Know Your Identity
When Stanford and Oregon kick off on Thursday, it will be exactly four years to the day from the Cardinal's last home win over the Ducks. On November 7, 2009, Toby Gerhart rumbled for 223 yards on 38 strenuous carries, bruising the Quack Attack into submission as the Farm Boys led wire-to-wire in a landmark upset win.
Power won that day, and it will have to prevail again Thursday if Stanford is to again knock off Oregon. Offensive struggles against Utah and Oregon State this season have indicated that Kevin Hogan is not at his most comfortable slinging the ball out of the shotgun. He was far more effective against UCLA, when the running game (36 Tyler Gaffney carries) formed the backbone of the Cardinal's offensive attack and put him into position to make well-timed playaction throws downfield. The electric Ducks' secondary, led by Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, is statistically the best in the Pac-12 (opponents average only 5.3 yards per pass attempt). Stanford can only expect to beat this unit by working Ty Montgomery, Devon Cajuste, and rest of its receiving corps into one-on-one coverage downfield.
The ticket to that opportunity lies in the hands of the power run. In their win at Autzen Stadium last year, the Cardinal pounded the ball 46 times to eventually loosen Zach Ertz for big gains on playaction late in the game. Montgomery and Cajuste (who's expected to return from injury) can potentially also enjoy similar success if Stanford forces Oregon to commit to the run. Pounding the rock, of course, will be a challenge in and of itself: The Ducks' rushing defense, giving up only 3.4 yards per carry, is second only to Stanford's in the Pac-12. But even though Oregon averages almost 6-feet-8 inches of height at the defensive end position, they're relatively inexperienced at linebacker following the departures of studs Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay, who amassed 20 tackles against the Cardinal last year. UCLA and Washington have both enjoyed some rushing success against the Ducks, and recent history suggests Stanford has the hogs up front to create room of their own for a red-hot Gaffney. Commitment will be the key.
Stanford's defense will need more help from its own offense than it got at Oregon State to post another spectacular performance against the Ducks. The Beavers held the ball for over 38 minutes against the Cardinal a week and a half ago. Somehow, someway, Derek Mason's troops dug in and held on for victory.
If Stanford messes around with similar fire this week, they'll get severely singed. The offense must deliver sustained success to allow the defense to gather its breath and administer punishment. Though the Cardinal's attack failed to score for 10 straight possessions at Autzen Stadium last year, it did manage to rack up 21 first downs, 411 total yards, and over 37 minutes of possession. That's significant production that made all the difference in the game's final result.
Relocate the Line of Scrimmage
Oregon's shifty blur-speed attack has historically had trouble taking off whenever an opposing defensive line has ruptured its protection at ground zero: the line of scrimmage. Ohio State (2009), Auburn (2010), and LSU (2011) all did the trick in victories that significantly slowed the Ducks. Then, in 2012, Stanford bested all those efforts when they stifled Chip Kelly's squad to the tune of only 14 points through regulation and overtime in Eugene.
Defensive end Henry Anderson will be back for the Cardinal, and that's very necessary news for Mason's unit considering last week's loss of Ben Gardner. Along with Josh Mauro and Terrence Stephens, Anderson consistently drove Oregon's front into the backfield last year. That allowed the rest of the Stanford defense to focus on its assignments elsewhere and ultimately led to a swarming effort that shocked the college football world. The Cardinal must replicate this excellent push behind Anderson, Mauro, and David Parry this time around. It won't be easy without Gardner, whose fantastic reads helped flummox the Ducks' rushing attack in 2012.
Bring Physical Nastiness Everywhere - Especially the Edges
Defensive line play alone, though, will be far from enough for Stanford. Oregon brings a supercharged aerial counter-attack to the Cardinal's expected challenge up front. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is now a sophomore, and his experience has paid dividends on the stat sheet so far: 20 touchdowns, zero interceptions.
"It's time for him to throw one," Stanford cornerback Alex Carter addressed the interception issue with a smile.
The Cardinal's defense is used to confusing opposing offenses into mistakes, while the Ducks' offense is accustomed to doing just the opposite: Opponents frequently find themselves embarrassingly far out of position. Once the game starts flowing according to Oregon's terms, the outcome is virtually set in stone.
There's a physical nastiness that Stanford must impose to set the tone in their favor early on. Shayne Skov accomplished that with his fourth down stuff of Mariota last year, and Trent Murphy seems eager to construct a similar edge this year.
"Oregon is a good football team," he tweeted. "But this week's game plan is simple: Hard Work, Trust, and one mean S.O.B. attitude."
- Anderson and Cajuste are both expected to return from injuries, though Shaw did acknowledge that they may not see their usual load of action. Both are practicing at full speed now (Anderson, though he's five pounds lighter at 290 now, is squatting as much weight as he was pre-injury), while kicker Jordan Williamson (leg muscle strain) is still working his way into the swing of things. Shaw expects Williamson to be ready to kick field goals, but he may not be available to boot kick-offs. In that case, Conrad Ukropina would continue to handle that duty in his stead. In other injury news, Shaw indicated safety Zach Hoffpauir will miss at least two more weeks of action.
- Shaw spent much of Monday praising Oregon, even suggesting the 10-point spread in favor of the Ducks might not be big enough. After Ducks' speedster De'Anthony Thomas proclaimed that his team should score "at least 40 points" against Stanford's defense (they scored only 14 against the Cardinal last year), Shaw remained complimentary. "I've seen them play," he said. "I have no problem with him saying that."
- Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost was briefly a quarterback at Stanford before transferring to Nebraska. David Shaw, a wide receiver on The Farm at the time, caught Frost's first career touchdown pass in 1994. Fittingly, the play came in a game against Oregon. Steve Frost, Scott's brother, is the public address announcer at Stanford Stadium.
- Shaw spoke about former Stanford lineman Jonathan Martin's football hiatus and the rocky Miami Dolphins situation involving Richie Incognito, who was actually on Oregon's squad for one week in 2004 before former coach Mike Bellotti cut him. "We're proud of Jonathan," Shaw said. "By all accounts, he's doing well. Not sure if he's going to rejoin the team this year or when he is. But he's going to get himself back and ready to play the game."
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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