Oregon has three obstacles between them and a BCS national championship berth. That first hurdle…
How to Beat Oregon
Relocate the Line of Scrimmage: Destroy the Oregon Foundation with the Big Boys When it comes to Oregon's high-octane offense, there's a general misconception that a slower defense is the Ducks' sole ticket to success. Yes, the Quack Attack is highlighted by its track-star advantage. But trying to hustle step for step with Chip Kelly's blur attack is an exercise in futility that ignores the reason for his system's dominance. Even Alabama isn't fast enough to play stride for stride with Oregon -- it would be the Tide's brawn at the line of scrimmage that would give them a fighting chance of slowing the green and yellow down. The teams that have slowed the Ducks in the Chip Kelly era have done so by collapsing the foundation of the Oregon attack: the offensive line. Nick Fairley-led Auburn wreaked havoc in the 2010 BCS Title game, the most glaring example. In 2011's first quarter, Stanford's defensive line disrupted the Ducks in the same way, shutting them down to the tune of negative six yards in the first quarter. Then, the Cardinal wore down, the match-up eroded, and Oregon's speed advantage shone through. The lethal precision and mind-numbing speed of Kelly's offense is built to capitalize on opponents' fatigue, which leads to defensive gap control mistakes. And one step or one guess in the wrong direction translates, more often than not, into a long touchdown run when the speed of Kenjon Barner or De'Anthony Thomas is involved. But this speed is only a factor if Oregon's big boys up front can hold off Stanford's. If they can't -- if Terrence Stephens, David Parry, Josh Mauro, Henry Anderson, and Ben Gardner maul them at the snap -- then the play is dead before it develops. The Ducks won't be able to exercise their athletic advantage. "A lot of people get caught up trying to stop Oregon playing side-to-side, and that's where you'll get gashed," Stephens, the philosopher on this Stanford team, perfectly summarized. "The key is hitting everybody." Of course, there are limitations to cutting the Ducks' offense off at the roots. A defense cannot sell its soul (and its entire secondary) to accomplish that objective. Cal tried doing so by committing the majority of its defense to the box; Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota responded by throwing for 377 yards and six touchdowns. So, the spotlight will be on Stanford's hogs up front. They must dominate the trenches on their own and let their potential help tend to more important matters behind them. Capitalize on Improvement at the Safety Position When Oregon does pass the football (and also when they run), they focus intensely on the opposition's safeties -- baiting them out of prime defensive position is a staple of Kelly's scheme. The positioning of Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards will go a long way in the Ducks' determination of which play to call on any given down. Furthermore, Mariota's eye action and fakes are crucial components in Oregon's ability to force the defense's last line of resistance a step out of a position. When the Ducks were held to negative yardage in the first quarter last season, Stanford safety Delano Howell was in the game. He was hurt and forced to leave on the first play of the second quarter. It's no coincidence that Oregon's offensive onslaught began then and there. The Cardinal were forced to go the rest of the way with two inexperienced safeties, true freshman Jordan Richards and sophomore Devon Carrington. In other words, Stanford was meat. This season, Richards has grown immensely, performing at an all-conference level. Perhaps more importantly, Ed Reynolds has returned from injury to take over the free safety spot. While No. 29's ability to anticipate quarterbacks' decisions has him on track to tie the NCAA single-season pick six record, it also sets up a fascinating chess match between him and Mariota -- a passer who is remarkably adept at not tipping his hand. Stanford's safeties must strike the perfect balance between staying honest and remaining aggressive. The good news: the defensive line, if it wins its war up front, can aid the secondary in their battle with Mariota and the Ducks. The 2009 Model: Balanced Offensive Efficiency "We don't talk about stopping Oregon," David Shaw said. "We talk about slowing them down." The best defense is a good offense, and Stanford's 51-42 upset over Oregon in 2009 is a perfect model for what the Cardinal should strive for offensively this Saturday. Begin with the similarities: in that last win over the Ducks, a redshirt freshman quarterback (Andrew Luck) and a senior running back (Toby Gerhart) led the Farm Boys. Well, this time, it'll again be a redshirt freshman quarterback (Kevin Hogan) and a senior running back (Stepfan Taylor). Shaw can hope that the similarities between 2009 and 2012 don't end there. The Cardinal rushed for 254 yards and passed for 251 that year, an almost perfect display of balance. That success led to almost 38 minutes of possession, compared to Oregon's measly 22. Most notably, these numbers didn't come from a "three yards and a cloud of dust" scheme. Stanford was aggressive downfield, averaging 12.6 yards per pass. This set up Gerhart's punishing attack, one that Taylor could duplicate against an Oregon defense whose depth is decimated up front. The Ducks are also thin in the secondary. Running back De'Anthony Thomas and back-up quarterback Bryan Bennett have been getting reps there in practice this week. The Cardinal must not be afraid to spread their big bodies to the outside and air it out. Hogan will be challenged in his first road start, but a ball control offense only works when a team moves the chains. The only way Stanford does that consistently is by complementing its bruising running game with enough mustard downfield. The Guys Upstairs Finally, even if Stanford's players execute their on-field duties to perfection, the coaching staff must also bring its A-game. Kelly and his Oregon brain trust are sure to bring their aggressively innovative philosophy to the field. It burned Stanford in both of the past two meetings. Remember the onside kick two years ago and the surprise two-point conversion to set the tone in the Ducks' favor last season? Shaw and his staff will get roasted by Kelly's superior approach if they do not adapt from the stale, conservative outlook that sealed Stanford's fate in this game last season and has dogged the Cardinal in losses (and some wins) this year. A prime example: trailing 29-16 in the third quarter last season, Stanford received a gift from heaven when LaMichael James fumbled a punt at his own 34 yard line. On the fourth down from the Ducks' 30-yard line, Shaw elected to kick a difficult 48-yard field goal with his back-up kicker, even though a successful kick would not do much good at all -- a make would have kept it at a two-possession game. High risk, little award: precisely the type of decision a coach should avoid. Needless to say, Erik Whitaker missed, Stanford wasted Andrew Luck (uh, oh -- foreshadowing), Oregon re-seized momentum, and the Ducks ran away with the football game after that head-banging call. To be fair, that was Shaw's rookie season as coach, and he has shown signs of growth -- just as any first-year player shows improvement in his second season. The most encouraging indication came this week, when Shaw said that Stanford would certainly go for it on fourth down and short in Oregon territory. It will take that kind of savvy aggressiveness from the coaching staff, and then some, for the Cardinal to beat Kelly at his own game. Shaw emphasized the importance of taking "calculated chances" this week. Along those lines, Stanford should also consider going for it on fourth and short in its own territory. Kelly wouldn't think twice -- his punter would remain on the bench -- and it would be the correct decision. The Farm Boys have 325-pound Josh Garnett, who has already blown Notre Dame stalwart Louis Nix seven yards off the line scrimmage. With that kind of beef, and with an athletically capable quarterback like Hogan on the roster, short yardage should be money against a depleted defensive line. The Stanford coaching staff must aggressively realize its potential fourth-and-short edge and give its personnel the chance to give Oregon a taste of its own medicine. One parting thought: the Ducks have fumbled 25 times this year. If this offense has a weakness, that's it. Stanford hits harder than any defense Oregon has faced. Fumbles can give Stanford breaths of fresh air in a game where every break will be useful. 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. 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)!
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