|Stanford can't afford bump in road at Oregon State|
No. 20 Stanford rebounded from an uncharacteristic sub-.500 start to the season to head into its bye week in familiar territory: leading the race for the Pac-12 North division title.
The Cardinal (5-2, 4-1 Pac-12) return to league competition with a clear path to the Pac-12 championship game -- win out, and they are bound for Santa Clara, Calif. Easier said than done, considering Stanford plays fellow Top 20 division counterparts Washington and Washington State.
The Cardinal kick off their final stretch Thursday on the road against a sputtering Oregon State team in Corvallis, Ore., just two weeks after the surprise resignation of Beavers coach Gary Andersen.
Andersen stepped down on Oct. 9 after the Beavers (1-6, 0-5) dropped five of their first six games by an average of 31.4 points. Interim Cory Hall's first game was Oregon State's most competitive since beating Portland State by three points on Sept. 2, but the Beavers fell to Colorado 36-33 on Saturday.
"When you look at the stride that was made ... the direction we're headed in, we can run the ball, we can be physical and we can play as a team," Hall said following the Colorado loss. "This team is getting better, and it will continue to do that."
Oregon State needs to be considerably better, especially defending the run, to score its first win over Stanford in eight years. The Beavers have allowed 200.1 rushing yards per game and 18 touchdowns on the ground heading into a Thursday matchup with the nation's leading ball-carrier.
Stanford running back Bryce Love is averaging 198.1 rushing yards per game with a staggering 10.3-yard average per carry through the Cardinal's first seven games, moving into the forefront of the Heisman Trophy conversation in the process.
Love has excelled in breaking free for long gains. His nine runs of 50 yards or more are more than any player in an entire season since Melvin Gordon's 10 such rushes in 2014 for Wisconsin.
"If we give this running back a crease or two, he can do something special," Stanford coach David Shaw said.
Opening up such creases is the result of improved offensive line play for the Cardinal. Love has been explosive from the first game Aug. 26 in Australia vs. Rice, but struggles in the passing game -- particularly in early-season losses to USC and San Diego State -- made maintaining the rushing attack beyond long runs difficult.
Shaw said defenses responded to Love's initial performances by loading the box with eight and nine defenders. The Stanford front five responded.
"It's been the catalyst, the biggest thing for our complete success in the last few weeks," Shaw said. "Not just Bryce's, but being able to protect the passer (and) the give Bryce opportunities and getting him to the second level, and handling all the different looks we've gotten up front."
Quarterback Keller Chryst is coming off his best performance since the rout of overmatched Rice in the season opener. Chryst threw for season highs of 15 completions on 21 attempts with three touchdowns on Oct. 14 in a 49-7 win over Oregon.
"They were fantastic," Chryst said of the Stanford offensive line after the game. "I think I only got hit once, and it was a roughing the passer that they called. So I was kept fairly clean, and they did a great job."
Chryst said the Cardinal cannot "get too reliant" on Love breaking off long runs to buoy the offense. The continued evolution of Stanford's passing game ensures it need not lean too much on the star running back, while at the same time giving Love more opportunities to do exactly that.
Rushing proved difficult for Oregon State through its first six games. The Beavers are averaging 48 yards per game fewer as a team than Love is posting individually.
However, 2016 breakout performer Ryan Nall got rolling with 172 yards and three touchdowns against Colorado, both season highs.
"We're playing good ball right now. We've just got to fine tune some things right now," Nall said following the game.
Stanford's run defense, typically a strength, is struggling this season. The Cardinal rank No. 98 nationally with 195.4 yards per game allowed. That dynamic of both establishing and stopping the run will shape the contest Thursday at Reser Stadium.
For Stanford, doing so is the necessary first step toward winning a fourth Pac-12 championship since 2012.