By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
If you were disappointed by the lack of scoring in last week’s No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown (LSU-Alabama), then Saturday’s Oregon-Stanford matchup should make up for that.
For the Cardinal, the mission is very simple: Keep winning. With Stanford ranked No. 4 in the BCS, it has a good chance to play for the national title. The Cardinal need some help, particularly with a loss by Oklahoma State, but a win over Oregon would certainly help their case to jump to No. 2.
For a program that had only one winning season from 2000-07, it’s impressive to see the Cardinal in this position. Jim Harbaugh was a fantastic hire at Stanford, leading the program to an Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech last season. David Shaw is in his first season as head coach, but has done a good job of guiding the Cardinal to a 9-0 record this year. And of course, there’s quarterback Andrew Luck. The junior is the leading candidate to win the Heisman Trophy and expected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft.
Although Stanford has made a splash on the national scene the last two years, Oregon has claimed the Pac-10 title in those seasons. And the Ducks were the national title runner-up last year.
Oregon lost its season opener 40-27 to LSU, but has rebounded with eight wins in a row. The Ducks need a lot of help to play for the national title, but a win against Stanford would put them in control for the Pac-12 North Division title.
The recent matchups in this series have been dominated by Oregon. Eight of the last nine games have been won by the Ducks, with Stanford’s last victory coming in 2009. The Cardinal led 31-24 at halftime last season, but Oregon eventually won 52-31.
There’s also an underlying theme to Saturday’s game: Is there a passing of the torch in the Pac-12 North? Even when Stanford loses Andrew Luck, the Cardinal has enough in the cupboard to remain a top 25 team. Oregon likely won’t be going anywhere, but there’s a dark cloud surrounding this program with a NCAA investigation. If the NCAA comes down hard on the Ducks, will coach Chip Kelly be around? Or will there be significant scholarship reductions? If the Ducks are hammered by sanctions, the Cardinal (along with Washington) are in position to benefit the most.
When Oregon Has the Ball
Oregon’s speed and tempo on offense is going to be a challenge for Stanford.
Quarterback Darron Thomas and running back LaMichael James both missed time with injuries this season, but both are expected to be 100 percent for Saturday’s game.
Although Thomas has returned to the lineup the last two games, he has had trouble knocking off the rust. Since his return, he is averaging only 161 passing yards and has thrown only two touchdowns.
James has four 100-yard games this season, including 288 yards and two touchdowns in a 56-31 victory over Arizona. The junior struggled in his first game back from an elbow injury (Washington State), but gashed Washington for 156 yards and one touchdown last week.
Stanford’s rush defense has been outstanding this season, ranking third nationally and allowing only 78.9 yard a game. The effort is more impressive when you consider All-American linebacker Shayne Skov was lost in Week 3 due to a knee injury.
However, have the Cardinal really been tested? The defense allowed 148 rushing yards to USC, 141 to UCLA and 172 to Washington. When teams commit to the run against Stanford, success can be found.
The Ducks had no trouble moving the ball on the ground in last season’s matchup against the Cardinal, with James running for 257 yards and Thomas adding 117.
There’s no shortage of rushing options at Oregon either, as when James needs a break, Kenjon Barner (6.8 yards per carry) and De’Anthony Thomas (8.5 ypc) are more than capable. Also, assuming Thomas’ knee is 100 percent, he will factor into the ground attack.
Stanford’s defense did get one bit of good news this week. Safety Delano Howell will return to the lineup, after missing the last three games due to a hand injury.
The Cardinal rank 88th in pass defense, but the Ducks don’t have a clear No. 1 receiver. De’Anthony Thomas leads the team with 382 receiving yards, while Lavasier Tuniei tops the receiving corps with 28 receptions.
One wildcard: Could Stanford’s best defense be its offense? Shutting down Oregon’s offense is nearly impossible. However, the Cardinal will have a huge advantage if they can control the time of possession and wear down the Ducks’ defense.
Stanford won’t be able to completely shut down Oregon. However, the Cardinal have to prevent big plays, and make the Ducks methodically work their way down the field.
When Stanford Has the Ball
When breaking down the Stanford offense, you have to start with quarterback Andrew Luck. The junior is widely-regarded as the top quarterback in the nation and barring a collapse in the final three regular season games, is a lock to win the Heisman.
Luck has thrown for 2,424 yards and 26 touchdowns this year, but those aren’t even his most impressive numbers. The junior is completing 71.3 percent of his throws and has tossed only five interceptions. He also ranks fifth nationally in passing efficiency with a rating of 174.1.
Although Luck is one of the top players in college football, he isn’t a one-man show. The Cardinal rank second in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, averaging 224.7 yards per game. Running back Stepfan Taylor leads the team with 891 yards and eight scores, but Tyler Gaffney, Anthony Wilkerson and Jeremy Stewart are also capable rushers.
Much of the success of the rushing attack is due to the offensive line. Despite three new starters stepping in, the Cardinal is averaging 5.7 yards per carry and has scored 26 times on the ground.
And Stanford’s offensive line is going to have a big advantage in the trenches on Saturday night. The Cardinal’s front five averages 303 pounds, while Oregon’s defensive starting defensive line averages 272 pounds. The Ducks will give up some size for speed up front, but this is one area that Stanford can definitely look to exploit on Saturday night.
Oregon’s defense has struggled early in the year, allowing 30 points in two of its first four games. However, the Ducks have been playing better recently, allowing only 17 points to Washington and holding Arizona State to 27.
While the Ducks have to be concerned about Stanford’s offensive line and rushing attack, they have to feel good about their secondary. Oregon ranks third in the Pac-12 in pass defense, but will once again be without cornerback Cliff Harris, who is suspended indefinitely due to an off-the-field issue.
A big concern for Stanford coach David Shaw has to be the injuries that have taken its toll on the receiving corps. Receiver Chris Owusu suffered a concussion in last week’s win over Oregon State and has been ruled out for Saturday’s game. The Cardinal’s three tight end formation is one of the staples of the offense, but Zach Ertz is listed as doubtful with a leg injury. One bit of good news for Stanford: tight end Levine Toilolo is expected to return after suffering a leg injury against Oregon State.
With Owusu out, senior Griff Whalen, freshman Ty Montgomery and junior Jamal-Rashad Patterson have to step up. Luck has done a good job of spreading the ball around, but losing Owusu and Ertz will have an impact on this offense.
Considering Oregon’s penchant for quick scoring drives, Stanford’s best chance at winning this game could revolve around controlling the clock and keeping the Ducks’ explosive offense on the sidelines.
Give the edge to Stanford in this department.
Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson has missed the last two games due to injury, but is expected to play on Saturday. Williamson has connected on 11 of 12 field goals this season.
The Cardinal is also in great shape at punter, as David Green is averaging 41.5 yards per punt and has placed seven inside of the 20.
With Owusu sidelined, the Cardinal will lean on Ty Montgomery even more on kickoff returns. He is averaging 29.3 yards per return and has scored one touchdown this season. Drew Terrell is also having a good year on special teams, averaging 13.8 yards per punt return.
Oregon’s kicking situation is uncertain. Rob Beard and Alejandro Maldonado are competing for the job this week. Beard has missed most of the year due to a leg injury, but connected on his only two attempts.
Punter Jackson Rice is averaging 46.8 yards per punt and has placed 13 inside of the 20 this season.
With Cliff Harris sidelined, the Ducks have turned to a variety of options on returns. LaMichael James, De’Anthony Thomas, Kenjon Barner and Josh Huff could all see time on punt and kickoff returns on Saturday night.
Stanford’s shot at playing for a national title ends on Saturday night. Oregon’s speed on offense is going to give the Cardinal’s defense all they can handle, and eventually will be the difference in the game.
The Cardinal will be able to control the time of possession, but eventually, LaMichael James makes one play in the fourth quarter that swings the game in favor of Oregon.
Oregon 38, Stanford 34