The Main Event: Oregon’s O vs. Stanford’s D

"Oregon enters this game with a much higher season ceiling than Stanford. For the Stanford defense, it may only be game nine, but it’s the final exam. Everything in my mind points to a Duck victory. Quite simply, Oregon has been better at being Oregon than Stanford has at being Stanford." Read on for more...

Stanford’s golden offensive number is 28 points, just a couple more than the 26 they scored last year at home. The likelihood and logistics of Hogan and Co. reaching that number was discussed previously. Today, it’s about the strength vs. strength, heavyweight portion of Saturday’s Assault on Autzen Asylum. No unit in football has been discussed, praised, hyped, and revered over the past five seasons like Oregon’s offense. And no defensive unit in football has had anywhere near the success against Oregon’s offense (at least inside the confines of the Pac-12) as Stanford. It’s come to the point where many take Stanford’s accomplishments against Oregon for granted. Some go even further and say Stanford has “solved” Oregon. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is that Stanford has put together two incredible defensive games against one of the best offenses in the history of the game. After all, if Stanford had “solved” Oregon, than other teams would have followed suit. So how has Stanford done it? Certainly, familiarity has played a role. After getting steamrolled for over 100 points over the course of 2010 and ’11, Stanford went into Autzen in 2012 having gathered enough (painfully endured) experience to craft a gameplan that would cause Oregon difficulty. The coaches used wider defensive line splits among other tactics, the secondary tackled and held its ground in space like none had previously done against Oregon, and there were a number of spectacular individual efforts (Carrington running down Mariota, Skov’s shoestring stop on a fourth down) that rendered Oregon a discombobulated shell of its former self.

Last year, Stanford resumed its intellectual brutality by beating Oregon savagely at the line of scrimmage, and eventually in the backfield. Again, however, it took a number of spectacular efforts by individuals (Skov’s strip and recovery against De’Anthony Thomas) for Stanford to hold on for a 26-20 victory. Again, given the fact that nobody else has been able to duplicate the Cardinal’s defensive success since, it’s safe to emphasize that what Stanford has done is in some way systematic (in terms of preparation and in-game coaching) but in reality, not to be taken for granted. Stanford’s defense gave up 14 and 13 offensive points to the Ducks, respectively, ’10 and ’11. The number for Stanford’s offense to reach tomorrow is 28, so I’m basically conceding the Ducks will have more luck scoring tomorrow than in the recent past. Part of that has nothing to do with Oregon: Stanford is thin at the most important part of its defense. David Parry at this moment is questionable, and Aziz Shittu has been lost for the year. That leaves a skeleton crew that includes a true freshman (Harrison Phillips) and players who have taken most of their snaps from the end position in their careers (Henry Anderson and Blake Leuders). Parry has been listed at the top of the depth chart, but what version of him (50%? 75%?) lines up over the ball tomorrow night remains to be seen. Nevertheless, this Stanford defense has held up for the most part all season long, and the numbers support the praise. Let’s look at both teams:

Oregon has the best scoring offense in the conference, at 42 points per game. Last week: Torched Cal for 59.

Stanford has the best scoring defense in the conference, surrendering 17 points per game. Last Week: Gave up 14 to Beaver Nation.

Stanford has both the best run defense and pass defense in the conference, and remains the only team to allow less than 100 yards per game rushing and less than 200 YPG passing.

Oregon has the second-best run offense in the Pac-12, at 185 per game, and the sixth-best pass offense, at 300 yards per game. Coach Shaw’s warning about judging the Oregon defense in terms of pass yards holds true here as well. Oregon leads so often in games that they aren’t often passing in the fourth quarter. Make no mistake, Oregon’s ability to hurt Stanford with the pass is the number one reason to expect more Duck offense Saturday than in the past two seasons. Mariota’s completion percentage and yards per attempt are both improved this year. Like most quarterbacks, however, his completion percentage drops on third down, though the Ducks are the best third down offense in the Pac-12.

Oregon also has a stronger receiving core for Mariota to target. Last year, the Ducks’ No. 4 receiver had 16 catches for the whole season. This year, the Ducks’ No. 4 receiver already has 20 catches. It’s not a staggering improvement, but it’s relevant. Oregon’s top two receivers last year each caught nearly 40 passes more than its No. 3 and No. 4 guys. This year, the reception distribution in receptions is 38, 27, 23, 20. Oregon’s passing attack is more diverse than in previous seasons. It’s always hard to plan for an elite player, but in terms of receivers, it’s a huge challenge to prepare a greater number of legitimate threats, especially when defensive backs have such huge run support responsibilities against the Ducks.

The other issue is Mariota’s running. He seemed more reluctant to run last year in Stanford, perhaps because of injuries sustained both before and during that game. The numbers say he is running about one carry more per game this year than last year. He carries a modest 4 YPC average, but of course everybody knows the damage that he can do with his feet. This is a huge issue for Stanford, not just because of Mariota’s brilliance, but also because of tactical considerations. Stanford loves to stunt linemen, sending them on twists with each other to create OL confusion and create pass rush lanes. The problem is that stunting defensive ends often creates outside running lanes. Bercovici hurt Stanford with timely QB runs for first downs, and he isn’t nearly the runner Mariota is. Stanford’s coaches need to be very careful about when and how often they go to this call.

For the past two years, the Cardinal has stunned the nation with dominant defensive efforts against Oregon. It’s hard to imagine them stifling the Quack Attack again, and yet they have the best pass and run defenses in the conference. There was a horrendous breakdown on the final drive of the Notre Dame game, and the ASU game was an uncharacteristic struggle as well, but this is still a top-notch defense. The issue, really, is depth. Stanford has done a good job in previous seasons in getting multiple players on the field in advance of the Duck game, so guys had experience and protective depth when taking on the blistering Oregon pace. Both their depth and experience have been compromised, and although I don’t think they are going to get boat-raced necessarily, I think Saturday we’ll all have even more of an appreciation for their efforts of the past two seasons against the Ducks. I said the number for the offense to make was 28. If they get to that number, then it’s on the Stanford defense to keep the Ducks under 28, and that is a reasonable goal from a defense that has performed well this year.

Oregon enters this game with a much higher season ceiling than Stanford. For the Stanford defense, it may only be game nine, but it’s the final exam. Everything in my mind points to a Duck victory. Quite simply, Oregon has been better at being Oregon than Stanford has at being Stanford. My heart says that Stanford can rise up as it has before, but my mind doubts that it will.

Time to find out.

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