For once, it seems, the ball bounced Stanford's way.
Taylor Skaufel's hit of an Oregon State receiver inside the 5-yard line forced a fumble and a fortunate tumble of the ball to preserve a 36-28 victory in a season-opening football game at Stanford Stadium on Thursday night.
With Oregon State's driving for possible tying touchdown, receiver Darrell Catchings leaped and stretched the ball toward the goal-line, but was hit in mid-air and the ball bounced out of the end zone for a Stanford touchback with 47 seconds left.
"Skaufel packs a punch," Stanford safety Bo McNally said. "I don't know if he feels much pain, because he throws his body around like it's nothing. He's a great hitter and he showed it on that play."
For Stanford, the victory was its first in a Pacific-10 Conference opener since 2001 and provided encouraging signs that the program, under second-year coach Jim Harbaugh, is indeed back on the upswing.
"This is the kind of win that can pull a team together," Harbaugh said. "They're feeling it, believing it and trusting each other and their coaches."
Some of the encouraging signs included a dynamic rushing attack, led by a collegiate career-best performance from running back Toby Gerhart.
Gerhart, a sophomore who missed all but one game last season because of a knee injury, rushed for 147 yards on 19 carries and scored two touchdowns. In all, Stanford rushers combined for 210 yards in 48 carries. In a 23-6 loss at Oregon State last year, the Cardinal was held to minus-8.
Gerhart helped ignite a second-half Stanford surge to allow the Cardinal to take command in a game that featured three lead changes and three ties in the first three quarters.
"Everybody's always making back-handed comments about our rushing attack," Gerhart said. "I think we're going to come out this year and prove that we can run the ball. I think we did that pretty well tonight.
"And for me personally, I want to pick up where I left off last year."
In his last game, Gerhart had a 140-yard effort against San Jose State, but was injured in the same 2007 season-opener.
Thursday's game was the most prolific for the offense since that 37-0 victory. That it came against a conference opponent made it even more important to the Cardinal.
"With Toby and AK (Anthony Kimble), it's big to get that running game going," said Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard, who completed 10 of 17 passes for 91 yards, one touchdown and had no interceptions. "Getting teams thinking about that, and getting guys in the box really allows us to open it up and throw the ball around."
Trailing 20-17, Stanford erupted for 12 points in under four minutes, taking the lead for good on a safety with 3:07 left in the third quarter.
All told, Stanford scored 19 unanswered points bridging the third and fourth quarters, and shut out Oregon State over a crucial 19-minute stretch.
"It's a point generating conference," Pritchard said. "We're going to have to score points to win games. And were going to have to do it consistently."
The following is a quarter-by-quarter rundown:
Before it began, most of the 30,223 fans immediately sought refuge from the heat. As they say in the West, it was "a dry heat," but scorching nonetheless - 87 degrees at kickoff, down from a high of 100 on the Stanford campus earlier Thursday. It was the hottest Stanford home game since Sept. 4, 2004, when it was 90 at kickoff for its home opener against San Jose State.
Once Stanford fans began to think about football, their thoughts likely wandered to the Stanford quarterback situation. Pritchard, the hero of last season's upset of USC, won the starting job in a competitive fall camp.
However, it didn't take long for backup quarterback Alex Loukas to get involved. On the game's opening series, Loukas entered the game as a slot receiver, went in motion and caught a short pass.
The 3-yard gain wasn't enough to sustain a drive that included three runs for 18 yards by Kimble. However, the initial movement, combined with a 51-yard punt into the end zone helped Stanford in the field-position battle.
That appeared to be significant. After Oregon State was held without a first down, Johnny Hekker's punt was partially blocked by Stephen Carr, who charged in from the left side of Stanford's line and reached the ball with his left hand.
Despite great field position at Oregon State's 34-yard line, Stanford failed to cash in. Two Gerhart runs for a total of two yards, and a Pritchard incompletion forced the Cardinal to try a 49-yard field goal. But Aaron Zagory's try was wide right.
Stanford's next series was significant for the appearance behind center of Loukas, who replaced Pritchard on second-and-two at Stanford's own 32. But Loukas lost three yards on two carries, including a sack, and Stanford failed to earn a first down for the second consecutive series.
Oregon State, however, traveled 53 yards downfield on the first significant drive by either team. After a facemask penalty, the Beavers had a first-and-goal at the seven. But Stanford's defense held. Brian Buicke stopped Jacquizz Rodgers for two yards, Wopamo Osaisai's hit kept receiver Sammie Stroughter from getting his feet down in the end zone for an incompletion, and Sione Fua got his first sack, on third down as the quarter ended.
End of the first quarter: Stanford 0, Oregon State 0
On the first play of the second quarter, Oregon State's Justin Kahut kicked a 27-yard field goal to give the Beavers a 3-0 lead.
But the Cardinal quickly countered. With Pritchard back at quarterback, Stanford finally began to move the ball.
Gerhart's 36-yard charge down the right side was the highlight of the 73-yard drive. But his 2-yard run on fourth-and-one from the Oregon State 12 was even more vital. Pritchard hit Ryan Whalen twice on the drive (the sophomore had one catch last season), for 22 yards.
On first-and-goal, Gerhart followed fullback Owen Marecic and Erik Lorig over the left side for a 2-yard run and a 7-3 lead.
After three Oregon State incompletions, Stanford regained possession and added to its lead, picking up first downs on a Kimble run and an 18-yard completion to Doug Baldwin. Zagory struck a career-long 41-yard field goal to make it 10-3.
Earlier in the game, Oregon State just missed on a deep pass over the defense from quarterback Lyle Moevao to Stroughter. This time, the play connected, the only difference was that Stroughter knifed between two defensive backs on the right side instead of the left.
Stroughter, wide open, caught the ball in stride and completed a 55-yard score to tie the game, 10-10, with 4:29 left in the quarter.
The back-and-forth nature of the game appeared to continue when Pritchard found Baldwin deep for an apparent 40-yard gain. But the ball came loose during the tackle that was ruled to be pass interference. The catch was overturned on replay, but Stanford still gained 15 yards on the penalty.
It didn't matter, Gerhart broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and could not be caught, to score on a 46-yard touchdown run to put Stanford back in front, 17-10, with 2:10 left.
Running a hurry-up offense with no timeouts, Oregon State drove downfield with 14 seconds to spare. Moevao completed seven of nine passes for 75 yards, including the tying touchdown pass to Shane Morales.
The scoring play began with 22 seconds left, when the Beavers lined up with four wideouts on second down from the four. Moevao found Morales, who had four catches for 47 yards on the drive, in the back of the end zone to even the score at 17-17.
Halftime: Stanford 17, Oregon State 17
In contrast to the quick strikes of the first half, Oregon State instead sustained a long drive to open the second half. A late hit knocked Moevao out of the game for one play, and placed the ball at the Stanford 10-yard line.
But Moevao misfired on third down, on the 15th play of a 73-yard drive that took 7:23 off the clock. Kahut finished it off with a 23-yard field goal to give the Beavers their first lead since the first quarter.
It marked the second lead change in a game that already featured two ties.
Make that three. And Stanford can thank Gerhart.
Gerhart surpassed 100 yards on his first carry of the next series and gained 37 of Stanford's 42 yards altogether. Zagory tied the game, 20-20, with 3:42 left with a 42-yard field goal, surpassing his career long of 41, from the second quarter.
Within 35 seconds, Stanford regained the lead in bizarre fashion.
On second down at Oregon State's own 9-yard line, Moevao attempted a swing pass that was thrown behind running back Ryan McCants. The ball skipped across the field and behind the end zone pylon for a safety. And Stanford led 22-20 with 3:07 left in the quarter.
The safety also had the benefit of giving the ball back to the Cardinal, on a free kick and Stanford drove to the Oregon State 15. Again, Gerhart was involved, with an 11-yard run. A pass interference call on Oregon State's Keith Pankey on Coby Fleener also gave the Cardinal a boost.
End of third quarter: Stanford 22, Oregon State 20
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Stanford struck again to take a 29-20 lead. Pritchard dumped the ball off to Kimble, who weaved through the defense and carried defenders over the goal line for a 15-yard score. It was Kimble's first carry of the game.
Stanford hadn't shut Oregon State down since the first quarter, and the Cardinal defense appeared to be in trouble again. But with the Beavers driving, defensive end Tom McAndrew tipped Moevao's pass at the line of scrimmage and cornerback Kris Evans intercepted the pass at the 7-yard line.
Given the opportunity to take command with a long scoring drive, Stanford was unable to do so and was forced to punt. It was Stanford's first fruitless possession (other than a kneeldown at the end of the second quarter) since its second series of the game, midway in the first quarter.
But the chance came soon enough. Moevao threw toward the left sideline that was speared by McNally. The senior strong safety went untouched for a 34-yard interception return. It was the second of his Stanford career, following a 49-yarder against Washington in 2006, and his fifth career interception.
It also gave Stanford a 35-20 lead with 9:36 left.
"After they ran it a few times and had a few completions, I started to drift down there a little bit," McNally said. I watched his eyes, saw him look over there, made a break on the ball and got to make the play."
Needing a quick score to get back into the game, Oregon State got as far as the Stanford 18-yard line, with help from Morales' 10th catch of the game (for 96 yards). But Moevao lost 10 yards on a mishandled third-down shotgun snap, and threw an incomplete pass on fourth down to relinquish possession.
Stanford's defense shut out the Beavers for a stretch of 19 minutes, 29 seconds, but it wasn't enough. Oregon State made it a one-possession game when Moevao hit Morales for a three-yard scoring pass with 3:00 left. The Beavers went for two, and got it on another pass to Morales, catching the ball just inside the goal-line to bring Oregon State within 36-28.
Needing to take time off the clock, Stanford instead failed to get a first down. Stanford was forced to start the series on its own 12-yard line after a block-in-the-back penalty on the kickoff return, and went three-and-out to give the ball back.
After a punt Oregon State was given 1:31 and 47 yards to work with, with one timeout remaining. The Beavers picked up three first downs and advanced to the 16 with one minute left.
On third down, Moevao found receiver Catchings coming across the middle. He turned up the left sideline, and cut past sliding cornerback Evans inside the five, before being hit by Skaufel.
As Catchings flew out of bounds around the 2-yard-line, the ball bounced tantalizingly over the goal-line. The result: A touchback, Stanford ball, and a Stanford victory.
"All it is, is a step in the right direction for the program," McNally said. "We've been working our butts off for a year, trying to get where we want to be. This shows where we are and where we're headed, and what we want to accomplish."
Final score: Stanford 36, Oregon State 28