No. 7 Stanford (8-1, 7-0 Pac-12) vs. Oregon (6-3, 4-2)
Oregon is a different team when Vernon Adams is healthy. The Ducks set a school record with 777 total yards of offense last week — albeit against Cal’s defense — more yards than they ever achieved with Dennis Dixon, LaMichael James, Marcus Mariota or any of their elite offensive playmakers. However, the problem for Oregon is its conference-worst defense, which has allowed 42 or more points four times already this season.
Stanford will take Oregon’s best shot this Saturday, and the Ducks could very well end Stanford’s perfect 7-0 conference start just like they did in 2011. However, Stanford will find a way to grind out a victory. It’s tough to imagine the Oregon defense stopping Stanford’s offense more than Stanford’s defense will be able to limit Vernon Adams and the Oregon offense. Last season, Marcus Mariota had arguably one of his top Heisman performances in beating Stanford for his first time as a starter. Don’t sleep on Christian McCaffrey having a Heisman moment of his own against the Ducks. Though McCaffrey’s certainly still behind Derrick Henry and Leonard Fournette in the Heisman pecking order, he’s not so far behind that a brilliant three- or four-game stretch to close out the season couldn’t boost him to the top. I expect Shaw to let McCaffrey rumble against the Ducks, and no stat line south of 250 rushing yards would surprise me.
Oregon is 105th in the nation in per-play defense this season, surrounded by notorious defensive powerhouses like Army, the University of Texas-San Antonio and Western Michigan. Oregon gave up 62 points to Utah. Oregon gave up 42 points to Eastern Washington. Eastern Washington’s backup quarterback threw for 145 yards and 2 touchdowns. The secondary looks so lost and technically unsound that half the time, I can’t tell whether they’re actually trying to make tackles or not. And on the ground, they’re 95th in the country in opposing yards per rush. That means that every time Stanford has the ball, I fully expect the Cardinal to drive down the field and score, dominating possession and keeping the ball out of the Oregon offense’s hands.
As to that Oregon offense — even with Vernon Adams, the Ducks only mustered 28 points against Michigan State, 20 against Utah and 26 against Washington. Stanford’s defense is at least as good as those of the three teams I just mentioned. This isn’t the same Oregon attack that sliced through Pac-12 defenses with scalpel-like precision with Marcus Mariota; it has tempo and potential, but at the end of the day, it’s sloppy, mistake-laden and reckless. Stanford takes a big lead going into the half, and this time David Shaw will not pull his starters.
Everyone is having fun taking digs at the Oregon defense (and Do is the unequivocal leader in that department) but this is a very different Duck team from the one that gave up 42 to Eastern Washington and 62 to Utah. As Kevin Hogan described it this week, Oregon has improved considerably on the defensive side in the last three games, culminating in holding a strong Cal offense to just 10 points in the first half. Mark Helfrich’s squad will have its work cut out for it in stopping McCaffrey and company, but it won’t prostrate itself and very well could get a couple key stops behind DeForest Buckner and an aggressive defensive front.
Meanwhile, the Duck offense is coming off of the best performances in the history of a program that specializes in manufacturing eye-popping numbers. Saturday will be the toughest test that the Stanford defensive has seen to date. A resurgent Vernon Adams, whom David Shaw likened to an improvisational jazz musician, can turn even the most disciplined defenses on their heads. Moreover, the Cardinal have yet to match up against a physical, bruising running back like Royce Freeman who ran roughshod over Lance Anderson’s defense last season.
By all accounts, Oregon’s seniors have imposed a sense of urgency and belief in the locker room similar to the leadership that emerged for the Cardinal at the end of 2014. As a result, Oregon looks poised to do what Stanford did to UCLA last season: Come together at the just the right time to crush the dreams of a rival with everything to lose. Behind a legendary performance from Adams and just enough defense to squeak by, Oregon takes this one in a game for the ages.
Oregon’s talent has begun to come together just in time for this matchup. The team’s dominating performance against Cal last weekend should terrify Stanford fans, not only because of how thoroughly it thrashed the Bears but because of how much more it could have obliterated them had Cal not blocked two Oregon punts and intercepted two Vernon Adams passes in its own end zone. What’s more, the Ducks’ offense figures to match up fairly well against the Cardinal. Adams is remarkably mobile in the pocket (something that the Stanford pass rush struggled to deal with against USC’s Cody Kessler), and Royce Freeman’s size and speed figure to give him the best chance of anyone in the conference in achieving sustained running success against the Cardinal.
Ultimately, however, I think that Do and Michael hit the nail on the head when it comes to Oregon’s defense. I cannot see any reason why the Ducks would be more apt at stopping this resilient Stanford offense than any of the Cardinal’s recent opponents, and I think that plus Stanford’s still-underrated consistency on The Farm should keep David Shaw’s side in the driver’s seat. Don’t take these advantages to the bank just yet, though – the Ducks are a talented team playing with nothing to lose, and if Stanford allows them to hang around, then this series might just produce another classic.