In part two of a two-part series, Miles Bennett-Smith looks at Oregon’s path to a win. Read part one, on how Stanford could win, here.
Nike founder Phil Knight is an alumnus of both the University of Oregon and Stanford, but it’s the Ducks that have the flashier uniforms — and an all but unstoppable offensive attack.
Maybe it’s the painted wings on the players’ shoulder pads, but whatever propels Oregon is certainly working this season. The stats are scary: The Ducks average more points in the first half than 87 FBS teams do in an entire game, the Ducks have not trailed past the first quarter and their average halftime lead is 25.8 points, 7.4 points better than any other FBS team.
According to ESPN’s Stats and Information team, if Oregon continued its first-half pace in the second half, the Ducks would average 69.6 points and 712.8 yards per game. Those numbers would crush the FBS records for points (56.0 by Army in 1944) and yards (624.9 by Houston in 1989) per game in a season.
That should terrify Stanford fans, especially because the last two seasons the Cardinal has had a front-row seat as Oregon rolled past 50 points twice to derail Stanford’s Pac-12 title hopes in 20-point blowouts.
And this year the Ducks have probably improved on offense. Redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota has put up Heisman-worthy numbers the past two games at USC and California — 47-of-57 passing, 681 yards, 10 touchdowns, no interceptions — and he has the Cardinal’s attention.
Stanford head coach David Shaw acknowledged earlier in the week that Mariota makes Oregon more of a threat than Darron Thomas did the past two years.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Shaw said. “I know they’re already talking up there that this kid is the best quarterback they’ve ever had, at least in this generation of football.”
On tape Mariota is as good as advertised, rarely making poor reads and going through multiple progressions before pulling the ball down and using his speed to rack up yards on the ground.
And while Stanford’s defense is clearly a threat to slow Oregon down with heavy blitz packages and one of the best pass rushes in the country, Mariota might be able to exploit penetration on the edge by stepping up and scrambling up the middle or checking off to his backs or tight ends.
“We’ll see,” Mariota told the Oregon Statesman. “I feel like we have guys up front that can really move the line of scrimmage.”
That’s not wishful thinking, as the Ducks have three players with over 500 yards rushing, led by Kenjon Barner. A Heisman candidate and likely finalist, Barner has racked up 1360 net yards on just 199 attempts (good for a 6.8 net average) with 19 touchdowns. But the rest of the Ducks have accounted for 21 rushing touchdowns of their own.
As for Mariota’s targets, they are plentiful. All-everything De’Anthony Thomas is a threat to break the big one every time he touches the ball, and leads the team with 378 yards receiving. But the Ducks aren’t selfish — five receivers have over 200 yards receiving and seven have more than 175.
Perhaps more frustrating for Stanford, however, is the Ducks’ propensity to spread the Cardinal out in its zone-read offense and dink and dunk their way through missed tackles in the secondary. This has plagued Stanford for the last several seasons against Oregon, particularly in the second half as the Cardinal defense tires.
Almost all of Oregon’s receivers are very good downfield blockers, a fundamental in Chip Kelly’s offensive schemes that aim to create mismatches and exploit team speed at the second level.
It makes for a tough matchup for any team. Sell out to stop Barner and company in the run game, and Mariota might burn you on the outside with Thomas or Josh Huff anyway; sit on the outside routes and Barner might torch you for 300 yards, as he did against USC.
Oregon’s defense is banged up, yes, but Stanford is starting a freshman quarterback in his first road game. (I love you Colorado, but you honestly should not be in Division I this season.) And the Cardinal struggled to score in road games against Washington and at home against San Jose State and a Washington State team that is barely better than the Buffaloes.
“It’s gonna be a challenge regardless of (injuries),” said Oregon linebacker Michael Clay. “They’re a really good team.”
Clay and his teammates are saying all the right things this week, but do the Ducks believe them? According to ESPN Stats and Info, Stanford is one of five teams that has not allowed a touchdown in less than a minute against an FBS opponent and the only team that has not allowed a touchdown in three plays or fewer.
But can that hold up against the neon green lightning strikes of Oregon? Conventional wisdom says no, Las Vegas says no and if either of them is close to being correct, the Ducks will be walking out of Autzen on Saturday night just two games from playing for a national championship.