The Undercard: Card “Offense” vs. Duck "D"

Watching Oregon’s defense can make scoring look awfully easy. Watching Stanford’s offense can make scoring look like a Sisyphean holiday.

Three losses saw the Cardinal produce a total of 34 points. (Oregon had 38 points at the half last Friday against Cal.) Once again, Stanford’s offense goes on the road to take on a ranked opponent with what appears to be a vulnerable defense. (Oregon gave up 41 points to Cal last week, including 28 in the 1st quarter). On paper, the Stanford offense looked like a potential juggernaut before the season started. Now? Many seem to think that the Cardinal finally found its groove against the very permeable Beaver defense last week. What do the numbers say? And how are the teams trending against their own averages?

Stanford is scoring 22 points per game in conference play, the third-worst output in the league. Last Saturday, the Cardinal scored 38 points, and the Saturday before, 10. Average those together and you have 24 points. This has been the pattern for most of the season. Stanford either appears offensively dominant or pathetic, but it has yet to put together a merely good performance. It’s going to take at least 28 points to win this game. Stanford has to find one touchdown per quarter to have a chance in Autzen.

Oregon is allowing 31 points a game, which makes it an “average” scoring defense amongst the Pinball Wizards of the Pac-12. Last Saturday, the Ducks gave up 41 points to an extremely prolific Cal offense. Strangely, Stanford and Oregon have only two common conference opponents so far: The Washington offense, sadly comparable to Stanford’s, scored 20 in Eugene, while Washington State scored 31. The Washington result is probably more relevant here. If Stanford can be a TD better than the Huskies, it can win.

How will Stanford find success against the Ducks? Oregon is giving up 185 yards per game on the ground, while Stanford is gaining 147, smack in the middle of the Pac-12. A mediocre run offense against a poor (10th-ranked) run defense? This is a tough call. Arizona hurt Oregon with runs between the tackles out of the spread. They ran out of pass formations, which is something many have been calling for Stanford to do all year long. They also had a physical, clearly No. 1 running back in Jones-Grigsby. He carried the ball 27 times, but Nick Wilson also threw in 13 carries and got the Wildcats 92 yards in the process. Arizona didn’t overwhelm the Ducks, but they did more than enough to create manageable downs and distances for Solomon. If Stanford can get to Oregon’s average of 185, it can win. This is the real litmus test of the success against Beaver Nation. If Barry Sanders approximates his overall in-conference YPC of 6.7 and not his YPC vs. ranked teams (3.5), the Stanford offense should be able to stay with the run and set up Kevin Hogan for success…

...against Oregon’s 8th ranked pass defense. Coach Shaw warned that Oregon’s pass D stats may be misleading because the Ducks so often have large leads late in the game and teams are forced to throw constantly. [Ed: By the same logic, wouldn't that make their rush defense even worse?] So for the moment let’s throw out the Ducks’ 300 YPG average in conference. Oregon surrenders 6.7 YPA, which is good for third in the conference, so Coach Shaw does have a point here. It doesn’t mean that Hogan and company can’t hurt the Ducks, it just means that in order to do so, Stanford is going to need to run the ball to keep the Ducks honest. Even mediocre defenses get a bump from the home crowd, and that brings us to the moment at which the crowd is going to be the loudest.

Stanford has been very poor on third down this year. The Cardinal is only converting 38% of its third downs. Against the Beavers, Stanford converted 42%, so essentially the same team it’s been all year long. Oregon has the worst third-down defense in the conference. Avoiding third down has been a goal all year for Stanford, and it would seem to be a wise course of action in the din of Autzen, but the truth is that Oregon has not been getting off the field consistently. Arizona converted nine of 17 third downs. Cal only managed to go 6 of 16 on third downs, so at least for a game the Ducks showed improvement. Stanford faced 12 third downs last Saturday, 10 of them third and long. Furthermore, only one of the Cardinal’s four offensive touchdowns occurred on a third down. Despite the temptation of Oregon’s overall struggles on this down, Stanford is still best served by avoiding third down in Eugene, lest they evoke memories of South Bend or Tempe.

The pillow fight extends into the red zone as well. Stanford is the worst red zone offense by TD% in the conference, while Oregon's D is ninth in the same category. Overall, the Ducks surrender touchdowns on 69 percent of their red zone possessions. However, at home, that number goes down to 58 percent, fourth in the conference. So the defense, while not stellar, still gets a bit of an uptick at home. To state the obvious, Stanford cannot be the team it’s been in the red zone and win this game.

Add it all up and what do we have? Stanford put up 28 offensive points at home against a defense that, in terms of points allowed, is just a click below Oregon. They are going to need to put up that many this Saturday to win. I think there will be 28 points out there on the board for Stanford, but it means running the ball. We know they don’t/can’t/won’t run it with power the way they have in the past, but that doesn’t mean they can’t run it well enough to bring in play action and create space on the perimeter for Sanders, McCaffrey, the wide receivers, and most importantly, the tight ends. One quality tight end was more than Oregon could handle in 2012, and while Cotton, Hooper, and Taboada are not in the Ertz category, three should be too much for the Ducks too. A beat writer for the Ducks talked about how the defensive depth chart had been altered to account for Stanford’s power running style. This, even though Nick Aliotti has noted publicly the change in Stanford’s offense. The Cardinal would be well-served to take advantage of this misconception, should it show up on the field Saturday. 28 is the number. Can they do it? Yes. The question then shifts to whether the defense can hold the Ducks under 28. Stay tuned.

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