Stanford reclaimed its identity as a tough, talented defensive team in its 20-12 victory over Oregon State on Oct. 26, which parlays nicely into its bye week heading into its Nov. 7 showdown with Oregon.
However, the re-emergence of the Cardinal defense as a dominant force the past two games was mitigated by coach David Shaw's announcement on Tuesday that standout defensive end Ben Gardner will miss the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle suffered in the second half against the Beavers.
Gardner, a second-team all-conference selection last season, has 7.5 tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks. He is a fifth-year senior, so his college career is over. His absence will be noticeable, especially against the Ducks.
Stanford must hope Henry Anderson, the other starting defensive end who missed the last six games with a leg injury, is able to return against the Ducks. He is questionable for that game.
"We've got time to dial down for a few days and then get it ramped up," Shaw said. "We're going to take Thursday and Friday off just to get our bodies refreshed."
The Cardinal is, first and foremost, a tough, smart defensive team that makes the plays needed to win close games. Stanford does not have the style or weapons on offense to put up a ton of points, which means blowouts are rare.
But Stanford makes the plays when they needed to be made. The Cardinal defense forced Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion into four straight incompletions after the Beavers had a first down at the Stanford 7-yard line in the closing seconds of the game. It gave Stanford its second win in three games decided by a touchdown or less this season, and the Cardinal is 10-3 in such games since the start of last season.
Oregon State had scored at least 33 points in every game this season before being limited to 12 by the Cardinal, which won despite scoring just 20 points.
"Their whole front seven is old and good," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said, "and they use their experience wisely. They not only played us well physically, but played a very smart game."
Stanford must live up to that low-scoring, defense-first identity when it faces the Ducks at Stanford. The Cardinal played that role perfectly last season when it beat Oregon 17-14 in overtime in Eugene, Ore.
Stanford has five extra days to come up with a defensive scheme to slow the Ducks' hurry-up attack that averages 55.6 points and has scored at least 42 points in every game this season. Ducks have scored at least 34 points in 34 straight games, with one notable exception - the loss to Stanford last year when it managed just 14 points in four quarters and an overtime period.
In the meantime, Stanford has time to contemplate its status as a national-title contender.
No. 5 in the BCS standings released Oct. 27, Stanford would improve its chances significantly by beating Oregon. Not only would it boost the Cardinal in the polls, but a win over the highly touted Ducks would improve Stanford's standing with the BCS computers.
To win that game, Stanford needs an efficient performance from quarterback Kevin Hogan, who has had subpar performances in three of the past four games. He passed for just 88 yards against Oregon State's mediocre pass defense.
STANFORD'S BYE WEEK GOALS: Besides devising a defensive game plan that can be as effective as the one used last year, Stanford must try to get healthy. DE Ben Gardner is out for the rest of the season, and the Cardinal was already thin at that position. DE Henry Anderson, who started the first two games, has not played since injuring his leg in the Sept. 14 game against Army. There's a chance he could return for the Oregon game. Both he and Gardner were second-team all-conference selections last year. Finally, WR Devon Cajuste sat out the Oregon State game with a knee injury, but he may return for the Ducks. His absence may have contributed to the Cardinal's problems in the passing game against Oregon State.
STANFORD PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Kevin Hogan is 12-1 as a starter, and he had a solid game against Oregon last year. However, he was just 8-for-18 for 88 yards against Oregon State on Oct. 26 and had subpar performances in three of the Cardinal's last four games.
--WR Ty Montgomery -- Montgomery has emerged as a big-play threat as a receiver and kick-returner, something Stanford has lacked in recent years. He leads the team in receptions and receiving yards and is second nationally in kickoff returns, averaging 32.5 yards.
--RB Tyler Gaffney - Gaffney is 17th nationally in rushing, averaging 110.8 yards per game. He had 171 and 145 rushing yards in the pivotal wins over UCLA and Oregon State, respectively. He has become the Cardinal's workhorse, especially in the fourth quarter when Stanford gets ahead.
--OLB Trent Murphy - Murphy is the team's big-play defender. He has 13.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, an interception, three blocked passes and one blocked kick. He is capable of turning the game around with one play. He becomes a bigger factor with DE Ben Gardner out for the rest of the season.
QUOTE: "I'm already done thinking about Oregon State and the effort. It wasn't good enough to beat Oregon or good enough to be in the game against Oregon." - Stanford coach David Shaw, after the 20-12 victory over Oregon State.
ASSESSING THE STANFORD OFFENSE: The Cardinal relies on its power running game to control the game's tempo and set up play-action passing. Tyler Gaffney has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the last three games, and gained 171 yards and 145 yards against the Cardinals two most recent foes, UCLA and Oregon State. Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan is completing 61.0 percent of his passes, which is down considerably from his 71.7 completion rate of last season. Some of that lower percentage is the result of more deep throws this season. Last season, tight ends were the focus of the passing game; this season it's the wide receivers, with Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste being the primary targets. Cajuste missed the Oregon State game with a knee injury. Hogan has been mediocre in three of the past four games, including an 8-for-18 game against Oregon State when he passed for just 88 yards.
ASSESSING THE STANFORD DEFENSE: Stanford's defense was not as effective as expected in the first six games, but regained its dominance the past two games against UCLA and Oregon State, both of whom had productive quarterbacks (UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon State's Sean Mannion) who were neutralized by the Cardinal. The Cardinal had 12 sacks in those two games combined, and a pass rush is Stanford best weapon against the pass. Stanford is solid at three of the four secondary positions, the lone weakness being the cornerback spot opposite Alex Carter. UCLA and Oregon State averaged 2.7 and 0.7 yards per rushing attempt, respectively, as the Cardinal front seven is beginning to dominate against the run as if did last year. The loss of DE Ben Gardner for the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle is a major loss.
ASSESSING THE STANFORD SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Jordan Williamson is 9-for-12 on field goal attempts, but he missed the past two games with a leg injury. It's unclear whether he will be available for the Oregon game. His replacement, Conrad Ukropina, made a 31-yarder against UCLA and missed a 46-yarder. He had no attempts against Oregon State and is clearly not as good as Williamson at this point. Ty Montgomery has proven to be an outstanding kick returner, averaging 32.5 yards a return, second in the country. He returned a kick 99 yards for a touchdown against Washington and returned one 100 yards for a score against Utah. Ben Rhyne averages 41.4 yards per punt with minimal returns.
--WR Devon Cajuste missed the Oregon State game with a knee injury and is questionable for the Oregon game.
--DE Ben Gardner, a fifth-year senior, is out for the rest of the season with a torn pectoral muscle suffered against Oregon State. A second-team all-conference selection last year and a team captain this year, Gardner had 7.5 tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks, this season.
--DE Henry Anderson missed the past six games with a leg injury, but he might be able to return for the Oregon game.
--PK Jordan Williamson missed the past two games with a leg injury and is questionable for the Oregon game.
--OLB Trent Murphy was named the Pac-12 defensive player of the week after getting 3.5 tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks, against Oregon State. He also knocked down a pass and blocked an extra-point attempt in that game. Murphy was named one of 16 finalists for the Bednarik Award, which goes to the nation's top defensive player.
--ILB Shayne Skov was named one of 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker.