The game of the year has finally arrived. Unfortunately, only one of the two teams held up its end of the bargain in going undefeated up to this point, and that has pretty seriously detracted from the hype around this matchup.
There is still plenty to play for tonight, obviously, but one can only wonder what today would have been like if Stanford could have taken care of business in Salt Lake City a month ago. Alas, we move on — now, to the keys of tonight’s game.
The way to beat Oregon is simply to not make mistakes. This goes from fundamentals like tackling and pursuit defense to more Oregon-specific duties like making sure you are lined up in time to defend the hurry-up offense.
I believe that there is some finite number of mistakes that a team can endure and still beat the Ducks. These can be distributed between offense, defense and special teams, but they can’t be very high in number. Last year, Stanford tested that limit with turnovers, a bad incompletion on fourth down, a missed short field goal and one missed tackle that led to the long run by Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. Only because it played almost perfectly in every other way was the Cardinal able to prevail — in overtime, no less.
That brings me to the first key of the game: limiting offensive mistakes. Last year, Stanford’s defense and special teams were so good that Stanford survived ridiculous offensive inefficiency. There was one stretch where the Cardinal went scoreless on 10 consecutive possessions, yet Stanford somehow still prevailed.
With the injuries on Stanford’s defensive line, the Cardinal defense probably won’t be able to hold off the Ducks for that long of a stretch this time around. Junior quarterback Kevin Hogan is going to have to orchestrate long drives on a consistent basis and put up points at a solid rate. Otherwise, the defense will have to be flawless again, and I think that is just too much to ask two years in a row against such an explosive offense.
The key on the defensive side of the ball for the Cardinal is going to be finding the perfect balance between playing the best players and keeping starters healthy on the defensive line.
As I mentioned earlier, Stanford’s defensive line is banged up. Head coach David Shaw said earlier this week that, ideally, he would like to rotate six to seven guys on the defensive line when going against the Ducks. With fifth-year senior defensive end Ben Gardner out for the season, sophomore nose tackle Ikenna Nwafor out for the foreseeable future and sophomore defensive end Aziz Shittu seemingly falling out of favor more and more each week, the Cardinal needs to replace three of its preseason top-six linemen.
It sounds like senior defensive end Henry Anderson will play, which is a much-needed boost, but how many snaps he can play for is still to be seen. New converts to the defensive line in senior Blake Lueders and sophomore Luke Kaumatule will have to play a significant amount of time. If they slip up, even on just a few plays, Oregon could strike for a lot of points and never look back. If Shaw plays the starters too long, they might be too fatigued to be effective in crunch time, and Oregon could pull away.
Beating one of the best teams in the country takes near perfection. We’re hours away from seeing if Stanford can pull it off for a second consecutive year, and those keys may be the difference.
Sam Fisher is ready to jump in on the Cardinal defensive line if Coach Shaw makes the call up to the press box. Remind Sam how to play his old high school position at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.