"After the last 48 hours of watching Oregon film, how would you feel?"
A hearty laugh emanated from the press meeting room. It stayed jovial throughout 40 more minutes of relaxed football chatter and David Shaw jokes. Stanford is fully acknowledging the monumental challenge that top-ranked Oregon at Autzen Stadium presents, but the mood in the Cardinal camp this week is remarkably loose.
It's a marked change from the almost-stressful vibe emanating from last year's match-up with the Ducks, one that Stanford had to win to preserve its undefeated season and national championship hopes. That tightness reflected on the field, where the Farm Boys sputtered offensively and were unable to take advantage of Oregon's own early offensive struggles in an eventually nightmarish 53-30 loss.
This year, with Andrew Luck and co. gone, there's a no-lose type of aura buzzing through the room. Maybe that's exactly what the Cardinal need to successfully pull the upset this time, though they're still pitted against long odds.
The Ducks have only gotten better. Following Alabama's loss, the Quack Attack has emerged as college football's one dominant juggernaut, racking up 54.8 points and 325 rushing yards per game. The NCAA record of 56 points per game, set by Army in 1944, is in jeopardy.
"The adjustments they make are so subtle," Shaw said. "You don't realize it until they score three touchdowns on you."
The margin for error is indeed razor-thin against Chip Kelly's jet-speed attack, but a door may have creaked open the past few weeks in the form of a slew of Oregon injuries on the defensive side of the ball. These can potentially leave the Ducks vulnerable to Stanford's rediscovered offensive attack, one that redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan's recent insertion into the line-up has re-ignited.
Meanwhile, Stanford is relatively healthy. Ty Montgomery suffered only a bruise last week and is still working his way back to 100 percent following the knee injury he suffered against Arizona on October 6. Jamal-Rashad Patterson will again start at receiver, but No. 88 will play. Andrus Peat and Khalil Wilkes will both return to the offensive line at close to full strength after battling maladies last week. Shaw was extremely pleased with freshman Kyle Murphy's work at left tackle in the interim.
The situation is much more complicated for Oregon, which was forced to start three freshmen defensive linemen against Cal and is considering playing running back De'Anthony Thomas and back-up quarterback Bryan Bennett on defense to help shore up a razor-thin secondary. It's a virtual 180 from last season, when Stanford was the beaten-up team entering its showdown with the Ducks. Shayne Skov, Delano Howell, and Zach Ertz, three critical pieces, missed most or all of that game.
Oregon's defensive injuries may open a door for the Farm Boys to rack up some points at Autzen Stadium. Cal, for one, gashed the depleted Oregon defense to the tune of 236 yards on the ground last week. But it'll all be moot if the Ducks register just their average offensive performance, because no one is expecting 54 on the road from the Cardinal.
Preparing to Slow Down Oregon: Special Practice Techniques
"We don't talk about stopping these guys. We talk about slowing them down," Shaw said after spending the last two days watching most of every single Oregon game of the past three years. "There's no stopping these guys."
The Cardinal hope that their improved defense, which leads the nation in rushing yards allowed, sacks, and tackles for loss, is up to the task of slowing the Ducks down. In each of the past two seasons, Stanford has successfully slowed Kelly's blur attack attack early on. Last year, in fact, Oregon stumbled its way to negative six total yards through the first quarter. But the Farm Boys were unable to capitalize offensively, and the yardage floodgates burst open for the Ducks.
The Cardinal have employed special techniques in practice in hopes of avoiding the defensive meltdown that has tortured almost every single Oregon opponent since Kelly took over in 2009. Most notably, Shaw has Stanford's defense practicing against two separate offensive units at once. While one squad runs a play, the other is already huddling up, ready to line up immediately after the prior play ends. This forces the Cardinal defense to scramble and reset between plays in a similar way that they'll have to on Saturday against a Ducks offense that has been known to average a snap every 12 seconds.
Stanford does not plan to substitute defensively during a drive, though Shaw hinted at hockey-style line changes in between possessions to keep his defense fresh. The Cardinal have been flexing their depth muscles over the past few weeks, and it can certainly come in handy in a no-breath match-up like the one expected Saturday.
"This year, we feel we can play multiple guys and hopefully stay fresh," Shaw said.
With Marcus Mariota, the nation's leader in passing efficiency (176.96), engineering an attack that is more famous yet for its running, staying fresh may only be a pipe dream. The good news: in the unlikely event that there is a defense in the country equipped to compete with the Ducks, it is Stanford's.
Best Defense: A Good Offense
"When our defense slows them down, we have to score," Shaw went on to say. "Because we're not going to stop them all game."
Last season, Stanford trailed 8-0 after a quarter of play -- despite holding the Ducks to the aforementioned negative six yards. The Cardinal must display more offensive efficiency than they did in 2011, when they ran for only 3.7 yards per carry and converted only 5 of 14 first downs.
Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan has been excellent on the road against a bad defense (Colorado). He's been great at home against a good defense (Oregon State). Now, he must carry over his success to the road against a good defense. And it won't be just another ho-hum game away from home. This will happen at night in Autzen Stadium, known as the loudest venue in college football.
"He has shown absolutely zero nervousness, anxiousness, apprehension," Shaw said. "I think he's ready for the challenge."
The Cardinal can use 2009's 56-48 win over Oregon as an offensive model. That game presents several interesting parallels: a redshirt freshman quarterback teamed with a senior running back to spearhead a balanced offensive attack that flummoxed the Ducks for 60 minutes. Stanford's notable aggression in that game helped counteract their overmatched defense. Shaw hinted that his offense would carry a similarly bold approach into Saturday's showdown, despite the fact that his D is much improved.
"If we get a fourth and short on our plus side of the 50, we're probably going for it," he said.
Schwartzstein's Senior Salute
Stanford senior center Sam Schwartzstein says that he didn't see the betting line, which has Oregon listed as a 21-point favorite for Saturday's game.
"That's for when I'm much older," he smiled.
Schwartzstein did, however, see his mother at his Senior Day pregame Walk this past weekend before his team beat Oregon State.
"I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that wasn't my last walk," he said. "But when I saw my mom crying, I got emotional."
By beating Oregon and UCLA to close out the regular season, Stanford can host the Pac-12 Championship Game. That would ensure Schwartzstein of one more opportunity to take the legendary Walk from the football locker rooms to Stanford Stadium.
"I think we have the best defense in the nation," the senior predicted. "I think they'll be able to get us some stops against these guys."
If so, the ball will be in his offense's court.
More Senior Tidbits
Defensive stalwarts Terrence Stephens and Chase Thomas will also have their last crack at Oregon after two years of disappointment. The Cardinal's big defensive tackle, who played his best football of the year against the Beavers last week and will be integral in disrupting the Ducks at the point of attack, doesn't have vengeance on his mind, though.
"Revenge is a strong word," Stephens said. "In the game of football, you can't be revengeful because emotions will take over. You must be focused."
No. 99 is confident that Stanford safety Ed Reynolds will deliver another one of his signature interception returns for a touchdown, which would be his fourth of the season.
"Ed Reynolds is on his way to breaking an NCAA record [in pick sixes]," he said. "Our expectation is [to score on defense every week.]"
Meanwhile, linebacker Chase Thomas resorted to his signature dry humor when asked how his team could close the gap between Stanford and Oregon this time around.
"A second half," he grinned.
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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