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October 24, 2013

First Look: Stanford

Much is riding on Stanford's biannual trip to the Willamette Valley.

With the Cardinal debuting at No. 6 in the first edition of the BCS standings (the highest debut in program history), national and conference championship repercussions saturate Saturday's prime time clash between Stanford and Oregon State at Reser Stadium (7:30 p.m. PT, ESPN).

Two weeks after a stunning 27-21 setback at Utah ended Stanford's 13-game winning streak, the Cardinal realize another conference loss would shatter their dreams of a Pac-12 championship and reaching the Rose Bowl for a second straight season.

Certainly, ouster from the divisional race would be a bitter blow for a program that has won 41 of 47 games since the beginning of the 2010 season.

Stanford's overwhelming degree of success over the past four seasons has come with scarce flash and dash. The Cardinal operate a pro-style offense striving for balance between the run and pass.

So far this season, they've achieved symmetry with an average of 198 yards rushing and 208.3 yards passing per contest - although the play-calling slants towards the run (63.1 percent). Power, strength and discipline are important buzzwords in Stanford's offensive jargon.

In a lavish college football world where sushi-style spread offenses are multiplying at a rapid rate, the Cardinal are strictly meat and potatoes, yet find a way to keep dynamic and innovative with their schemes.

Stopping the run should be the Beavers' top priority because Stanford is 27-1 under Shaw when outrushing their opponent and 15-3 when the Cardinal produces a 100-yard rusher.

Stanford's talented offensive line - which features three Outland Trophy candidates among the starting unit - has been so effective keeping opposing defensive players out of the backfield that: 1) Cardinal running back Tyler Gaffney (741 yards) actually has more rushing touchdowns (9) than yards lost (5) this season and 2) Stanford leads the nation in fewest tackles for loss allowed per game (3.0).

"If we can stay on the clock and run the ball with efficiency, we have a chance to do what we want to do, which is run the ball between the tackles," Shaw said.

Gaffney posted a career-high 171 yards rushing on 36 carries in last Saturday's 24-10 victory over UCLA in Palo Alto, Calif. that kept Stanford within one-half game behind Oregon State (6-1 overall, 4-0 in Pac-12) and Oregon (7-0 overall, 4-0 in Pac-12) in the Pac-12 North standings.

"We're in the thick of the season right now. Conference games back to back to back to back to back, and everybody's tough, everybody's hard," Stanford head coach David Shaw said after the UCLA game. "Our guys know the road that we're on right now. Then we get ready to play a tough Oregon State team."

Gaffney, who has four 100-yard rushing performances in 2013, was upstaged in the UCLA win by wide receiver Kodi Whitfield when the sophomore made a spectacular one-handed grab in the end zone for his first career touchdown reception in the third quarter. The dazzling play topped ESPN's daily 'Top 10' segment.

"It was just a phenomenal play. God bless Kodi," Shaw said. "Every time we've given him an opportunity, he's made a play. Kevin Hogan feels so comfortable with Kodi, he was going to give him a chance to make a play and Kodi made one heck of a play."

A year ago, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan made his first career start against the Beavers in Palo Alto, and he is currently 11-1 as the starter for the Cardinal. He completed 18-of-25 passes for 227 yards and one touchdown in last weekend's win over UCLA, improving his season statistics to 100-for-159 passing (62.9 percent) for 1,405 yards and 13 touchdowns.

"I thought it was really solid." Shaw said assessing Hogan's performance. "We did a nice little no-huddle which he orchestrated outstandingly. I thought he played smart, conservative."

Hogan had been the lone quarterback in the country to lead his team to 10 straight wins in as many career starts prior to the loss at Utah. Right now, Hogan's career completion percentage (.672) ranks first in Stanford history ahead of Andrew Luck (.670) in second place, evidence the 6-foot-4 junior is developing nicely into an elite signal caller and giving Stanford a more complete attack.

Regardless of the production shown by Gaffney, Hogan and others, Stanford's biggest offensive threat on the field Saturday in Corvallis on Saturday night could be wide receiver and special teams stalwart Ty Montgomery, who leads the Cardinals with 36 receptions for 564 yards (15.7 yards per catch) and five touchdowns.

Kickoff returns, though, have been Montgomery's calling card. Heading into Week 9, he is the nation's leader in kickoff returns with an average of 35.2 yards per return and two kickoff returns for touchdowns.

Warning to placekickers: boot the ball to Montgomery at your own peril.

His exploits craft an intriguing quarterback-receiver battle between Stanford and Oregon State with the duo of Hogan-Montgomery battling the nation's top tandem of Sean Mannion-Brandin Cooks for gridiron supremacy.

"They have been extremely aggressive offensively," Shaw said this week about the Beavers. "That's what you get when you have big-time threat like Cooks on the outside and a quarterback that can get him the ball. You see play-action passes, you see them attacking defenses down the field and you have to try to defend that. On top of that, they have a great screen game and really good running backs that can run draws and traps with a lot of misdirection. They make you defend a lot."

Mannion played just a few snaps in last year's 27-21 loss at Stanford in which the Beavers won the turnover battle by three (1-4), but converted the quartet of Cardinal miscues into just three points. Mannion, though, played against Stanford in 2011 as a redshirt freshman.

In two years, Mannion has developed into the nation's top passing quarterback and Shaw appreciates the growth he has scouted on video.

"You see a quarterback who is so much more composed," Shaw said. "He knows what he's doing and where he's going (with the football). He threw the ball into a lot of tight coverages last year. This year, you don't see that. You see the ball well-placed. We've always known how talented he was. You don't see any bad passes. You see accuracy and intelligence and a quarterback that is composed and looking like he'll be a good one at the next level as well."


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