In its most important game since the 2000 Rose Bowl, the No. 9 Stanford football team will travel to Eugene, Ore., this weekend to take on No. 4 Oregon. The game is receiving national recognition and is being billed in some corners as the de-facto Pac-10 championship game.
While the Ducks (4-0, 1-0 Pac-10) have been the favorite to win the conference since August, the Cardinal (4-0, 1-0) was thought of as a dark-horse contender, picked to finish fourth in the conference in the preseason media poll.
The contest figures to be one of contrasts, pitting Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh’s physical, brute-force playing style against the finesse and gadgetry of Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. Through its first four games, Harbaugh’s team has played in no-nonsense fashion, emphasizing size and power over speed and agility. Opponents have often seen the Stanford offense lining up with six or seven offensive linemen with the clear intent of simply overpowering the opposing line. The Cardinal has even used sixth-year senior lineman James McGillicuddy as an eligible receiver on some downs. Harbaugh will try to consistently pound the Oregon defense, using Stanford’s superior physicality and offensive line to wear down the Ducks and keep their offense off the field.
Meanwhile, the Oregon offense employs an extremely potent spread attack, which can score points in bunches and keep the Ducks in any game. They are able to stretch the field using quarterback Darron Thomas and a talented core of receivers, which can open holes for the speedy running back tandem of LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.
Last season’s clash at Stanford Stadium was a similar affair, with Stanford rolling up points behind Heisman runner-up Toby Gerhart and Oregon staging a big comeback behind the play of quarterback Jeremiah Masoli. Stanford eventually prevailed 51-42, dealing Oregon what turned out to be its only Pac-10 loss of the season. This year, the styles might be similar, but the names will be different–Gerhart graduated and moved onto the NFL, while Masoli was dismissed from the Duck roster for off-field violations and now plays for Ole Miss.
Unlike last year’s meeting, both teams enter Saturday with top-10 rankings and sky-high expectations. Over the season’s first four games, both have proven themselves as capable contenders.
Behind redshirt sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, Stanford’s offense is currently fourth in the nation in scoring. Luck has earned some Heisman consideration after throwing for 912 yards and completing 62.7 percent of his passes over the Card’s first four games. He has also thrown 11 touchdowns while giving up just two interceptions, both to the Fighting Irish last weekend. Stanford’s receiving corps is strong as well, with junior wide receiver Chris Owusu figuring to be Luck’s top target this weekend. Senior receiver Ryan Whalen, the leader of the receiving corps, is questionable for the game with an elbow injury, but did practice this week.
Stanford’s running game is another key component of its offense, and is expected to make significant contributions on Saturday. While the Card has been using a number of different backs, sophomore Stepfan Taylor has emerged as the key playmaker at the position with 59 carries on the year, more than double any other Stanford player. Besides Taylor, the Cardinal will rely on sophomore Tyler Gaffney, redshirt freshman Usua Amanam and true freshman Anthony Wilkerson to generate yards on the ground.
This week’s game may see the return of senior running back Jeremy Stewart to the depth chart. Stewart entered the season as one of Stanford’s main tailbacks, but suffered an ankle injury in the first game of the season. While Harbaugh has not indicated whether or not Stewart will play, he was in practice all week.
While the Cardinal offense certainly packs some firepower, Oregon boasts one of the most explosive offenses in the country. At 57.8 points per game, the Ducks have the top-ranked offense in the country. The passing game, led by Thomas and wide receiver Jeff Maehl, is the most potent attack Stanford has faced all season. However, the main battle will be for control of the line of scrimmage and the running game. Led by James and Barner, Oregon boasts the fourth-best rushing attack in college football and will seek to utilize that unit to score early and often.
Both offensive units are among the best in the nation, but the game is likely to come down to the play of each team’s defense. Stanford is ranked 12th nationally in scoring defense while the Ducks are third.
The Cardinal defense is vastly improved this season, with a new defensive coordinator and a new 3-4 scheme. Stanford shut out UCLA–the same UCLA team that put up 34 points on Texas in Austin–in the Rose Bowl three weeks ago before limiting Notre Dame to just a touchdown and two field goals last weekend. Stanford will rely on its physical linebackers–sophomore Shayne Skov, senior Owen Marecic, redshirt junior Thomas Keiser and redshirt sophomore Chase Thomas–to put pressure on Darron Thomas and shut down James and Barner. Stanford’s secondary, which has been fairly effective in shutting down opposing passing games, also will be hard-pressed to shut down Oregon’s speedy receivers. The unit is likely to be without junior safety Michael Thomas, the star of the secondary through the first four games.
Despite these challenges, senior cornerback Richard Sherman remained confident in the defense’s ability to make plays.
“Every game is the same game plan,” Sherman said. “We have to go in, prevent big plays and play hard. Every week, we play a better opponent, so we have to keep preparing the same, and keep doing our jobs.”
Oregon, meanwhile, is ranked 31st in pass defense and 44th in rushing defense. The Ducks have yet to test themselves against a truly elite opponent; their toughest opponent so far has been Arizona State, a team picked to finish ninth in the Pac-10. The Ducks do possess a ball-hawking secondary capable of generating turnovers. So far, they have picked off nine passes, while the offense has given up just three on the year.
The game is likely to come down to which defense is able to make a big play late in the game. Both offenses are capable of scoring and are likely to match each other point for point. Whichever defense can step up and make a critical stop will go a long way in deciding who leaves Eugene as the conference favorite to make the Rose Bowl and possibly the national title game.
Stanford will kick off against Oregon at 5 p.m. on Saturday at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. The game will be nationally televised on ABC. Additionally, ESPN’s College GameDay program will be broadcasting from Eugene starting at 6 a.m.