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Beavers’ defense wilts in loss

STANFORD, California — Ryan Murphy somberly stared forward as he rehashed the play he wished he could do over, one that perfectly captured the type of day it was for Oregon State’s defense against Stanford.

Cardinal freshman Christian McCaffrey came out of the backfield and got free in the middle of the field for a Kevin Hogan strike. Then he spun off Murphy’s tackle attempt and jetted to the end zone for Stanford’s first score.

“I missed a tackle,” Murphy said. “That kind of ignited their team and got them going.”

Beavers coach Mike Riley characterized Saturday afternoon’s 38-14 loss at Stanford Stadium as “one of the worst days of football that we’ve had in a long, long time,” pointing to poor play in all three phases of the game. Realistically, continued offensive struggles against one of the nation’s best defenses was expected for the Beavers.

What was not expected, however, was the way a highly regarded OSU defense wilted against an offense that had also sputtered so far in 2014, which heavily contributed to an early deficit the Beavers could never overcome.

“They wanted it more,” Murphy said. “It’s pure, point-blank. It’s nothing more. Y’all saw the game. They just wanted it more.”

OSU’s defense entered Saturday as the bright spot of the first half of the season, boasting a veteran-laden unit that ranked second in the Pac-12 in total defense and fourth in the nation in pass-efficiency defense. And Saturday looked like a prime opportunity to elevate those stats even more, as Stanford ranked last in the Pac-12 in total and scoring offense and near the bottom in the nation in red zone proficiency.

Instead, the Beavers missed tackles and took bad angles. They left gobs of open space for receivers to snag the ball without much resistance and pick up extra yards after the catch. The result was a barrage of explosive plays, as three of the Cardinal’s four offensive touchdowns amassed at least 37 yards while the fourth scoring drive included a 32-yard pass.

All told, the Cardinal’s yardage (438) and point totals — particularly the 330 yards and 28 points in the first half — were a significant increase for a squad that entered Saturday averaging 375 yards and 24 points per game.

Tackling issues had occasionally popped up during OSU’s first six games. Allowing a big play now and then is expected. But not at this rate.

OSU’s defense did intercept Hogan twice, including one pick by Michael Doctor deep in Cardinal territory that set up the Beavers’ only meaningful touchdown. And by the time it strung together traditional stops — forcing the Cardinal to punt on four of its final five possessions — the game was already in hand.

“I was surprised by the fact that we missed tackles,” Riley said. “We let what would be relatively (a routine play), just run a curl route and catch the ball and tackle them, we let those be big plays. I can’t think of anything that was very good today ...

“They won all the 1-on-1 matchups, it seemed like. They made the plays. They blocked up the blitzes and then the quarterback made the plays and the guys made the catches. I thought they executed on all that well.”

Stanford coach David Shaw talked earlier this week about putting it on himself and the rest of the offensive coaches to revamp the Cardinal attack.

That did not mean installing a bevy of new plays — in fact, the offense was simplified. Instead, Stanford opened with a hurry-up, no-huddle pace, letting Hogan call some plays at the line. They ran a mixture of run and pass plays. And Hogan rebounded nicely from his two early mistakes, finishing 18-of-28 for 277 yards and two touchdowns while adding a 37-yard rushing score on the read-option that was the longest run of his career.

“I think for the first time offensively, it felt like us,” Shaw said. “It felt like what we wanted to have ... The thing honestly was, point blank, what we had been doing wasn’t good enough. We’ll never completely scrap who we are and what we’ve done ...

“We tried to make sure that we went through the extra effort as coaches to make the game as simple for our guys and as fun for our guys. You saw guys out there going out there making plays and running fast and running hard and not be bogged down with a bunch of other stuff.”

Doctor assured that the Beavers were not caught off-guard by the Cardinal’s tweaked scheme. They saw glimpses of that on tape. They practiced against it during the week and felt prepared when they stepped inside Stanford Stadium. They just did not execute.

Hence the somber faces and “disappointed” mood and terse answers minutes following the lopsided defeat. Even when tossed a softball question on if the defense could take anything positive away from the performance, Doctor replied, “nothing at all.”

Added Murphy: “We lost. Didn’t come to play. It’s as simple as that. The only thing you can do is put this one past us.”

Heading into the second half of the season, it was clear the OSU offense still needed a lot of fixing.

Following Saturday’s string of breakdowns — and with a trio of high-powered offenses in California, Washington State and Arizona State visiting Reser Stadium in the next three weeks — it now looks like the defense does, too.

It starts with tackling. And Murphy stresses improving that basic defensive fundamental goes beyond physical technique.

“Any time you tackle somebody, it’s a will,” Murphy said. “We can do all the tackling drills in America, but at the end of the day it’s, ‘I want to bring this guy down.’”