Oregon State returned the Reser Stadium for the first time in four weeks, but dropped a hard-fought 20-12 decision to Stanford, a team that has been ranked in the Top 10 all season. Here are five things we learned:
1. Without a downfield passing game, the Beavers struggle to generate points: Stanford's formula for success defending teams preferring to throw the football is two-fold: an aggressive pass rush together with a conservative, 'keep everything in front of you' approach in the secondary. What the Cardinal rely on is their relentless pass rush forcing the opposing quarterback into making quick throws and not giving him sufficient time in the pocket to throw deep. As a result, Stanford usually relinquishes a lot of short passes but nothing deep (they are eighth in the Pac-12 in passing defense, but opposing quarterbacks are averaging just 5.7 yards per completion against them, the second lowest figure in the conference). It's a classic bend, but don't break philosophy. The tactics worked perfectly (eight sacks, almost doubling OSU's season sacks against total) against an Oregon State offense that looks to get the ball deep to Brandin Cooks and other fast wide receivers.
Coming into the game, Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion was averaging 13.07 yards per completion and 8.96 yards per attempt (the best indicator of production in the passing game). In the previous game at Cal, Mannion registered a season-high 10.69 yards per attempt (YPA). Just once in the first seven games did his YPA slip below 7.95 (6.67 at San Diego State).
Mannion threw a season high 57 passes on Saturday night, connecting on 41 for an impressive completion percentage of 71.9 percent. But he finished with a season-low 271 passing yards. His 4.75 YPA was by far his lowest of the season. His longest pass completion was 20 yards. In each of the first seven games, he had completed at least one pass of 45 yards or more. On OSU's lone TD drive of the night, Mannion was 8-for-8 passing for 46 yards. But only one completion gained more than 10 yards. Four completions went for five yards or less.
2. The only statistic that counts is the final score: The difference in time of possession between the two teams was staggering. Oregon State held the ball for 38:33 compared to 21:27 for Stanford, ran 30 more plays (81-51) than the Cardinal, generated 10 more first downs (23-13) and enjoyed a significant advantage on third down conversion (35.3 percent-22.2 percent).
However, two statistics nullified the advantage the Beavers enjoyed in the aforementioned categories - OSU was 1-for-5 on fourth downs and averaged 1.8 yards less per play than Stanford. As a result, the Cardinal finished with just 15 fewer yards of total offense.
When Mike Riley bemoaned the squandered opportunities throughout the game, he wasn't kidding. Nine different possessions the Beavers drove into Stanford territory, but they scored points on only three of those drives. Four times they were denied on fourth down, twice in the red zone.
Officially, Oregon State was 2-of-5 in the red zone, while Stanford was 2-of-3, another key distinction. Beyond the final drive that fell seven yards short, their second possession of the game exemplified the Beavers' frustrations on Saturday night - they drove to the STAN 16 before a sack (loss of 6 yards), pass completion (loss of four yards) and another sack (loss of 11 yards) pushed the Beavers out of field goal range and they punted from the STAN 37. Minutes later, OSU's next possession began at the STAN 39, but the Beavers marshaled only a field goal after driving as far as the 26-yard line. Yet another missed opportunity.
3. Turnovers at inopportune times will kill you: Oregon State actually won the turnover battle by one (2-1) on Saturday night, forcing two turnovers by Stanford via fumbles in the first and fourth quarters. Hence, the Beavers improved their turnover margin to plus-11 (21 takeaways, 10 giveaways) after eight games. But here's a critical distinction: OSU converted the two Stanford miscues into three points (Trevor Romaine's 39-yard FG with 3:00 left), while Stanford quickly converted the Beaver turnover into seven points. The score marked just the second time this season the Oregon State defense had allowed a touchdown following a OSU turnover.
In any close, hard fought game, whichever team does a better job taking advantage of turnovers usually wins, and that proved accurate again in Corvalllis. In many ways, Victor Bolden's fumble at the OSU 12-yard line on the second half kickoff was the biggest play of the game. Stanford needed just two plays to score a touchdown on a 9-yard run by Tyler Gaffney. Turnovers are bad enough, but ones that give the opposing team immediate possession in the red zone are killers.
4. The metamorphosis of the Beavers defense since the season opener continues: Sure, Oregon State allowed a season-high 185 rushing yards to Stanford - Tyler Gaffney alone had 145 yards on 22 carries - but for the most part the Beavers defense played a great game. Stanford mustered 273 offensive yards, with 25.3 percent of that figure (69 yards) coming on two huge plays - the 37-yard completion to Ty Montgomery in the final minute of the first half that set up the touchdown with seven seconds left and Gaffney's 32-yard TD scamper in the fourth quarter. Essentially, two big offensive plays by Stanford and Bolden's costly fumble got the Beavers beat.
Since conceding 539 yards to Utah in the Week 3 overtime victory, Oregon State has allowed an average of 329.4 yards per game. The highest number of yards given up during that stretch is 383 yards, meaning the last five opponents have all fallen short of the 400-yard plateau. The solid defense has catapulted the Beavers up the national NCAA rankings. OSU has jumped from No. 105 to No. 47 in total defense since the aftermath of the Utah game. They moved up 15 spots since last week as a result of holding an opponent under 300 yards for the second time this season. Stanford's 88 passing yards were the fewest allowed by the Beavers since October 29, 2011 when they held Utah to 62 yards through the air.
5. The Beavers are a pretty good football team: After beating up on Colorado, Washington State and California, Oregon State found out what 'Big Boy' football is all about. At the same time, we discovered the Beavers are able to hang tough with one of the top teams in the nation (remember, they were throwing into the end zone in the waning seconds in an attempt to even the score and force overtime) and should gain confidence from the ordeal, even though it ended with a hard-fought setback.
Moral victories are nonexistent in major college football because head coaches, Riley included, are paid seven-figure salaries to win games, not lose close games to conference foes. Bowl officials, pollsters and TV executives don't care about close losses. They want to see wins.
Quoting Mike Riley, fans can lament the "ton of missed opportunities where (OSU) could have put some more points on the board" and move on. The USC defense coming to Corvallis on Friday night is perhaps just as physically talented and sturdy as Stanford's defense. Statistically, they're even better because the Trojans are allowing almost 37 fewer total yards and 38.2 fewer passing yards per game than the Cardinal, as well as surrendering less than 20 points per game. So, USC's defense will provide the Oregon State offense with another rugged test.