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Roundtable: What went wrong for the Cardinal defense against the Ducks?

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They say all good things must come to an end, and sadly, Stanford’s undefeated conference record was not immune. The then-No.7 Cardinal (8-2, 7-1 Pac-12) lost a 38-36 heartbreaker to the Oregon Ducks (7-3, 5-2) on Saturday, largely eliminating themselves from playoff consideration. There are a lot of things Stanford did wrong that one could dwell on (settling for field goals, fumbled snaps, the two-point conversion), but perhaps the most shocking thing about the game was how Vernon Adams and the Oregon offense had so many big plays against the Stanford defense. What went wrong for the Cardinal defense, and is it in danger of repeating those mistakes against Jared Goff and the Cal offense? We asked Daily sports writers Laura Stickells, Olivia Hummer and Neel Ramachandran for their thoughts.

Laura Stickells: After watching Stanford and Oregon battle it out to keep national championship hopes alive for the past four years and after witnessing upsets three out of those four times, I wasn’t shocked when the Cardinal fell from the ranks of the one-loss teams.

The Stanford front seven, particularly in the first half, had a hard time with the Oregon linemen and struggled getting to the quarterback. This gave Vernon Adams plenty of time to pick a target and the wide receivers plenty of time to escape their cornerbacks and complete passes. Adams finished the night with a 0.83 completion rate, averaging 20.8 yards per completion and throwing no picks.

Although I think Stanford is likely to come out on top in Saturday’s matchup, Cal’s offense should still provide another tough challenge for the Stanford defense. The Bears are hot off a big win against Oregon State and are ranked second in the Pac-12 in total offense, averaging 511.6 yards per game, and their 6-4 record doesn’t show that two of those losses came within one touchdown. Also on the roster is likely first-round draft pick Jared Goff, who was on point last weekend, passing for 453 yards and 6 touchdowns, helping lead Cal to a school record of 760 yards in total offense.

With No. 1 cornerback Ronnie Harris out, Goff will likely have another big day in the air, which could present a problem for the inexperienced Stanford secondary, as all five are first-year starters. That being said, the Bears are not as strong defensively, ranking fourth from the bottom in rush defense in the Pac-12, so the Cardinal will likely be able to employ one of their favorite strategies, controlling the clock for the majority of the game.

In short, if the Stanford defense can keep a powerful Cal offense off the field, then they should find themselves playing in Levi’s Stadium come Dec. 5.

Neel Ramachandran: Despite Stanford’s resounding success this year, there have been warning signs along the way that the defense, and in particular the secondary, might not be up to par with Cardinal defenses of years past. Elite passers such as Cody Kessler of USC and Luke Falk of Wazzu carved up the secondary earlier this year, but Stanford was able to get away with wins, due at least in part to the fact that neither team possessed a particularly strong rushing attack (USC ranks ninth in the Pac-12 in rushing offense, while Washington St. ranks last).

The same could not be said last Saturday, when Stanford had to deal with both the inspired play of Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. and the beast of a running back that is Royce Freeman. Freeman, coupled with wide receiver Charles Nelson, put up 193 yards on just 18 carries, forcing Stanford to respect the run and get burned by Oregon’s speed in the passing game as a consequence.

The injury to Harris didn’t help, and the news that he will be out for Big Game certainly shifts the dynamics of the matchup greatly in Cal’s favor. Goff, a far better passer than Adams Jr., will likely have a field day passing the ball around the Cardinal’s young and inexperienced secondary.

However, while Cal’s uptempo spread offense resembles Oregon’s, it lacks the same talent at the skill positions, especially in the running game. Vic Enwere and Khalfani Muhammad, the Bears’ primary ball-carriers, have just 991 yards combined on the season (Freeman, for comparison, has nearly 1400). Look for the Stanford defense to have a bounce-back game and effectively shut down the Berkeley rushing attack.

Ultimately, I don’t see Cal being able to sustain drives for four quarters based purely off the arm of Jared Goff, and meanwhile, Christian McCaffrey & Co. should have no problem running all over the Bears’ inadequate defense. While I suspect that Stanford’s rivals from across the Bay will hang close for about a half, the Cardinal will pull away and keep the Axe on the Farm for the sixth straight year.

Olivia: The short answer? No.

The Cardinal were outplayed by an Oregon offense that has hit its stride and figured out how to fill its Mariota-sized gap. As painful as it was to watch, there’s no shame in that.

Coming into last week’s matchup, no one doubted that Oregon’s offense was capable of playing to win. Despite the Ducks’ slow start to the season, they lead the Pac-12 in total offense, with 532.6 yards per game, and they showcased their big-play ability on Saturday as they tore through Stanford’s defense.

Cal, on the other hand, has struggled recently, with its only win in the last five games coming against a mediocre Oregon State squad. The team has yet to beat a ranked opponent, and Stanford fiercely defends its home turf. While Goff and the Bears have registered the second-most yards per game in the conference, their 6-4 record proves they haven’t always managed to capitalize on the yardage.

With the sting of an upset fresh on their minds, the Cardinal defense will be keyed in for Saturday’s matchup. For the first time in a few years, Big Game is a big deal, and something tells me that Stanford won’t be willing to give up the Axe.

 

Contact Laura Stickells at lauraczs ‘at’ stanford.edu, Neel Ramachandran at neelr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Olivia Hummer at ohummer ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Laura Stickells is one of the Managing Editors of Sports at The Stanford Daily. Growing up in the small, rural town of Bishop, California, Laura captained the powderpuff football team and became particularly adept at driving heavy equipment in her later years, a skill that helped her find a position as an intern at NBC Sports this summer working on Olympic coverage. In her spare time, Laura competes on the Stanford Equestrian Team. She also writes football better than the boys. Laura is a sophomore majoring in communications and can be reached at lauraczs 'at' stanford.edu.