In part one of a two-part series, Miles Bennett-Smith looks at Stanford’s path to a win. Tomorrow, read the Oregon perspective on why the Ducks will win.
History is rarely kind to the underdog.
In colonization, in investment banking, in politics and in sports, the favorites usually come out on top. This is the driving principle behind the joy and excitement that comes from seeing the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s “Miracle” at Lake Placid and watching the ’69 Mets win the World Series or stories like “Rudy.” (I will always love you, “Remember the Titans,” but T.C. Williams was a football team loaded with talent.)
For sports fans, rooting for the underdog is so much nobler than rooting on the teams that win a lot, or seem to win a lot. That’s why everyone hates the Yankees, Manchester United and the SEC – you have to give me that one, Ducks fans.
On Saturday night, Stanford slips into that role, hoping to be Cinderella at the ball, stealing a win at Autzen Stadium before the clock strikes midnight.
Oregon opened as a 24-point favorite on the basis of perhaps the most efficient offense in the last 20 years (this is where Baylor fans and RGIII cry fowl). Without question, the Ducks should win this game on paper.
The lesser-known weapons like Josh Huff, Bralon Addison and Colt Lyerla – I have to stop and acknowledge that Lyerla is like Optimus Klein with better hands – on the outside are scary, Kenjon Barner is terrifying and Marcus Mariota should at least be sitting in the audience in New York City when they hand out the Heisman next month.
It’s crazy to think that Stanford will get close to covering, let alone winning.
But it was crazy to think No. 1 Alabama would lose last week, and then Johnny Football and Texas A&M came along. It was crazy to take Stanford beating USC when the Trojans were legitimate 41-point favorites.
Those happened, so maybe Saturday is when the Ducks finally get their wings clipped.
If Kevin Hogan is on his game and handles the pressure, the kid is really good. Ty Montgomery isn’t an elite receiver, but he has elite speed. So does Kelsey Young, and Stepfan Taylor should get a chance to play on Sundays because he is one of the most well-rounded running backs to ever come out of the program. And Zach Ertz is the best tight end in college football.
By the way, the Cardinal defense is nasty. Chase Thomas leads a linebacking core that has three, maybe four, legit NFL prospects. The secondary is much improved, and while they have had problems with Oregon’s speed the last couple of years, and that’s unlikely to change, if they hold their assignments they might slow down the Ducks just enough for the defensive line to make its mark.
Because the pass rush is coming.
Josh Mauro is quick with strong enough hands that he could have 10 sacks for a lot of teams, but he rides the bench much of the game because Henry Anderson, Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner are relentless. And the stats don’t even tell the whole story. As many sacks as Stanford has recorded, the Cardinal should have three times that number, and while Mariota is as slippery as an eel, capitalizing more efficiently on those knockdowns and quarterback hurries is essential to stopping the check-downs that lead to missed tackles and big runs that have killed Stanford against Oregon.
But the secondary this year is the key to Stanford’s claim to being a truly elite unit and the key to slowing the Ducks offense as much as it can be slowed. (If you haven’t read about Lane Kiffin calling his father Monte and the ensuing exchange, you should do that ASAP.)
Free safety Ed Reynolds, who leads the nation in interception return yardage, should get All-American recognition both as a ball-hawk and a heavy hitter over the middle. Nickelback Usua Amanam has made a huge impact since transitioning to his new role. True freshman Alex Carter is an athletic freak who has been punishing wide receivers since earning his first start two weeks ago.
And strong safety Jordan Richards might be the best of the lot in some scouts’ eyes.
Stanford’s goal should be to hold Oregon to 35 points – which would be a serious feat but is not impossible. Arizona held the Ducks to 13 points in the first half, and if the Wildcats hadn’t been as piss-poor as Colorado at doing anything in the red zone, would have had the lead.
The Ducks generally wear teams down so that by the second half, it’s off to the races with Barner, Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas. For the Cardinal to win, it has to temper the excitement sure to be gained from slowing Oregon at all in the first half and maintain control throughout the game, because with that kind of speed on turf, three touchdowns on three touches in three minutes doesn’t even make Kelly blink.
At least Stanford has an edge in the special teams game, as Rob Beard is not a very good college kicker and I maintain that Jordan Williamson is, despite what most people on campus seem to foolishly think.
Unfortunately, that means Chip Kelly has even more incentive to go for it on fourth down…
No matter. Because the biggest chink in the flashy Nike armor Oregon will be wearing stems from the rash of injuries to the defense, and they can’t be covered with Band-Aids.
Free safety Avery Patterson is reportedly out for the season, and he was the second-string taking over for John Boyett, whose career at Oregon is now over thanks to knee surgery.
The defensive line is banged up, with Dion Jordan, Isaac Remington and Ricky Heimuli all out last week against Cal, as were backup cornerbacks Dior Mathis and Troy Hill. I can’t believe that they’ll all be out again, and Jordan is a beast if healthy. But defensive end Taylor Hart was hurt during the game against the Bears, and Wade Keliikipi didn’t even travel to Berkeley.
In short, the depth is thin in many places. Stanford’s offense can put up points, and then it might just be about whether the Cardinal can score slowly enough to keep the Ducks off the field.
Stanford said many of the same things last year, before the Ducks went out and made Mr. Luck more like Mr. Irrelevant. But that doesn’t change the fact that if Oregon doesn’t play well, and Stanford is almost perfect, the Cardinal is primed to be the one smelling roses come January.
Contact Miles Bennett-Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.