King’s Keys: 3 straight for Cardinal in Corvallis?

Dec. 10, 2020, 6:06 p.m.

In the immortal words of Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, “The night is darkest just before the dawn.” Entering Big Game two weeks ago, Stanford was stuck in a pretty dark night. The Cardinal had lost six straight games and were trying to recover the Axe after losing it the previous season for the first time in a decade. The national media casually conversed about a Stanford program spiraling towards mediocrity, or worse. 

After two straight victories including last week’s 31-26 road win over Washington, dawn may have finally arrived for Stanford (2-2, 2-2 Pac-12). Despite relocating to Seattle and practicing in random locations including a public park last week, the Cardinal put together their best performance of the season and perhaps their best performance in many seasons. The way Stanford ran the ball, controlled the clock and mauled Washington up front on both sides of the ball, it appears that the reports of Intellectual Brutality’s death were greatly exaggerated. 

Stanford stays on the road this week to face Oregon State, but at least they get to remain in the Pacific Northwest. The Beavers (2-3, 2-3 Pac-12) upset Oregon two weeks ago but lost to Utah last week without quarterback Tristan Gebbia or star running back Jermar Jefferson. While Gebbia is out for the season, Jefferson has been cleared to return on Saturday. 

Stanford needed a game-winning 39-yard field goal from fifth-year kicker Jet Toner to escape Oregon State with a 31-28 win last season. With cold and rainy conditions expected in Corvallis this Saturday, this year’s matchup could be similarly close. With a win, Stanford would at least make itself eligible for a bowl game by Pac-12 standards, though whether they would receive an invitation, or accept one for that matter, would not be guaranteed. Still, the Cardinal have proved over the past two weeks that they still reside near the top of the conference. Here are three keys to the revival of Intellectual Brutality: 

1) Bring balance to the Force offense

Stanford’s running game stole the headlines for its 191-yard, three touchdown performance on Saturday, but the Cardinal showed off fantastic offensive balance against a vaunted Washington defense. Senior quarterback Davis Mills threw for 252 yards and a touchdown at a season best rate of 8.4 yards per attempt. On Stanford’s epic 14-play, 79-yard drive spanning 7:54 to close out the game, sophomore running back Austin Jones racked up 39 yards on the ground while Mills threw for 40 more, including two critical third-and-long conversions. That is Thanos/Jedi-level balance. Stanford should strive to bring balance to the offense once again on Saturday. 

Oregon State has the second worst rush defense in the conference, giving up 5.2 yards per attempt on the ground. The Beavers’ pass defense is middle-of-the-pack in the Pac-12, but Mills had success through the air in last year’s game. Head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Tavita Pritchard did not do anything extraordinarily creative against Washington, but they certainly pushed the right offensive buttons, as Stanford scored on its first five drives. If they can find the same play-calling rhythm on Saturday, the Cardinal should find success in the passing and running games against an average Oregon State defense.

2) Get off the field! 

Not-so-fun fact: Stanford has the worst third down defense among all 127 FBS teams who have played in 2020. The Cardinal defense is surrendering conversions on 57.14% of third downs. Even in an improved defensive performance against Washington, the Huskies still converted six of ten third downs. Oregon State’s offense is nothing special, but they can still control the clock and put up enough points to win if Stanford cannot get its defense off the field. 

Stanford’s struggle to stop the run on first and second down has led to many third-and-shorts for its opponents and despite a resurgence from the defensive line in the past two games, the Cardinal are not strong enough up front to consistently shut down opposing run games in short yardage situations. Even when Stanford does force a third-and-long, the Cardinal secondary is allowing far too many open receivers in obvious passing downs. Pro Football Focus ranked Stanford’s secondary as the second-worst in the Pac-12 and 88th nationally. To improve on third down, the Cardinal need to improve in all phases of defense. But most importantly, Stanford simply needs to do whatever it takes to win more of those key third down moments.

3) Carry the momentum

In 2019, Stanford also beat a ranked Washington team 23-13 with a Ghost of Cardinal Past performance. Then-running back Cam Scarlett ran for a career-high 151 yards and Stanford turned in its best defensive performance of the season to snag an upset win that got the Cardinal back to .500. Sound familiar? After that win, Stanford lost to UCLA in the following game and finished 4-8. A jaded Nerd Nation would do well not to read too much into a surprise win where Stanford looks like the old Stanford. 

But if Stanford can avoid the letdown from last year and maintain its “road dog” mentality, the Cardinal can prove that last week’s win was no fluke. Stanford played with attitude against Washington, particularly along the lines. Oregon State cannot hang with the Cardinal if they bring that same attitude on Saturday. Stanford has a shot at three straight wins. Though that would not erase the pain of six straight losses, it would certainly bring the long-awaited dawn into brighter focus. 

Contact King Jemison at king ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

Contact King Jemison at kjemison 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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