Stanford Must Stop 21st Century Offense

Eugene – The Oregon Ducks are 3-0 and this week travel to the Bay Area to face an improved Stanford Cardinal team that drilled San Jose State last week to improve to 1-1 for the year. Oregon's Mike Bellotti thinks his team is improving and thinks that Stanford while having a very accurate passing attack can also run the ball.

Last year the Ducks started the season off by mauling Stanford 48-10 at Autzen Stadium in a one-sided game that at times appeared having disinterested Stanford players participating. This year though, despite losing the first game of the season to UCLA, 47-17, the Cardinal players are playing much faster and are more excited about the game under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. Last week, Stanford overwhelmed San Jose State 37-0. In that game the Cardinal racked up over 500 yards of offense including 276 yards of rushing and 230 yards of passing. After the first two games of the season the Cardinal is third in the Pac-10 in passing with a 288.0-yard per game average and seventh in rushing at 164.0 yards per game.

"Stanford traditionally has been a very good passing team, passing attack, I think that is one of their strengths," said Bellotti of the Stanford offense. "Last week they ran the ball very well against San Jose State."

Quarterback T.C. Ostrander is 45-of-87, 566 yards, four touchdowns and only one interception. His longest passing play of the year covered 70 yards. Ostrander's main targets are Richard Sherman (85.5 yards per game and two touchdowns) Evan Moore (58.0 ypg) and Mark Bradford (31.0).

"We anticipate that they will throw the ball," admitted Bellotti. "T.C. Ostrander is a very accurate quarterback in a classic drop back style. They have veteran receivers with guys like Bradford, Moore and Richard Sherman, No. 9, maybe the fastest and most explosive of that group."

Bellotti thinks the key for the Oregon defense is stopping the Stanford running game led by Anthony Kimble's 74.5-yard per game rushing average and making the Cardinal look to pass. While that plays into the hands of Stanford, the Oregon defense has been getting progressively better this season. The Ducks have been dominating in all aspects of the game against the first three opponents they have faced and while yards have been given up, scoring has been kept in check. The Ducks are outscoring opponents so far this season by an average of 31 points per game.

"First and foremost we want to stop the run," Bellotti stated of his defensive goals. "We want to make a team one-dimensional."

Oregon special teams play has been very good so far this season and Bellotti attributes that to three factors: better punting, an improved performance by Matt Evensen and a better job on coverage. Punter Josh Syria has shown a strong leg and is the conference leader in punting averaging 44.4 yards per punt on 11 kicks with a long of 52. Evensen has been proficient as a field goal kicker hitting 3-of-4 field goals and is 11-of-11 in extra point kicking. The Ducks coverage teams have kept the opponents from getting good field position this year and the Ducks rank second in the Pac-10 in kickoff returns averaging 28.2 yards.

The big question for this game though is what is Stanford going to do about the 13th ranked Ducks' offense and particularly Dennis Dixon. Dixon has been phenomenal this season and has been a defensive coordinator's nightmare. Dixon is averaging 188.3 yards per game passing with seven touchdowns and no interceptions. His longest passing play of the season was against Michigan at the Big House, for 85 yards. However, it is Dixon's ability to run the ball that has made him such a threat. He is second on the team in rushing with a 92.0-yard average and has crossed the goal line three times. What Dixon and the Oregon offense does is create space on the field that the opposing defense has to defend. It is a difficult proposition because most defensive coordinators want to keep the field confined.

"One of the hard things right now is defending the width and breadth of the field for both the pass and the option," observed Bellotti. "Those two things make it a difficult preparation and the mobility of the quarterback directly effects that. If you ask any defensive coordinator, what they don't like is to defend space. They'd prefer to be in a tight and close environment. They don't like mobile quarterbacks. We have those things going for us."

Dixon had a sensational game last year against Stanford throwing for 236 yards but only rushed for 17 yards. This year, Dixon has learned that when in doubt, trust his wheels. Additionally, the Ducks have thrown in more option plays and against Houston, Dixon took off for 80 yards on an option, untouched into the endzone.

The spread offense – called the 21st Century Offense by Yahoo.com columnist Terry Bowden, has been successfully adopted by Oregon and for the first three games of the season, the opposition has had a hard time with it. The Ducks feature a powerful running game led by Jonathan Stewart (114.3 ypg) with Jeremiah Johnson (60.3 ypg) adding an additional punch. The Stewart-Johnson combination plus Dixon is a potent force and the Oregon offense averages 325.7 yards a game in rushing.

What is the solution for Stanford in stopping Dixon and the Duck offense? Some might say that simply playing better is the only thing that can be done, but Bellotti is sure that Stanford will do whatever it can to keep the game from getting out of reach. It is a tough proposition for Harbaugh and his staff particularly Defensive Coordinator Scott Shafer to come up with a plan that confines a very confident Dennis Dixon that keeps the talented Oregon quarterback from doing whatever he wants. Dixon's confidence has grown each game and despite taking the summer off for baseball, No. 10 appears to have found himself, much to the pleasure of the Ducks and their fans.

Oregon's defense has become progressively better each week along with its special teams' play. While all the right things are being said regarding this upcoming match up, there is little doubt that the Oregon Ducks could have a very special season this year. Oregon has accomplished a lot to erase the memories of a very disappointing 2006 season by three big wins in the out of conference schedule this year, now Pac-10 competition starts and for Oregon, a 21st Century offense couldn't have come at a better time.

Notes: Jeremiah Johnson and Josh Tschirgi return to practice today. Bellotti expects both to be available for the Stanford game.
Despite rumors that ESPN Game Day will be in Eugene for the California game on Sept. 29th, the Oregon Athletic Department indicated it has not been contacted by ESPN regarding a Game Day broadcast.


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