Stanford beat Oregon last year with a brilliant defensive scheme and physical play. They dictated the type of game it became, a close one that came down to a few plays in the fourth quarter and overtime.
They beat the Ducks up. They stymied the running game and made it average. Other than Marcus Mariota's 77-yard run in the first quarter, which led to no points after a failed 4th and two keeper at The Cardinal 7, they frustrated Oregon's explosive offense and made it a war in the trenches, one for which the big, physical team from Palo Alto was better equipped.
Holding back the Duck: Taylor Hart supplies pressure, but Kevin Hogan gets off another short pass in last year's 17-14 loss to The Cardinal in Autzen.
The failed sequence (missed block, quick screen, low pass for a loss, run short of the first down, stuffed zone read quarterback run) set the tone for the entire game. Stanford drove 93 yards in 15 plays for 7-0 lead, one of only two sustained drives they managed in the game. They converted three times on third down before Kevin Hogan squirted in from the one, and wouldn't score again until the fateful tying drive in the fourth quarter, forcing overtime.
It was all the offense the visitors would need on a night the Ducks had few answers on offense.
Stanford stuffed Kenjon Barner and the running game. They plugged the inside. They strung out runs to the outside and swarmed to the ball. They played their linebackers a yard deeper, waiting Marcus Mariota out on zone read plays, forcing him to commit, then rallying to the ball. Mariota, then a redshirt freshman quarterback, struggled against the Stanford pressure, throwing an interception just before the half, completing just 21-37 passes for 207 yards, 5.6 yards per attempt, about half of what he's averaging this season.
Last season, the Stanford linebackers started a yard deeper than usual and waited to commit between the running back or quarterback, making it harder for Mariota to make his zone reads of whether to keep the ball or hand off to the running back. It played a role in Oregon rushing for 198 yards, more than 125 yards less than their average.
Offensively, Hogan tormented the Ducks with timely scrambles, pounded them inside with Stepfan Taylor, found tight Zach Ertz for key conversions, generating just enough offense to keep the Ducks off the field and on their heels.
There's lots to be concerned about with Stanford. They are physical and intimidating, with a style of both offense and defense that is the perfect antidote to what the Ducks do best. Oregon is built for the speed game, spreading the opponent out, winning one-on-one matchups in the open field. The defense is full of long, fast, athletic players, designed chiefly to combat other spread teams by limiting big plays and forcing mistakes. Stanford grinds it out with power. They're bigger. They employ formations that can put as many as nine offensive linemen on the field at one time. It's a power attack from 60 years ago, a throwback to full house backfields and the Wing-T and the power sweeps of Vince Lombardi and John McKay. Stanford declares, "this is what we're going to do. Now try and stop us."
It was a remarkable sales job, this transformation of Stanford football. David Shaw and Jim Harbaugh took one of the most elite, privileged universities in the country and crafted a football team built on the values of the sawmill and the filling station, a hard-nosed, strap-on-the-helmet Smashmouth eleven in the mold of 1980s Nebraska or 1970s USC. Stanford used to be the school of Jim Plunkett, Bill Walsh and John Elway, a finesse team, like Oregon, a team built around the passing attack, one that endured long stretches of futility By the mid-2000s the culture had eroded so severely that Walt Harris coached them to a 1-11 season.
The athletic administration plucked Harbaugh from the University of San Diego. In his first fall camp he outfitted team leaders in gas-jockey shirts with name tags like "Larry" and "Pete." October of that first year they pulled off the biggest upset in college football history, beating Pete Carroll and USC 24-23 as a 41-point underdog. In 2009 he beat both the Trojans and Oregon on the way to an 8-5 season, and a new era in Cardinal football began, one that catapulted Harbaugh into the National Football League after a 12-1 season and #4 ranking a year later.
Shaw took over, son of a Cardinal assistant coach, Stanford grad, offensive coordinator under Harbaugh, and in two and a half seasons he's 30-5, with two BCS bowl appearances and twin #7 rankings in 2011 and 2012.
As new money as the Ducks are in big-time college football, Stanford is even newer. Yet The Cardinal have firmly established themselves as the other power on the West Coast, with an identity that couldn't be more different than the flashy, innovative, wide-open Ducks. Stanford is tradition and academic excellence. The Ducks are gleaming helmets, sexy cheerleaders and an offense built to score in 90 seconds.
Last year, power and defense won. It dominated, leaving the Ducks frustrated, ruining hopes of a national title bid. The Ducks came away feeling that they'd let the game get away from them, that Stanford hadn't gotten their best shot. Mariota said this week that as a redshirt freshman he'd been too tentative in that game, that he'd let Stanford dictate what he and his offense could do. Pressure and agression, violent hitting and great tackling had something to do with that. But a year later, the Ducks feel as a team that they owe a payback to the team that denied them a shot at perfection.
Tough, confident and built for physical confrontations, The Cardinal invite the challenge. It's an epic confrontation of contrasting styles, in a series that's tied 2-2 over the last four years, each season with big implications in the conference race and nationally. #2 vs. #5. 8-0 vs. 7-1. National TV, ESPN Game Day. After Florida State's big win over Miami, it's Oregon's big chance to convince the computers and poll voters that they can be dominant against top competition. Rightly or wrongly, the result will be compared to Florida State's 41-14 victory over Miami.