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Fisher: Stanford’s slim chances against Oregon rest on turnovers, pass rush

When Stanford heads up to Eugene for Saturday’s game, it’d better be ready for a tough test. Unlike overrated USC back in September, the Ducks scare me. I don’t think Stanford is better than Oregon, but I do think Stanford has a better chance in this game than many people — everyone from Vegas oddsmakers to local media members — think.

Forgive me if I sound a bit like Miles Bennett-Smith over the next 800 words or so — that’s his fault for writing a similar story yesterday. Miles made some great points and there are a few differences in our beliefs, but there is one thing that we both definitely agree on.

Stanford can beat Oregon. It won’t be easy and it would, and should, be considered a big upset. However, contrary to what people want you to believe, it’s nowhere near impossible. There are a few key matchups in this game that Stanford needs to win or keep close if it wants a chance to escape at 9-2.

First, Stanford has to take full advantage of Oregon’s injuries on the defensive side of the ball. Oregon is very banged up on the defensive line and in the defensive backfield, exposing two layers of vulnerability. In phase one, the Cardinal has to be able to move the football consistently and efficiently on the ground. Stepfan Taylor can give the defense precious time on the bench to rest and work on adjustments.

But controlling the ball itself, though necessary to beat Oregon, is not nearly sufficient. Stanford also must score touchdowns, and lots of them, to really have a chance in the game. That’s where Oregon’s injuries in the secondary become vital to Stanford’s success. Those injuries, combined with Stanford’s ground success, should be enough to open some big holes in the secondary. If there’s been a knock on Kevin Hogan through two games, it’s been a bit of inconsistency on the deep ball. Hogan will have to make those precious chances count — no more missing Devon Cajuste wide open down the middle of the field.

Defensively it’s the same theme: Play solidly all game, and take advantage of big play opportunities. Neither of these are easy tasks. Oregon is deadly from anywhere on the field — in military terms, the Ducks have quick-strike capability — and Stanford won’t be able to stop them. Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas and Marcus Mariota could all break an 80-yard play at any time, and the odds are that at least one of those Ducks will come up big.

Stanford doesn’t have to stop the Oregon offense to leave Eugene with a victory. Honestly, stopping the Ducks is probably impossible for anything short of an NFL defense. However, Stanford does have the ability to do enough on defense to shock the world and get the win.

First and foremost, Stanford needs to get consistent pressure from the defensive line. In the past two years, Stanford has had success slowing down the Oregon offense for fairly long stretches. The key to both games was pressure from the defensive line. Oregon’s running backs are spectacular in the open field, but they are very beatable when they have to make their first cut behind the line of scrimmage.

Then, when Oregon is forced to pass the football, Stanford must get its shots in on Mariota. David Shaw quoted the late Al Davis on this matter during his Tuesday press conference: “The quarterback must go down and must go down hard.” I could not possibly agree more, especially with the chance that Oregon backup quarterback Bryan Bennett will play defense in this game.

At the end of the day though, I believe this game will come down to two keys: special teams and turnovers. I know it’s cliché to bring up those points — I feel like every NFL analyst right about now — but I think they are especially crucial to this contest and I give Stanford the edge in both categories.

If this game comes down to the kickers, I think Stanford has the edge. Jordan Williamson has had his ups and downs, but he will still be the best kicker on the field on Saturday.

The key for Stanford on special teams will be winning the big-play battle. Stanford can’t let De’Anthony Thomas dominate the return game, or else it could be a long night. If Drew Terrell could pitch in with a big punt return — assuming Oregon punts in the game — it would provide a huge boost.

There may be many paths to victory for Stanford, but every single one will involve Stanford winning, or at least tying, the turnover battle. Stanford struggled mightily holding onto the football against Oregon State and barely survived; the Card won’t be so lucky against the offensive juggernaut that is the Oregon Ducks.

That Duck offense does have a turnover weakness. Oregon has fumbled the ball 25 times on the season, an astounding 2.5 fumbles per game. It hasn’t hurt them though, because Oregon has recovered the majority of these fumbles. With a forecast of rain and Stanford’s propensity to deliver big hits, Oregon will put the ball on the turf. Stanford needs to be first to the football and take advantage.

The key to that will be defensive pursuit to the football, which Stanford should be doing anyway to help slow down Barner, Thomas and Mariota. When Alex Carter delivers his requisite big hit on the outside, will Chase Thomas be there to pick up the football? If so, don’t be shocked to see this game close to the very end.

 

Sam Fisher once tried to pick up an Oregon fumble. Ever since, he’s spent his Saturdays in the press box. If you’ve ever felt like a human sled too, console him at safisher “at” tanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Samfisher908.

About Sam Fisher

Sam Fisher is the managing editor of sports for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 244. Sam also does play-by-play for KZSU's coverage of Stanford football, Stanford baseball and Stanford women's basketball. In 2013, Sam co-authored "Rags to Roses: The Rise of Stanford Football," with Joseph Beyda and George Chen.