Oregon is considered a heavy favorite to win the Pac-12 North, but Stanford and Oregon State are still in the mix. The Cardinal’s national title hopes took a hit with a loss to Utah on Oct. 12, while the Beavers are still trying to recover in the polls from a defeat to Eastern Washington in the season opener.
It’s probably too early to say this is an elimination game for the North Division, but Stanford cannot afford another loss. The Cardinal had some help in the national title picture with an array of upsets last week. However, winning the Pac-12 and playing in a BCS bowl appears to be the more attainable goal.
Stanford has won four out of the last five meetings in this series. Oregon State’s last victory against the Cardinal came in 2009, winning a 36-28 matchup in Corvallis.
Stanford at Oregon State
Kickoff: 10:30 ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Stanford -4
Three Things to Watch
Mannion to Cooks
What a difference a couple of months can make. Oregon State’s Sean Mannion wasn’t guaranteed to be the No. 1 quarterback in fall practice, but the junior leads the nation with an average of 427.4 passing yards per game. Mannion has just three interceptions and is completing 68.6 percent of his throws. His favorite target is Brandin Cooks, who has 76 receptions for 1,176 yards and 12 scores this year. Cooks and Mannion have been two of college football’s top players through the first half of the season, but Stanford’s defense will be their toughest opponent of 2013. The Cardinal rank sixth in the Pac-12 in pass defense efficiency, but this group is loaded with talent. Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons form a solid pair at cornerback, while safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards both have All-American potential. Richards has three picks this season, and Reynolds ranks second on the team with 50 stops. Can Cooks and Mannion be stopped? If any defense can find an answer for this duo, it should be the Cardinal, especially with a pass rush that has generated 19 sacks in 2013.
Oregon State’s rushing attack
With a prolific passing attack, Oregon State’s struggles on the ground have been overlooked. However, the numbers aren’t pretty. The Beavers are averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and 86 yards per game in Pac-12 games. Running back Storm Woods finished 2012 with 940 yards and 13 touchdowns, but the sophomore has just 193 yards in 2013. Although quarterback Sean Mannion has been sharp through the first seven games, Oregon State needs to have some balance to beat Stanford. But that’s easier said than done against the Cardinal, who leads the Pac-12 in rush defense at 99 yards per game in conference-only contests. One wildcard to watch: Keep an eye on Woods on swing passes out of the backfield.
Stanford’s offensive line
The Cardinal has one of the best offensive lines in the nation, and this unit will be under the microscope on Saturday night. Oregon State’s defense has improved since allowing 46 points to Eastern Washington in the opener, but the Beavers are still susceptible to the run. Utah gashed Oregon State for 260 yards and Stanford is averaging 4.8 yards per attempt. The Cardinal’s defense can hold their own against anyone in the nation but having a good offense – especially one that can play keep-away – could be the key to stopping Mannion and Cooks. If Stanford is able to get running back Tyler Gaffney going early on, it could be a long night for Oregon State's front seven.
Key Player: Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
In Stanford’s 27-21 loss to Utah, Hogan completed 15 of 27 passes for 246 yards and one touchdown. That performance is certainly enough to win most Pac-12 games, especially with the strength of Stanford’s defense. However, Oregon State’s offense has been on fire this year. A 45-41 shootout seems unlikely, but if the Beavers’ connection of Mannion to Cooks gets on track, Hogan’s play could be the difference between a Stanford win or second Pac-12 loss.
If Oregon State knocks off Stanford, the Beavers could be 10-1 heading into the season finale at Oregon. However, the Cardinal is the better team and should leave Corvallis with the victory. Stanford’s balance on offense should be the difference in the game, while the defense does just enough to keep Mannion and Cooks below their season averages.
Prediction: Stanford 31, Oregon State 27