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It gets a little tougher this week, Stanford fans. The boys in red had their chances last week at home against the Cougars of Washington State, but the Card just couldn't seem to raise its head above water to snatch a victory at Stanford Stadium. So now it's up to Eugene, Oregon, to take on a team that admittedly is not as good as Wazzu's Cougars, and which also has a decidedly less-intimidating mascot: the Oregon Ducks.
It has been a bit surreal, hasn't it, watching this Stanford team so far in 2003? Quarterback U struggling to score points, while its defense continues to do a stellar job of refusing opponents' access to the end zone. With the exception of a few blunders in the secondary this last week, Stanford's defense did indeed prove that it belongs on the national stage. The wall known as Stanford's defensive line grudgingly surrendered only 70 yards to Cougar running backs last week, and will have to continue its 17th-best in the nation play this week as well if the Card are to pull of a victory in the unfriendly confines of Autzen Stadium.
Buddy Teevens is starting Chris Lewis on Saturday in what looks like an attempt to shake things up offensively and carry over some of the momentum that the Cardinal started to generate toward the conclusion of the Washington State game. Is Trent Edwards hurt? Probably a little banged up and bruised. Is Buddy going with Lewis to try and get some more experience on the field whenever the offensive unit is out there? Highly likely. Does C-Lew give the Card its best chance to win come Saturday? Debatable. Those who remember the 2001 campaign no doubt still get a little tingle going up their spines when they remember the upset that Lewis engineered on the very field where the Ducks and the Cardinal square off this weekend. Those who remember the 2002 campaign still love Chris Lewis, but really would prefer him to come off the bench, where he's usually lights-out, as opposed to starting, where he has shown himself to be susceptible to bouts of the butterflies that occasionally cause him to make some questionable decisions in the pocket. Are we at The Bootleg going to subject the Quackers to some questions and see how they stack up against your Stanford Cardinal for this weekend's game? Definitely.
What's up with the Oregon offense this year?
Those who remember the days when the national media fawned over Joey Harrington and Jason Fife like they were Montana's and Marino's love children might be a bit surprised at the less-than-explosive offensive output the Ducks have managed so far this year. Really, though, Oregon started off 2003 in typical Ducky fashion, averaging exactly 38 points a game through its first four contests, all wins. Since then, however, the wings of the Ducks have been clipped big time. Oregon managed only 16 against Washington State, was held to 13 in a somewhat embarrassing loss to the Utes from Utah, and in their last game squeezed out a measly two touchdowns' worth against Arizona State in a 59-14 slaughter. Where are the New York City billboards now?
Advertising cynicism aside, any objective observer has to admit that the Ducks still possess an offensive attack worthy of respect. At the head of the flock are a duo of quarterbacks at opposite ends of the age spectrum. Fife, a senior, and Kellen Clemens, a sophomore, are a potent pair who, though impressive statistically, have still struggled a bit as of late. The latter's game against Michigan earlier this season was one for the Clemens family scrapbook: 15 for 23 with 160 yards and nary an interception. The Burns, OR native would probably rather forget about his last start, though, which lasted about two passes. Both were intercepted by the Solar Satans, and one was returned for a touchdown, followed closely by Clemens being replaced by Fife. Still, it's the sophomore who tops the Oregon depth chart for this week, so expect the Ducks to trot out behind Clemens, who will probably be on the shortest of short leashes. If Stanford's defense shuts down Clemens, though, watch for Fife to make a prolonged cameo - the senior last week put up some impressive numbers in the face of a staunch Sun Devils defense: 7 for 19 for 101 yards and a touchdown, in addition to scrambling for another six-pointer.
Is this Oregon defensive line the best in recent memory?
It's tough to assign such an award to a unit that has yet to endure an entire season of Pac-10 play, but midway indicators point to a possible "yes." Oregon's D-line allows opponents only 83 yards on the ground per game, which might be troublesome to a Stanford squad that cannot afford any turnovers and so will probably try to protect the ball on the ground a little more. Even more telling about the front phalanx of the Ducks is that of the team's 18 sacks so far in 2003, 10 of them have been notched by the defensive line. This is a squad that hungers for the opposing quarterback and takes it upon itself to stop the run and harass the quarterback without much help from the linebackers. One-on-one matchups with the Stanford offensive line will be the story of Saturday's game in the trenches - the Cardinal might very well benefit from this go-it-alone philosophy of the Duck front four as it won't have to worry about picking up as many blitzes.
One of the main reasons why the defensive front for the Ducks can afford to give their linebackers more leeway is 6 foot 6 inches tall and weighs 309 pounds. It is junior Igor Olshansky, a Ukrainian import who has dominated opposing offensive linemen all year, and serves as Oregon's first and stoutest defense against the run. While he has yet to achieve at the same ridiculous level that he did at the end of last season, when he recorded 30 tackles in the final three games of Oregon's season, the Ukrainian who has only played football for five years remains a legitimate force against the run. Following a back injury, Olshansky boasts a more refined style wherein he utilizes his hands and feet in tandem with his massive body, instead of merely trying to run over opponents. Mike Sullivan, welcome to Oregon. It's your job to make sure Olshansky doesn't add to his 26 tackles, seven of which have gone for losses.
Can Terrence Whitehead equal his best-ever collegiate performance (which he had against Stanford one year ago)?
He better not if the Cardinal want a chance of taking this game. Last year in Autzen, Whitehead had a field day against Stanford's much-inferior 2002 rush defense, logging 132 yards and setting a personal-best collegiate record for yards in a game. This year, Whitehead has carried the ball 99 times for a total of 341 yards, which only comes out to 3.4 yards per carry. He hasn't had any truly spectacular performances, either, with his longest single scamper going for just 19 yards and his touchdown total clocking in at just three. Heck, Jason Fife has rushed for more touchdowns this year, with four to his name.
Therefore, don't expect Mike Bellotti to test Stanford's rushing defense - it is much more likely that the Ducks will try to open things up in the air against Stanford's weaker secondary. Of course, that doesn't diminish the importance to Stanford of shutting OU's running game down early - guaranteeing that the Ducks won't try for much on the ground will allow Stanford's linebackers to sag back more into pass coverage over the middle and take some of the pressure off of the Cardinal's defensive backs.
To whom is Kellen Clemens going to throw the ball?
Demetrius Williams and Samie Parker. All day. And all night. These two guys have double the catches of the next most prolific Ducks receiver, with 33 receptions each. So far this year, Williams has the statistical upper hand on Parker, averaging roughly 90 yards per game to the senior Parker's 80. Plus, Williams, a sophomore from Pittsburg, CA has clocked double the number of touchdowns that Parker has (six to three), despite the fact that Parker has now caught a pass in 21 consecutive contests. Saturday will be a big test for Stanford's secondary. Seeing how they play against two bona fide receivers, especially after last week's tough outing against Washington State, will give a measure of the heart and determination of Stanford's pass coverage unit.
Yep. This guy's the real deal: the Valley High School graduate and Oregon free safety is a Jim Thorpe Award finalist who is second on the Oregon team with 37 tackles while leading the team in disrupted passes with eight. Lewis and Steven Moore pace the Ducks with a couple of interceptions apiece. The fleet-footed Lewis is also a huge asset for the Ducks on special teams - his three blocked punts so far this year testify to his extremely quick first step and to his athleticism. Stanford had best be wary of special teams this week when Lewis is on the prowl, for the 64-yard punt return that Sammy Moore broke off against the Card last weekend was a psychological blow from which Stanford could not recover. The sequel cannot happen this weekend in Eugene.
Is Autzen Stadium the most hostile venue in college football?
Nope. While Autzen used to be a right nasty place for a visiting team to play a college football game, since Oregon expanded its home by 12,000 seats the Ducks are a smashing 1-4 in Pac-10 play, with that solitary victory coming against a Stanford team last year that bears little resemblance to the maturing squad we now know as the Cardinal. Stanford has shown that it can win here, with their starting quarterback on Saturday already having a dramatic come-from-behind victory in Autzen on his resume. Can Chris Lewis utilize his experience to right the Stanford offense and lead the Cardinal to victory? Will Stanford's secondary be able to team with the running D to keep the Ducks offense from taking off and resuming the form it demonstrated at the beginning of the season? These, Cardinal fans, are the questions.
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