There was no mystery about the difficulty of Stanford's 2019 schedule. The Cardinal opened with the defending Big Ten West divisional champion, a Pac-12 rival, a team that until last weekend hadn't lost a regular-season game since 2016, and the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 North.
Perhaps surprising, however, is just how mightily Stanford struggled. The Cardinal come to Oregon State in Week 5 at 1-3, on the first three-game losing streak of David Shaw's wildly successful tenure as head coach.
Oregon State's been the closest thing to a penciled-in win the tough Pac-12 North has had to offer in recent years. The Beavers have just one conference win since the end of the 2016 season. The closest they came to a Pac-12 victory in 2017 was against Stanford at home, however. And in the two years since that meeting, Jonathan Smith's overseen marked improvements in the Beavers.
Saturday's home game against a Stanford team struggling both with injuries and the uncertainty of an unprecedented losing skid offers an opportunity for Oregon State. The Beavers are fresh off a bye week with a shot at a .500 finish to September.
Stanford at Oregon State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 28 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Stanford -4.5
When Stanford Has the Ball
Mounting and sustaining an offensive attack has been tough sledding for Stanford this season. Just as the Cardinal looked prime to get rolling Week 1 against Northwestern, quarterback K.J. Costello sustained a forearm to the head that rattled the Stanford offense. Red-zone misfires at USC became insurmountable Week 2, and UCF's ball-hawking overwhelmed a returning Costello — as well as an offensive line sans Walker Little — in Week 3.
A 21-6 loss in Week 4 to Oregon showed some hope of revitalizing a running game that's been stagnant since last season; Cameron Scarlett rushed for 97 yards on 19 carries. However, the Ducks locked down the passing game, and Stanford went without a touchdown.
Oregon State's defense is a step back from the sides Stanford faced in its first four weeks. The Cardinal moved the ball effectively with Davis Mills at quarterback against USC, but had three red-zone trips that totaled just three points. Mills will be at the helm once again as Costello has been ruled out due to a hand injury. Oregon State ranks in the nation's top 25 for red-zone defense, and top 40 in touchdowns allowed. The sample size is limited, but it's still a huge leap from 2018, when the Beavers ranked No. 126-of-130 in red-zone touchdowns allowed.
When Oregon State Has the Ball
Jonathan Smith's tenure as offensive coordinator at Washington was one of the most underrated stints for an assistant coach in recent memory. The Huskies were one of the most high-powered offenses in the Pac-12 during their run to the 2016 season's College Football Playoff, and former Washington quarterback Jake Browning heaped praise on Smith when the coach left for the head-coaching vacancy at his alma mater.
That same offensive acumen showed up in short order for the Beavers. The emergence of Jermar Jefferson as one of the best running backs in the Pac-12 last season was a pleasant surprise. He missed the win over FCS member Cal Poly in Week 3, but is probable for the Stanford game. In his place, Artavis Pierce has averaged 8.2 yards per carry and has two touchdowns. Oregon State's also gotten improved passing from quarterback Jake Luton.
Luton's thrown for eight touchdowns and no interceptions. His favorite target, Isaiah Hodgins, is having a monster year: 23 receptions for 347 yards with five scores. No other Beaver has more than nine receptions. The passing attack's reliance on Hodgins suggests All-American Stanford cornerback Paulson Adebo will be on that assignment plenty.
Generating pressure on Luton may be a challenge. Offensive line play is a quiet strength of this Oregon State team, loaded with veterans and allowing just two sacks through three games.
Conditions are ripe for an Oregon State win. Stanford's struggling, the Beavers are at home after a bye week, and the Cardinal's uncertainties on both sides of the ball are exploitable. But...
Stanford is bound to regroup despite their rash of injuries. The defense showed up against Oregon, giving the Cardinal a chance when the game went into the fourth quarter. The offense showed in the first halves vs. Northwestern and USC, and the second half at UCF, that it has some life. Stanford will put those pieces together eventually. It may not be complete at Oregon State, but Stanford should avoid the first four-game losing streak of David Shaw's tenure.
Prediction: Stanford 27, Oregon State 24
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Top photo courtesy of @BeaverFootball)