By Mitch Light
Stanford lost its final three games of the 2008 season. Needing only one win to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2001, the Cardinal lost consecutive games to Oregon, USC and Cal by an average of 16.7 points.
Standing on the sideline that season was a true freshman by the name of Andrew Luck. A 5-star recruit from Houston, Luck chose the Cardinal over Northwestern, Rice and Purdue. “Stanford has great tradition,” Luck told the Houston Chronicle at the time of his commitment. “I hope to help them get back to the top of the Pac-10, where they belong.”
Well, I think it’s safe to say that Luck has succeeded on that front. Stanford, which hosts Oregon this Saturday in the West Coast version of the Game of the Century, is sitting at the top of the Pac-12. Since Luck was inserted into the starting lineup — in Week 1 of the ’09 season — Stanford is an amazing 29–6 overall and 21–4 in league play. With Luck leading the way, the SU offense has scored 30 points or more in 29 of its last 35 games.
This season, the Cardinal’s numbers are simply astounding:
• They are outgaining their opponents by an average of 181.8 yards per game. In league play, that number jumps to 190.1.
• They lead the Pac-12 in both scoring offense and scoring defense.
• They are one of only three teams in the nation that is averaging over 220 yards passing and 220 yards rushing. (Wisconsin and Missouri are the other two).
• They are 5–0 on the road and have won those five games by an average of 24 points.
• They have given up more than 19 points only one time.
• They have allowed only eight plays of 30 yards or more.
• They are completing 53.4 percent on third down, tied for fourth-best in the nation.
• They have scored on all 52 trips inside the Red Zone and are the only team in the country with a 100 percent success rate.
Okay, you get it: Stanford is pretty good.
The one knock on the Cardinal has been the strength of schedule. Only one of their nine wins has come against a team currently ranked in the AP top 25 (USC) and only two other teams on their schedule (UCLA and Washington) have winning records.
That’s what makes this week’s showdown with Oregon so interesting. There are those (i.e. SEC fans) who still question whether Stanford has the talent and athleticism to beat one of the nation’s truly elite teams. Last year, the Cardinal jumped out to a 21–3 lead over the Ducks in Eugene but were overwhelmed by Oregon’s speed and were outscored 48–10 in the final three quarters.
Now, the Cardinal has another shot at the mighty Ducks, this time in Palo Alto, where they haven’t lost in nearly two calendar years. And this edition of the Oregon Ducks, while still strong, isn’t quite as strong as the team that played in the national title game a year ago. The offensive numbers for Chip Kelly’s club are similar to last season, but the Ducks aren’t quite as formidable on defense in 2011, especially against the run.
Stanford will be on a national stage on Saturday night. This team is still very much alive in national title chase. Luck and the Cardinal offense should be able to score plenty of points. It will be up to the defense, which gave up 626 total yards in this game last year, to slow down the Oregon attack.
AROUND THE PAC-12
• Utah has won two straight in league play after opening its first season in the Pac-12 with an 0–4 record. And with a relatively soft remaining schedule — UCLA, at Washington State, Colorado — don’t be surprised if the Utes end their inaugural Pac-12 campaign with a winning conference record.
• Oregon State is 3–8 in its last 11 Pac-12 games dating back to last season.
• The top three runners in the league, on a yards-per-carry basis, all play for Oregon — De’Anthony Thomas (8.5), LaMichael James (8.0) and Kenjon Barner (6.75).
• Washington State sophomore Marquess Wilson is closing in on his second straight 1,000-yard season. He had 1,006 on 55 catches as a freshman and currently has 974 on 59 catches with three games remaining.
• Washington quarterback Keith Price was held to 143 yards passing despite throwing the ball 35 times in the Huskies’ 34–17 loss to Oregon. Price’s previous low in Pac-12 play was 226 yards in a win at Utah.
• Just under 40 percent of Keenen Allen’s 1,074 receiving yards have come on third down. The sophomore from Cal has converted 19 of his 22 catches on third down into a first down.
• Colorado has given up 42 points or more in all but one Pac-12 game.