THE BIG ONE: STANFORD VS. OREGON –
No. 3-ranked Stanford plays what may be the biggest football game in its history when it hosts No. 6 Oregon on Nov. 12. It may not be quite as big as the Nov. 5 game between Alabama and LSU, but it’s as close as it gets on the West Coast this season.
It is the first time in history two top 10 teams have played a game at Stanford, and the postseason implications for Stanford and Oregon are huge. Both teams are in the national championship picture, and Stanford could put itself in prime contention for a spot in the national title game with a win.
Even though Stanford has two games after this one, a victory over Oregon would clinch a berth in the Pac-12 title for Stanford, and it would also assure Stanford of having the home field in that conference title contest. If Oregon beats Stanford, it would need to win only one of its final two games against Oregon State and USC to get a berth in the Pac-12 title game.
The game will also go a long way toward determining whether Stanford QB Andrew Luck will win the Heisman Trophy. The star on the opposing team, Oregon TB LaMichael James, leads the nation in rushing and is healthy again after missing two games with a dislocated elbow. James had a big game against Stanford last season, rushing for 257 yards in the Ducks win, and he could re-enter the Heisman picture with a big game in a Ducks victory.
He and the Ducks’ ground game, which leads the nation in yards per rushing attempt, will be a major challenge for a Stanford defense that ranks fourth nationally against the run but has yielded some long runs in recent games. Long runs are the Ducks’ specialty, and teams with speed have had success getting to the perimeter against Stanford’s defense. No team has more speed than the Ducks, and no team gets to the perimeter as well as the Ducks.
Oregon QB Darron Thomas also had a big game against Stanford last year, and he too is healthy again after missing one game and parts of two others with a knee injury. He is the kind of mobile quarterback that has given the Cardinal problems.
Stanford’s defense could not hold up against Oregon last season, and it remains to be seen whether the Cardinal’s vulnerability against quick, athletic offensive teams continues to haunt Stanford.
Although both teams average better than 46 points a game and rank among the top five scoring teams in the country, the game will be a sharp contrast in offensive styles. Oregon looking for the big play on every snap and pushes the pace of its offense to a frenetic level to take advantage of its speed and finesse. Stanford relies on a power offense that uses a fullback and two or three tight ends to try to overpower and wear down opponents with long drives.
Stanford will have to establish the running game it prefers to control the ball, slow the pace of the game and counter the speed of Oregon’s offense. And, of course, Stanford needs Luck to control the game. He will be without two prime receivers – TE Zach Ertz (knee) and WR Chris Owusu (concussion) — so he will have to find alternatives.
The one similarity of both offenses is that they have dominated play in the second half. Close games involving both teams have become blowouts in the third quarter. The team that can establish control in the third quarter will have the upper hand.
Stanford is riding a 17-game winning streak, and its last loss was to Oregon last season. Oregon is riding an 18-game conference winning streak, and its last conference loss was to Stanford in 2009, the last time the teams met at Stanford.
– Washington State coach Paul Wulff mentioned this week that the fact that game is being played on grass (at Stanford) instead of artificial turf (at Oregon) will be a distinct advantage for the Cardinal, because Oregon’s speed is enhanced on its fast artificial field.
– Stanford remained No. 4 in the BCS standings released Nov. 6 and was behind Alabama even though the Tide lost to LSU. The Cardinal is No. 2 in the USA Today poll and No, 3 in the Harris poll, which are the two human polls used in the BCS formula, but Stanford is only ranked No. 7 by the BCS computers. If Stanford beats Oregon, however, it is expected that Stanford would move to No. 3 in the BCS on Nov. 13, based primarily on the boost it would give Stanford’s computer ranking but also on the influence it would have on pollsters.
— Andrew Luck’s Heisman Trophy chances will probably be determined in the game against Oregon. Typically, a player’s performance in a big, nationally televised game late in the season has the biggest influence on his Heisman chances. He also needs to be on a team that finishes ranked among the top five to have a decent shot at winning it. Luck is the solid front-runner in virtually every Heisman poll out there at the moment, but if Stanford loses and Luck does not play well, he may drop out.
— Stanford is riding a 17-game winning streak, the longest in the country, and its last loss was to Oregon last season. The Cardinal led last season’s game 21-3, but got overwhelmed by the Ducks in the second half of Oregon’s 52-31 victory. Oregon is riding an 18-game conference winning streak, and its last conference loss was to Stanford in 2009, the last time the teams met at Stanford. Oregon was coming off an emotion win over USC the week before it lost to Stanford two years ago.
— Oregon is averaging 6.99 yards per rushing attempt this season. No one else in the country is averaging as much as 6.0 yards a carry.
— The absence of TE Zach Ertz could reduce the Cardinal’s use of its three-tight-end offense that has been so successful. The Cardinal could plug in other players at those spots, but they are not the receiving threats that Ertz is. Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo still provide good targets, but the three-tight-end alignment, which provided so many option for the Cardinal and so many problems for defenses, will not be the weapon it was before Ertz’s injury.
— ESPN’s “College Gameday” will set up shop on the Stanford campus on Nov. 12, with its live preview of the day’s games starting at 6 a.m.
SCOUTING THE STANFORD OFFENSE: Stanford is third in the nation in scoring (48.2 ppg) and it is eighth in total offense. It relies on the balance of its power running game and the play-action passing of Andrew Luck, who is fifth nationally in pass efficiency. The team’s identity is as a run-first team and is led by Stepfan Taylor, who averages 99 yards per game, although three other backs get significant playing time. The tight ends had been the Cardinal’s strength this season, and despite the absence of Zach Ertz, Stanford still has two other topflight tight ends — Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo. WR Griff Whalen has become the top receiving threat, and he will be a bigger factor with Chris Owusu out for the Oregon game and perhaps longer. The Cardinal’s offensive line has played well this season and continues to improve.
SCOUTING THE STANFORD DEFENSE: The Cardinal’s defense has been generally dominant, but it showed some vulnerability against the run the past few games even though it ranks third nationally in run defense. The absence of ILB Shayne Skov and SS Delano Howell has hurt the Cardinal’s run defense, which has yielded some long runs. Skov is out for the season, but there is a chance Howell will play against Oregon. Fast teams have had success getting to the perimeter on Stanford, and that is Oregon’s forte. OLB Chase Thomas has 12.5 tackles for losses, and is the team’s big-play defender along with SS Michael Thomas, who has played both safety positions this season and has two of the team’s three interceptions. The team’s defensive strength is its pass rush, which has accounted for 28 sacks.
QUOTE: “They’re constantly watching, and if you’re out of position, they’ll find it.” – Stanford coach David Shaw, on Oregon’s ability to find and exploit flaws in an opponent’s defense.
THIS WEEK’S GAME: Oregon at Stanford, Nov. 12 – Stanford is 9-0 overall and 7-0 in the conference, coming off a 38-3 victory over Oregon State, while Oregon State is 8-1 overall and 6-0 in the Pac-12, coming off a 34-17 victory over Washington. Stanford has not lost at home since the 2009 season. The Cardinal would clinch a berth in the Pac-12 title game with a win and would also clinch home-field advantage in that championship game.
SERIES HISTORY: Stanford leads 44-29-1. Last meeting 2010 (52-31 Oregon).
KEYS TO THE GAME: Stanford must try slow the pace of the game as much as possible by controlling the ball for long stretches. That means Stanford’s offensive line must dominate the game and Andrew Luck must be nearly flawless. The Cardinal has yielded just four sacks, tied for the fewest in the nation, but USC had success putting pressure on Luck, and the Ducks have 29 sacks. Stanford must be able to withstand the fast pace Oregon will try to use, especially in the third quarter. If the Ducks get their offense going at a fast pace and can move the ball down the field in a hurry, the Cardinal may not be able to keep up. The Cardinal must limit the number of long runs by Oregon running backs – whether it be LaMichael James (who averages 8.0 yards a carry) or Kenjon Barner (6.8 yards a carry) or De’Anthony Thomas (8.5 yards per carry). Any of the three is capable of a 50-yard touchdown run, and Stanford has yielded a number of long runs recently.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Andrew Luck – Luck’s Heisman Trophy status will be determined by the game against Oregon. He played OK against Oregon last season, but not great, and he threw two interceptions that hurt the Cardinal’s chances. He was outplayed by Oregon QB Darron Thomas in that game, and Luck needs to outplay his Oregon counterpart for the Cardinal to win.
TE Coby Fleener – Fleener has eight touchdown catches and is Andrew Luck’s prime target when the Cardinal gets into the red zone. He becomes even more important with TE Zach Ertz sidelined with an injury.
OLB Chase Thomas – The most publicized member of the Stanford defense, Thomas has 12.5 tackles for losses and 6.5 sacks. He needs to at least bother Oregon QB Darron Thomas.
TB Stepfan Taylor – The versatile back is averaging 99 yards per game, and the Cardinal needs him to get consistent gains for Stanford to sustain long drives and slow the game’s pace. He had 113 yards against Oregon last season, but 44 came on one touchdown run in the first half.
— WR Chris Owusu sustained his third concussion in 13 months in the Oregon State game, and though he seems to be fine and passed all the tests required for him to play, he will not play against Oregon as a precaution. Whether he will play again this season is uncertain.
– SS Delano Howell missed the past three games with a hand injury, but he might play in the Oregon game, which would be a significant boost because defensive back have to make a lot of tackles against the Ducks.
— TE Zach Ertz sustained a knee injury against USC, missed the Oregon State game and is expected to miss the Nov. 12 Oregon game as well.
— OT Cameron Fleming missed the Oregon State game with a knee injury and is questionable for the Oregon game.
— TE Levine Toilolo injured his shoulder in the Oregon State game, but he is expected to play in the Oregon game.
— K Jordan Williams missed the USC game and the Oregon State game after sustaining a pulled muscle in pregame warmup of the USC game, and he is questionable for the Oregon game.