Cardinal survive missed opportunities

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- No. 4 Stanford – what a conundrum.

The Cardinal are a team capable of such excellence. Yet at times, they have inexplicable spells of mediocrity.

Stanford showed both of its sides in a 38-13, water-logged win over Oregon State. There were brilliant runs, pinpoint passes and athleticism that at times looks without equal in the Pac-12 – maybe the country. Then there were drops, missed tackles, penalties, missed assignments, blown coverages, bad reads, bad throws.

Stanford is a team that prides itself on getting better each week. Not this week.

“I don’t know that we got better,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw. “I think we played better in the second half than the first. I’m trying not to draw lines. But at the same time, we didn’t make enough plays in the first half.

“…We have to take advantage of our opportunities. That will be the thing that hopefully we can look from this week to next week is that we make the plays when they are there for us to make – which we had done most of the time before this game. We didn’t make them today. Forget about the rain, forget about the cold. That doesn’t matter. If that ball goes up, it’s supposed to be ours.”

If you’re looking for a theme to Stanford’s road schedule, that’s it – offensive inefficiency in the first 30 minutes. The Cardinal again struggled out of the gate, failing to score in the opening quarter for the first time this season. Their initial drive fizzled and then quarterback Andrew Luck threw his fifth interception of the season on the second drive.

"I forced a ball in there," Luck said. "The guy made a good play. That one was all on me."

Or, you could take the glass-half-full approach and say that despite the poor offensive showing in the first half, the Cardinal were able to pull it together in the second half behind two touchdowns from Luck, the running game and a solid pass rush that eventually sank the Oregon State offense. And they were 10-of-15 on third down conversions and 5-for-5 in the red zone, making them 52-of-52 on the year.

“We’re not satisfied by any means,” said Luck, who finished 20-of-30 for 206 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. “We left a lot of plays out there. Credit to Oregon State. They played tough. Good football team. Tough atmosphere to play in. But we were itching to get back out there and start playing again because we were a little disappointed in ourselves.”

Luck looked far from polished in the first half, completing 11 of 19 throws for just 76 yards. It didn’t help that his receivers left points on the field.

“The game was close early because we dropped two touchdown passes,” Shaw said. “Flat out had them in our hands and we didn’t catch them … You have to make those plays. Looking forward, in order to beat a team like Oregon, you can’t miss opportunities.”

But in the absence of the passing game, the rushing attack was fairly steady on the cold and rainy afternoon.

“I call this fat-guy weather,” joked offensive tackle Jonathan Martin. “Nobody gets tired or hot in this weather. We knew we had to get the run game going so it was a good challenge. We got frustrated in the first half at a couple of points. But we knew if we started executing the way we’re supposed to that we’d eventually start moving and get things going.”

The Cardinal rushed for 300 yards as a team, paced by Stepfan Taylor’s 95 yards on 13 carries. Tyler Gaffney added 56 and a touchdown followed by Jeremy Stewart’s 47 yards and a touchdown.

The victory was overshadowed by the loss of wide receiver Chris Owusu, who suffered a concussion in the second quarter and was taken off the field in an ambulance. He was taken to an area hospital for observations, but joined the team in the locker room after the game. It’s at least the third concussion for Owusu in the last 13 months.

“I personally was fighting back tears,” said Shaw. “Just to see Chris lying on the ground again. The good thing is he was conscious, he was fine, they had already made the decision to put him on the stretcher so they had to take him. He’s already back in the locker room and he’s fine. He’s excited to be back and we’ll talk about whether or not he’ll play anytime soon at a later date.”

This was the third time this season Owusu has left a game because of a big hit. He suffered a concussion against Washington State; last week he took a big hit against USC, though Shaw said that was not a concussion.

In the second half, the Cardinal looked far more efficient. Luck completed 9 of 11 throws, including touchdown passes to Taylor and Coby Fleener. The defense sacked OSU quarterback Sean Mannion on consecutive plays that led to a fumble.

“Every single road game, you can credit our defense,” Shaw said. “Every single road game we’ve started slow on offense and every single road game our defense has kept us in the game. That’s the way that it’s been all year. Ben Gardner makes the effort plays. He was blocked. He just didn’t stay blocked. Chase Thomas, outstanding pressure tonight. Trent Murphy came off the edge for a huge sack.

“…The pressure was great. But the pressure is only great if the coverage holds up. And the coverage held up a few times just long enough for us to get to the QB. Those defensive guys got us back in the game and then offensively we started moving the ball, running and throwing, and getting back to our style of football.”