With just a few hours left until kickoff of one of the Pac-12's biggest games of the year, it's time to look at a few relevant numbers and how I believe they will factor into today's clash between Stanford and Oregon State. Spoiler: they help the home team.
Stanford leads the nation in rush defense, allowing an average of just 57 yards per game on the ground.
The Cardinal has had an extremely stingy defense against the run, and most people expect that to continue against the Beavers. The argument most OSU supporters will use is that Oregon State won't need to run because it can pass so well. However, consider this: Oregon State has not won a road game with fewer than 75 yards on the ground since 2004. Even for the pass-happy Beavers, some running success is required.
Oregon State struggles mightily in the run game, ranking 105th nationally with 114 rushing yards per game.
The Beavers have gotten where they are (7-1 record, No. 11 ranking) without much of anything in the running game. Oregon State has had just one 100-yard rusher, and that came against the abysmal Arizona defense. This would seem to support the notion that the Beavers can attack Stanford without running the ball much. However, the Cardinal is not a team that loses to one-dimensional attacks very often. Stanford has not lost a home game while allowing 114 rushing yards or fewer since Walt Harris's first year on the Farm, when a guy named Maurice Drew (before he added the Jones) and UCLA stunned Stanford. Thankfully, a lot has changed since then.
The Stanford run defense has gotten even better of late, with three of the 10 best performances in team history the past three weeks.
Stanford has allowed 3, -18, and -21 yards rushing the past three weeks. Yes, that's right, while reading this article you have accounted for 36 more rushing yards than the Cardinal's last three opponents managed against this talented defense.
Stanford leads the nation in sacks, and has gotten better as the season has worn on.
A big part of Stanford's defensive stats against the run is the contribution of sacks to that total. The Cardinal leads the nation in sacks and tackles for loss, in large part because Stanford has ramped things up against its past two opponents. The Cardinal registered 10 sacks against Washington State and seven against Colorado. For some perspective, that two-game total of 17 is larger than 50 of the 120 full-FBS members have all season. Combine that with an Oregon State team that ranks 87th nationally in allowing sacks and just surrendered six sacks at home last week to Arizona State, and it could be a rough day for the Beaver offensive line.
Stanford has allowed just nine passing touchdowns in nine games.
Even in the pass-happy Pac-12, the Stanford defense has held up very well through the air. The yardage numbers are poor (268 passing yards per game, 104th in the nation), but the Cardinal has kept its opponents out of the end zone, which is all that really counts. In fact, opposing quarterbacks have thrown nine touchdowns to their own team and have given up five to Stanford (four pick-sixes, strip-sack touchdown). Overall, the Cardinal defense has allowed more than 17 points in regulation just once all season, meaning that the pressure will really be on Oregon State's defense to keep its team in the game.
Oregon State's defense has been stout, but its numbers away from home are only average.
The Beaver defense has been the leading factor in OSU's huge turnaround from last year's 3-9 team to this year's 7-1. Nationally, Oregon State ranks fifth in run defense, 17th in pass efficiency defense, 19th in scoring defense, and 30th in total defense. Away from Corvallis, OSU has had some big wins, but the defensive performance isn't nearly as formidable. The Beavers have given up at least 20 points in every road game and have given up over twice as many points in their four road games (99) as in their four home games (46). Oregon State has also given up 417 yards per game on the road compared to 261 per game at home. Some of that is due to better competition, but it isn't as though the competition level is any easier at Stanford.
Stepfan Taylor is rested, which is dangerous for opposing defenses.
Last week, Taylor carried the ball just 10 times, a season low. It was just the second time this year he has carried the ball fewer than 20 times. The first time, week two against Duke, preceded his best game of the year, a 213-yard day against USC in which he had a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown. Over the past two years, Taylor has had eight instances in which his number of carries had a notable increase, including five times he went from below 20 carries to over 20 carries. Each time, Taylor rushed for at least 99 yards the next week. Since becoming the starter in 2010, Taylor has also averaged 124 rushing yards per game following bye weeks and in bowl games. The Colorado game may have acted as a de facto bye for him, which means he could be particularly dangerous today.
Stanford has won 18 of its past 19 home games.
People try to lessen Stanford's home-field advantage, but the fact is, the Cardinal does not lose at home very often. Stanford's only loss in its past 19 home games came at the hands of Oregon last year. In total, this year's senior class has gone 23-2 at home, and you can bet that bunch does not want to finish off its home career with a loss.
My key to the game: Everyone will be focused on how the two semi-backup quarterbacks play, and this will definitely be important. However, I am going to be paying attention to the trenches on both sides. Neither team has enough of a skill advantage to overcome getting beaten on both lines of scrimmage, so it will come down in large part to who can control each line of scrimmage.
When Stanford has the ball: Stanford needs to protect Kevin Hogan long enough to make the right decisions and open up running lanes for Stepfan Taylor. The Stanford offensive line has been improving throughout the season, and as long as Hogan keeps accurately checking down when needed, the Cardinal offense should have decent success against the Beavers' front seven. Scott Crichton (top 10 nationally in sacks and tackles for loss) is the guy to watch out for on the OSU side, so look for Stanford to double-team him and allow Hogan and Taylor to work on the side opposite him.
When Oregon State has the ball: Oregon State's main task will be to keep Cody Vaz upright. The Beaver line has been shaky in both run-blocking and pass protection, and it will be up against its toughest test. If OSU can open up any kind of running lanes, it would be a huge step in opening up the passing game. When given time, Vaz can be lethal, particularly with his outstanding wideout tandem of Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks. Therefore, the Stanford front seven would do well to bring pressure all day against Vaz and not try to rush only three and play coverage. This has not worked all season and will most definitely not work against Wheaton and Cooks.
Prediction: Ultimately, I think this game comes down to big plays. Oregon State will look to get the ball to Wheaton and Cooks quickly, meaning Stanford will need to tackle well and avoid big plays. Thanks to the Stanford pressure, it's hard to sustain a long drive against the Cardinal defense, which has come up with plenty of big plays of its own (five touchdowns in nine games, including three by Ed Reynolds). On the flipside, Stanford can move the ball methodically, so it will be up to Hogan to make the right reads and not force the ball toward Jordan Poyer (five interceptions) and this opportunistic OSU defense. I think Stanford will win as long as the big plays are at least even between the two teams, so I'm picking the Cardinal to win 24-13.