STANFORD — Oregon State receiver Brandin Cooks is listed as 5-foot-10, and that might be a tad generous. But in Stanford's estimation, Cooks stands approximately 18 feet tall.
The Cardinal needed three players to impersonate Cooks in practice and prepare its defense for the dynamo that awaits tonight in Reser Stadium.
"We're rotating guys through and trying not to give the defense much rest so they feel the speed and urgency with which the young man runs his routes," coach David Shaw said. "He runs them like his life depends on it."
Stanford's title hopes depend on containing the nation's best receiver.
A junior from Stockton, Cooks leads the country in catches (10.9 per game) and receiving yards (168 per game and is the frontrunner for Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver.
Cooks' performance against the only opponent Stanford and OSU have in common speaks to the challenge: He scored three touchdowns against Utah; Stanford's offense scored two.
Opponents have tried a variety of strategies to contain Cooks, from tight man-to-man and zones to double-team help from the safety. But each approach carries risk against OSU's potent attack.
"If you overload too much," Utes coach Kyle Whittingham explained, "then you get exposed in other areas. So far, nobody has had an answer for him."
Responsibility for containing Cooks falls not just on Stanford cornerbacks Wayne Lyons and Alex Carter but the entire secondary. He lines up everywhere — strong side, weak side, in the slot — and runs every route in the playbook.
Fearless and fast, Cooks is equally adept at sprinting past deep safeties and turning a screen pass from quarterback Sean Mannion into a 60-yard gain.
"The trust is what you see on film," Stanford safety Ed Reynolds said. "You see a quarterback who believes in his receiver and a receiver who believes his quarterback can put the ball where it needs to be."
Stanford's challenge is complicated by the sophistication of Oregon State's aerial attack, which stands in stark contrast to the spread-option schemes the eighth-ranked Cardinal has faced in the past month.
With the strong-armed Mannion rooted in the pocket, the Beavers throw downfield more often, and more successfully, than any team in the country.
"I'm not sure I've ever seen a team so dedicated to the deep pass," Shaw said.
If Cooks is closely guarded, Mannion will look elsewhere. Considered a Heisman Trophy candidate, the junior from Pleasanton has streamlined his release, resulting in fewer sacks, and gained patience, leading to fewer mistakes.
Despite averaging 48 passes per game, he has thrown just three interceptions.
"He's the perfect quarterback to complement what Cooks does," Whittingham said. "He's so accurate and a great thrower."
Reynolds and fellow safety Jordan Richards will be responsible for making sure the Cardinal is aligned properly and aware of Cooks every step of the way. But without pressure on Mannion — without disrupting his timing with Cooks — Stanford has little chance to slow the Beavers.
That's where the front seven comes in. The Cardinal ceded the line of scrimmage to unranked Utah two weeks ago, and lost. It dominated up front against No. 9 UCLA last week, and won handily.
"It seems each week we're playing a guy who's in the Heisman conversation," end Ben Gardner said. "Our job is to make sure he's not in the Heisman conversation after we play them."