Both Oregon State and Stanford are in a state of transition at this position. The Beavers' Cody Vaz originally filled in when starter Sean Mannion underwent knee surgery. Vaz then took the top spot for good after his predecessor returned against Washington and threw four interceptions. 3-0 as a starter, Vaz has shown throughout the ability to make big-time throws downfield, but he's completing only 55 percent of his passes -- a testament to residual inexperience. Stanford's defense will be, by far, Vaz's biggest test to this point.
The Cardinal's Kevin Hogan will be making his first career start against a ball-hawking Oregon State defense that is second in the nation in third down holds, limiting opponents to a paltry 24 percent conversion rate on that crucial down. The Beavers have picked off 14 passes this season. Hogan is being thrown into a raging fire. Let's see how the youngster responds.
Advantage: Oregon State (moderate -- it is Hogan's first career start, after all)
Oregon State is extremely thin up front, so much so that Derek Nielsen is their primary back-up for every single line position: tackle, guard, and center. The Beavers surrendered five sacks in their win over Arizona State last week, so they definitely appear vulnerable to a Palo Alto Party in the Backfield. Stanford has recorded a school-record 17 sacks over the course of its past two games.
The pass protection of the Cardinal's offensive line has been the attack's highlight this season, as it has given up only 11 sacks despite protecting inexperienced quarterbacks. Run blocking is still looking to hit its stride (Colorado doesn't count), but some play-action success will certainly provide a boost. Andrus Peat (hand) is questionable for this game, but even if he is healthy, David Shaw may opt to rely heavily on the more experienced David Yankey at left tackle. That's because Oregon State's Scott Crichton (9 sacks, 14 TFL) is one the best pass rushers in the nation. The Farm Boys can't let the big boy get to Hogan.
Advantage: Stanford (solid -- the Cardinal are simply deeper and better here)
Receivers and Tight Ends
Senior Jamal-Rashad Patterson may finally be having the breakout Stanford fans have desired for years, while Ty Montgomery is back to complement Drew Terrell. Still, Stanford is all about tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo. Hogan's ability to deliver the ball to them in stride, something he did very well in Boulder, continues to be a Cardinal key. Their match-up with the Beavers' fantastic cornerbacks, which is detailed later, may be decisive.
Oregon State features Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, a pair of speedy receivers that often receive the hand-off on the fly sweep. Cooks is seventh in the nation, averaging over 113 receiving yards per game, while Wheaton is 13th, racking up more than 98 yards per contest. Both of these guys will challenge the Stanford secondary, unless the Cardinal pass rush renders them a moot point. See the Farm Boys' terrorism of Matt Barkley earlier this season as a potential example.
Advantage: Even (it's a matter of contrasting styles here: speed versus size)
Now that Hogan has gotten fullback Ryan Hewitt re-involved in the passing game (two catches at Colorado after only three balls through the first two-thirds of the season), Stanford is even more dangerous out of the backfield. Stepfan Taylor was able to enjoy a whole half of rest against the Buffaloes, so he should be fresh and ready to go. His success, of course, is highly dependent on Hogan's accuracy and decision making in the passing game. The Beavers' box must be loosened up.
Oregon State counters with Storm Woods, a speedy back who will try to return from leg injury this week. If the Beavers' primary man is unavailable or ineffective, Terron Ward and Malcolm Agnew must handle the load.
Advantage: Stanford (significant -- Oregon State has injury and depth questions here)
Defensive Front Seven
The lean, deep, and mean Stanford defensive fortress has suffocated the run against a weak stretch of opponents. Given Oregon State's questionable running back situation, it may well have success again, but matters will be far more difficult than against Colorado. Regardless of opponent, however, the Cardinal's depth is simply staggering. Because of it, linebacker Jarek Lancaster said that he never plays a snap tired.
The Beavers are no slouches up front, especially with 346-pound tackle Castro Masaniai anchoring the nation's fifth-ranked run defense. As mentioned earlier, Crichton is a monster off the edge. His 1.1 sacks/game are good for second in the nation, and the Oregon State linebackers are big enough to keep Stanford honest out of the 4-3 scheme.
Advantage: Stanford (moderate -- the Beavers are good up front, but the Cardinal are the best and deepest in the nation here)
Oregon State has intercepted 14 passes on the season. Five have come from cornerback Jordan Poyer, expected to return from a strained PCL this week. Poyer and Rashaad Reynolds combine to form one of the NCAA's best cornerback duos, and their potential match-ups with Stanford giants Ertz and Toilolo intrigue.
For the Cardinal, Ed Reynolds' three interception returns for touchdowns have been the story as of late. He's one away from the NCAA record and two picks shy of the national lead. Vaz has only been intercepted once, but defensive trends suggest he may fall victim to some more aerial theft Saturday.
Advantage: Oregon State (moderate --Stanford's secondary has shown lapses, but will pose a good match)
Jordan Williamson (seven touchbacks) was phenomenal in altitude. Now, he must repair his field goal struggles in a big game. Oregon State's Trevor Romaine has booted a solid 10 of 12 kicks.
Advantage: Oregon State
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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