scoring. However, freshman running back Jermar Jefferson has been a revelation, having already surpassed the 1,000-yard mark on the season.
In recent weeks, quarterback Jake Luton's return to the lineup in place of injured Conor Blount also provided a spark. Luton completed 72 and 69 percent of his pass attempts, respectively, over the past two games, exceeded 300 yards both times, and accounted for four touchdowns without an interception. Luton was downright surgical in the second-half rally at Colorado.
Meanwhile, Stanford comes into Saturday's contest ranked last in the Pac-12 against the pass, allowing 266.3 yards per game and a completion percentage just under 65. The loss of Quenton Meeks from a secondary that already had holes necessitated that someone step up — and Paulson Adebo has done that at corner for the Cardinal — but Stanford must contend with a talented three-man receiver rotation of Timmy Hernandez, Trevon Bradford, and Isaiah Hodgins.
3. Step on the gas
Despite its uncharacteristic record, and its struggles in areas that are typically strengths like rushing offense and pass defense, Stanford should have a clear edge over Oregon State on Saturday. The loss of JJ Arcega-Whiteside for the week hinders the offense, but K.J. Costello has made undeniable strides this season — particularly given the lack of support via the run.
To that end, Oregon State's struggles stopping the run should allow Love, Cameron Scarlett and Trevor Speights to get rolling, perhaps building momentum for a push to the finish line and another nine-win season. The Cardinal have lost to good teams, with three of their four coming against opponents currently ranked in the College Football Playoff Top 25, and one that was No. 15 just a week before losing its quarterback. A setback against the Pac-12's cellar dweller would be cause for concern, however.
The only way that happens is if Stanford stagnates — and that's been a problem for the Cardinal. Whether allowing Arizona State and Washington State to rally from two-score deficits, shutting down in the second half at Notre Dame, or starting slow out of the gate at Oregon and Washington, Stanford has been prone to long offensive lulls. Failing to capitalize on opportunities and conceding possession quickly is what an upstart, upset-minded opponent like Oregon State needs. Just ask Colorado.
November has often been Stanford football's best month under David Shaw. Despite the slow start, Stanford finished strong with a chance to win last week at Washington. That should serve as a springboard to the Cardinal winning out. Oregon State's weaknesses are in areas that the Cardinal should be able to exploit, most notably in the run game.
Jonathan Smith has Oregon State playing hard, and the Beavers won't get run out of Stanford Stadium. The OSU alum is making considerable improvements in his first season, but cutting down a perennial Pac-12 power like Stanford may be another few seasons away for the Beavers.
Prediction: Stanford 34, Oregon State 21
(Top photo courtesy of @BeaverFootball)