Oregon aims to spoil Stanford's recent winning streak
When David Shaw and Willie Taggart last shared a college football field, the two were assistants together on the Stanford sideline. Under head coach Jim Harbaugh, now the headline-magnet head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, the Cardinal had a staff that successfully blended many ideas and personalities.
"Guys from different places that bring different things, and you merge them all together to make something special," Shaw said of the Stanford staff.
In 2011, Shaw inherited the Stanford program and used the initial success of the Harbaugh years to build a perennial Pac-12 title contender. Taggart left for a stint with his alma mater, Western Kentucky, transforming the former Div. I-AA contender from FBS bottom-feeder into the two-time Conference USA champion that it is currently.
Taggart left Western Kentucky after the 2012 season, restarting the rebuild process at USF. His tenure transformed the Bulls from American Athletic Conference also-ran to a Top 25 program. He began the process yet again this season at Oregon, where Shaw recognizes elements of the Stanford coaching staff on which the two were colleagues.
"You look at the way he's built his staff, you kind of see that, too," Shaw said.
Oregon's off to a 4-2 start in Taggart's first season, and the Ducks aim for their most impressive win yet of Taggart's debut season: an upset of rival Stanford.
Oregon at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 14 at 11 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: Stanford -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Run game setting the tone
With two of the Pac-12's best running backs headlining each offense, suggesting that Saturday night's outcome starts and ends with the run game is hardly going out on a limb. Oregon's Royce Freeman (above, right) returned to All-America levels this season after a dip in production a year ago. Despite a shoulder injury sustained two weeks ago vs. Cal, Freeman is the cornerstone of a multifaceted Ducks attack that also features Kani Benoit, a breakout star with three multiple-touchdown games on the year.
Stanford rolls with Bryce Love (right), an early contender for the Heisman Trophy. Love is averaging more than a first down every carry, and he eclipsed 1,000 yards before the end of September.
The Oregon run defense has been excellent through its first six games, holding opponents to just 2.73 yards per carry, but the Ducks have yet to face a proficient running team. That's about to change.
2. Quarterback play
Oregon sees Stanford at a most inopportune time, with quarterback Justin Herbert sidelined by injury. Herbert could miss a month and a half, complicating the Ducks' promising start.
With Herbert on the sideline against Washington State, the Ducks struggled mightily to move the ball. Oregon has a multidimensional rushing attack that carried the ball 45 times against the Cougars (compared to only 14 runs in the win over Cal), but that's less of an option against a stout Stanford defense.
Oregon must take advantage in the first half of the absence of Stanford defensive lineman Harrison Phillips. Phillips will serve a one-half suspension, the result of a targeting call last week vs. Utah. Phillips is playing "at an All-America level" according to Shaw, so that's a huge void in the Cardinal run defense and pass rush.
Likewise, Love has been excellent this season, but the Stanford running back has been at his best when complemented by an effective passing game. K.J. Costello added enough of that dimension in a rout of UCLA. Keller Chryst returned vs. Utah to complete just eight passes, and the Cardinal scored only 23 points in a narrow win.
3. Turnover battle
When Oregon stunned Stanford on The Farm two years ago, effectively denying the Cardinal a spot in the College Football Playoff, the Ducks capitalized on turnovers. Turnover creation is an element that Ducks defense coordinator Jim Leavitt has restored this season.
Oregon has forced 13 turnovers through six games, tied for 11th most in college football. Stanford's just one behind with 12 takeaways. Stanford's strength lies in the ability of defensive backs like Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks to gamble on wayward passes. With Oregon starting a backup quarterback, that could play a pivotal role.
After a start that saw the Ducks launch into the Top 25, the reality of Taggart's rebuild has settled in over recent weeks. Oregon lost a tough decision at Arizona State on Sept. 23, struggling primarily on defense, then sputtered offensively with Herbert out vs. Washington State.
The Ducks' schedule in this middle portion is considerably more challenging than when Oregon started 3-0. Conversely, Stanford has proven to be better than its 1-2 start. Having faced Top 20 opponents like USC and San Diego State early should benefit the Cardinal as they pursue the Pac-12 North title.
Love should be able to break through against the Oregon run defense, and the Ducks' issues without Herbert should make scoring points a challenge.
Prediction: Stanford 31, Oregon 17