Now begins the final lead-up to this Saturday’s Stanford-Oregon game in Eugene. By this point, you’ve probably heard much too much about the game’s pomp and circumstance, so we’ll forego mentioning the ABC national telecast, ESPN College GameDay, or the fact that the victor will secure a place in the nation’s top 5 teams, become the favorite to represent the PAC-10 in the Rose Bowl, and will have a legitimate chance to play in the BCS National Championship Game. Whoops: we just mentioned all of that. But from now on, we’re just talking football. So without further hype, apprehension, or ado, let’s talk about what’s going to happen on Autzen Stadium’s pinstriped turf (enjoy the Beethoven).
It would be silly to expect a defensive shootout, à la last week’s Alabama-Arkansas barn burner, from these two West Coast powers. Stanford and Oregon are both in the country’s top 5 in average scoring, and Oregon leads the nation with just under 58 points scored per game. The Ducks rely upon the run game to fuel their spread option offense, and that should not change on Saturday. Oregon averages almost 317 rushing yards per game (that’s good for 4th in the US of A) and features sophomore tailback LaMichael James, who is a premier running back by every measure. James leads the PAC-10 in rushing despite missing Oregon’s Week 1 game due to injury. He’s undersized (5′ 9″, 185 pounds) but speedy and agile as hell. Check out the man himself in action:
The underclassman is putting up Toby-like numbers. Gerhart put up 316 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in his first 3 games of 2009; James has compiled 455 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns over his first 3 games this year, and James has received fewer carries than Toby did (58 to Toby’s 64). If Oregon keeps winning and James keeps lighting up the stat book, the kid from Texarkana could become the second straight sophomore running back to win the Heisman.
James is all the more important to Oregon because the Ducks remain inexperienced and somewhat vulnerable at quarterback. After Oregon head coach Chip Kelly kicked criminal and presumptive starter Jeremiah Masoli off the team last spring for legal troubles, the Ducks had a long quarterback battle between senior Nate Costa and sophomore Darron Thomas. Thomas won the job, but he hasn’t had to make many big plays so far in 2010. Even against soft opposition (Oregon has not played a team with a winning record) Thomas is only completing 55% of his passes and hasn’t passed for 300 yards in a game. Thomas has done an admirable job, especially considering his youth and the fact that just 6 months he believed he would be the team’s 3rd-string quarterback, but Oregon cannot win without a blossoming running game. For that, the Ducks will look to James, and also to back-ups Remene Alston, Jr., and Kenjon Barner, both of whom are averaging over 50 rushing yards per game. Oregon has a reputation of relying on athleticism and speed, and that’s especially true this year. If the meteorologists are correct, Eugene will be sunny on Saturday afternoon, and Chip Kelly’s boys will have perfect weather to implement their slashing, high-speed offensive attack.
Can Stanford’s defense stop them? In one word: no. But neither can anyone else. The Cardinal defense will be expected to slow the Ducks down, not shut them down. Stanford’s greatest advantage is its physicality. Against Ohio State–a similarly physical team–in the Rose Bowl last year, Oregon had trouble getting its offense off the ground. Oregon mustered just 17 points on 260 total yards, and Ohio State kept LaMichael James to only 70 rushing yards. That’s the kind of performance that Stanford would love to get from its defense this week. In last year’s Stanford-Oregon game, the Card’s toughness was an important aspect of the team’s game plan for pulling off the 51-42 upset in Stanford Stadium. Stanford’s defense has improved dramatically from last year, and the loss of Jeremiah Masoli means that Oregon’s offense is not at last season’s level, regardless of their production thus far against poor teams. Expect Oregon to score in the mid-to-high thirties, even if they get off to a quick start.
But the Stanford offense will also be able to perform. Oregon’s defensive line is remarkably small for a top-5 team. Only 1 player on Oregon’s front 4, senior defensive tackle Zac Clark, weighs over 250 pounds, and even Clark barely makes weight (256 pounds). Compare that to Stanford’s offensive line, which is finally gaining recognition as one of the finest in the country. For the Card, not a single o-line starter weighs under 285 pounds. All this is to say that at any given position along the trenches, Stanford has at least a 35-pound advantage. That means that Stepfan Taylor and the Cardinal’s running back stable will have big running lanes and Andrew Luck will have lots of time to find receivers and throw without tons of pressure.
If the Ducks blitz linebackers and safeties to get to Luck, #12 has the talent to check down and make Oregon pay for keeping men out of pass coverage. That’s the kind of defensive vulnerability that Oregon showed last week at Arizona State, when the Ducks gave up 597 yards of offense and 31 points to a Sun Devils team that isn’t nearly as offensively talented as Stanford is. Look for the Cardinal offense to explode, and for Andrew Luck to have a Heisman breakout game following his mediocre showing at Notre Dame.
Crowd noise and bad karma be damned. This Stanford team is experienced and is coached by college football’s baddest badass.
Verdict: Stanford beats Oregon, 48-38
Willys DeVoll is the editor-in-chief and founder of The Daily Axe, a Stanford sports site.