The wise guys in Vegas seem to think Stanford will suffer a similar fate this weekend, installing Oregon as three-touchdown favorites. Can you blame them? Forget Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, or Columbus, there is no tougher place to play on the road than Autzen Stadium. Stanford hasn't beaten the Ducks in Eugene since 2001 (and that took a near-miracle comeback).
And, of course, Oregon's offense is just, well, I mean, my God. They're averaging over 55 points per game in Pac-12 play. They're racking up yards at an incredible pace. What they did to U$C's defense (62 points, 730 total yards) was criminal. This is the Ivan Drago of offenses; whatever they hit, they destroy.
And I think Stanford's defense can contain them.
Call me crazy (and it probably won't be the first time—or the last), but it would not surprise me to see the Treefense keep the quack attack in check. Stanford's defense finally should have the personnel, speed, and toughness to match Oregon's offense.
While Washington State spreads its opponents out so they can throw the ball, Oregon's spread revolves around its running game. It doesn't matter which running back the Ducks plug in—LaMichael James, LeGarrette Blount, Jonathan Stewart, Jeremiah Johnson—this scheme has worked, many times with devastating results.
Stopping Oregon means having the strength to win the line of scrimmage. This means having the discipline to not fall for misdirection. This means having all hands on deck, with your best defensive players leading the way.
Think back to when Arizona State faced Oregon a few weeks ago. On the second play of the game, Sun Devils defensive tackle Will Sutton knifed into the backfield and crashed into Duck quarterback Marcus Mariota. In the process, Sutton forced a fumble which the Sun Devils recovered. But while Arizona State was celebrating its good fortune, Sutton was on the ground clutching his knee in pain. In the process of forcing the fumble, he banged knees with Mariota. Sutton's knee was bruised, and he was gone for the game.
Arizona State scored on the next play to give them a 7-0 lead not even one minute in, but the game was over right then and there. And everyone watching that game knew it. Without Sutton, the Sun Devils had zero chance of winning the line of scrimmage, and clogging up the holes the Duck offense seems to rip open so easily.
Arizona State lost several other defensive linemen during the course of the game, but Sutton's injury was the initial falling domino that caused the whole Sun Devil defense to collapse. Sure enough, the Ducks brushed themselves off, then scored the game's next 43 points. Before halftime. With ease.
But at least Arizona State came into that game against Oregon armed with their best defensive player. When Shayne Skov was lying crumpled on the Arizona turf with an injured knee last year, I knew immediately that Stanford was going to be at a major disadvantage against Oregon. And that game wasn't for another eight weeks. We know how it ended.
This time, Skov won't be on the sidelines watching helplessly. He'll be leading the charge on the field, roaming sideline to sideline. Meanwhile, Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy will be able to help contain on the outside. Terrence Stephens, Ben Gardner, and Henry Anderson give the Card an outstanding chance to stalemate Oregon's offensive line, plug the holes, and let their linebackers do what they do best. Stanford's front seven should be up to the challenge.
Since Oregon's offensive success largely revolves around its running game, the goal of the Treefense should be to stop Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas on the ground, and let QB Marcus Mariota try to win the game by passing. There's just one problem with that theory: Mariota is a legitimately accurate downfield passer, one of the better ones in the Pac-12.
Chip Kelly has brought in quarterbacks who can run his system with ease and efficiency, but as dangerous as Dennis Dixon was, as strong as Jeremiah Masoli's arm was, and as effective as Darron Thomas was, none of them could be mistaken for great passers.
Right now, Mariota is completing 71.7 percent of his passes. For many quarterbacks, a stat like that means they're throwing those lateral passes that wildly inflate so many completion rates in football these days. Oregon's offense features its share of laterals and swing passes (most of which De'Anthony Thomas seems to turn into touchdowns). But when Mariota is asked to throw downfield, he either hits his receiver in stride or puts the ball where only his man can get to it.
Dixon couldn't do that with any degree of consistency. Neither could Masoli. Those guys won a lot of games for the Ducks, but Mariota's accuracy sets him apart.
Now, keep in mind that Mariota spent part of his evening in Berkeley last week shaking off an injured shoulder. Mariota says he'll be fine for this weekend. Whether he is or not, the onus is on the Cardinal secondary to shut down the Ducks' passing game.
You can run any kind of souped-up offense you want. You can do all sorts of funky, crazy ball fakes. Your team can have more speed than the Jamaican 4x100 relay team. But football, at its very core, is still a very simple game. And at its simplest, the game always comes down to blocking and tackling.
Easier said than done, I fully realize. But don't be surprised if the Treefense, especially the front seven, passes its biggest test yet and puts the Card in position to shock the college football world once again.
********** ********** **********
RANDOM PAC-12 THOUGHTS
Hey wait a minute…shouldn't this be Big Game week? Oh well…
I have to admit that it was nice to watch a Stanford team that looked sharp on both sides of the ball in the first quarter. Felt like it had been a while since I'd seen that, particularly on offense…
Just like some of Toby Gerhart's never-say-die runs, Stepfan Taylor's 40-yard catch and run for a critical score will be one of the defining plays of this era of Stanford Football. Hard to find a better illustration of what sheer guts and will can do…
So what are the odds Mike Leach is still coaching in 2014?
366 yards rushing? In one game? Take a bow, Ka'Deem Carey. Even if it was against Colorado…
Could Chip Kelly succeed in the NFL? I don't know. I doubt it, since quarterbacks still take their share of hits in his system. (It is an option scheme, after all). But I bet some owner is going to give Kelly big bucks to try to find out…
Stop me if you've heard this before: Arizona State just can't beat good teams after Columbus Day…
Not a Pac-12 thought, but… remember West Virginia? One month ago, they had the Heisman Trophy favorite, were 5-0 and ranked fifth in the polls. Now they're 5-4. And the way their defense plays, there's no guarantee they'll finish the season bowl-eligible. What a reversal of fortune in Morgantown…
Not a Pac-12 thought, but… speaking of going from the penthouse to the outhouse, how do you go from national champion to unemployed in just two years? Auburn's Gene Chizik will be able to tell us soon enough…
********** ********** **********
Hey UCLA, thanks for falling asleep in the second half last week against the Cougs. Appreciate it…
Arizona @ Utah. I don't like the Wildcats on the road. I just don't. Accordingly, I like Utah by 10.
cal @ Oregon State. The Bears actually looked competent at times against Oregon last week, and they still lost by 42 points. This week for cal, I forecast a similar effort and a smaller margin of defeat. I like Oregon State by 13.
U$C @ UCLA. Sure, U$C looked a bit more like they're supposed to last week. But the Bruins may have the Trojans just where they want them. I like UCLA by eight.
Washington State @ Arizona State. The high-octane offense gets its groove back. In a big way. I like Arizona State by 27.
Washington @ Colorado. Huskies running back Bishop Sankey must be licking his chops. I like Washington by 20.
Last week: 5-0 (straight-up), 2-3 (ATS).
This year: 29-7 (straight-up), 19-17 (ATS).
Last year: 27-19 (straight-up), 28-18 (ATS).
********** ********** **********
Troy Clardy is in his 20th year of following the Cardinal as a columnist, broadcaster, and announcer. In its 11th season of Cardinal commentary, Clardy's Corner appears Wednesdays during the college football regular season on TheBootleg.com. You can also check him out online at TroyClardy.com, hear him on Pittsburgh's Sportsradio 93-7 The Fan, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!