A reality check, a rude awakening, an inevitable performance.
Say what you want about Stanfords lackluster effort against Washington State last week, but the same sort of endeavor this time around will result in a loss far more embarrassing and discouraging for Tyrone and his young men. The now battered-and-bruised Cardinal bring a precarious 3-1 record into Eugene Saturday for a very pivotal contest. While it will be far from impossible, sneaking away with a win against the #5-rated Oregon Ducks will be a tough chore for Stanford.
With 23-consecutive wins in Eugene, Oregon now owns the nations longest active home winning streak. To say Autzen Stadium has been kind to Mike Belotti and his Ducks would be an understatement. In 1999 they broke Washingtons Pac-10 record for most consecutive wins at home (14 games). Only Cals 26-game streak from 1919-1923 is longer in entire history of the conference (PCC, AAWU, Pac-8 incarnations included). Autzen Stadium was also the scene of two of the worst road defeats for the Cardinal in recent memory in conference play: A 31-0 drubbing in the famous Spot-the-Owl game in 1990, followed by an equally sound 63-28 loss in 1998. A win against Stanford means Oregon will achieve its first 7-0 start since 1933.
The architect of all this is Belotti, a coach who took over the reigns of the team the same year Tyrone Willingham arrived at Stanford. While Rone has gotten the better of his counterpart in three of their four meetings, Belotti has continued the momentum of Rich Brooks Rose Bowl season of 1994 and has brought unprecedented success to Eugene. The former Chico State head coach has compiled a 55-22 record in just over six seasons. He is the third-all-time winningest coach in school history, and his wins are an amazing 18% percent of the programs all-time victories. Hes also overseen a dramatic rise in funding for the program, especially in the area of new facilities. Even with their hideous new uniforms that resemble Roller Derby garb, the Ducks are the envy of the conference - from their raucous home crowds, to their three bowl victories in the last four seasons.
Broadway Joey Harrington is still trying to be the top quarterback in the conference, as he has escaped the possible jinx of a huge billboard of his likeness overseeing a large stretch of Manhattan. The senior took over the starting job early in the 1999 season and hasnt looked back. In 2001 hes completed just over 60% of his passes for 1407 yards, 13 touchdowns, and just three picks. A definite gamer, Harrington has a knack for coming through in crunch-time. Such was the case in September victories over Wisconsin and U$C in which his late-game heroics rescued U of O from potential disasters. The fact that hes also a threat to run (six touchdowns this season on the ground) is another reason why he is considered one the five-best quarterbacks in the nation and a definite pro prospect. Mel Kiper Jr. must already be lining up cans of mousse in anticipation.
The Oregon ground game has been especially key to its success of late. The Ducks rushed for over 200 yards in each of their wins over Utah State, Arizona, and Cal. The backfield itself is experienced and talented. Maurice Morris is a senior tailback with excellent vision who has chalked up 528 yards and five touchdowns this season, good for a 5.2 average. Equally impressive has been the running of Tennessee-transfer Onterrio Smith. The junior has averaged over six yard a rush and has over 430 yards in 2001. A main reason for the success of the ground game is the equally experienced offensive line. The duo of guards Jim Adams and Joey Forster is outstanding, while center Ryan Schmid is among the best at his position in the Pac-10.
The Duck receiving corps isnt flashy but still nets results. It is a mix of veterans and young players who have been solid targets for Harrington thus far this season. The senior leader of the group is Keenan Howry, a tall flanker who is tied for the team lead in receptions with fellow starter Jason Willis with 24 grabs. Another key is tight end Justin Peelle, a certain 1st Team All-Pac selection when this season finishes. The senior is averaging over 16 yards a reception and leads the team with seven touchdown catches. The deep-threat of the bunch is Sammy Parker, a speedy sophomore who averages a Luke Powell-like 22 yards every time he catches the ball.
Oregons defense as a whole isnt overpowering: On average this season theyve given up about four yards per-carry on the ground, over 290 yards per-game passing, and have only nine sacks as a team. Their strength on the other hand lies in causing turnovers. The Ducks own an impressive +12 turnover ratio and have already intercepted 14 passes. Despite all the yards theyve surrendered, the secondary still has several of the best corners and safeties in the conference. However they arent especially deep, and the loss of the teams starting safety and leading tackler Keith Lewis to ankle injury gives the Stanford passing attack an extra advantage. The unit does include though two very solid corners, seniors Rashad Bauman and Steve Smith (4 interceptions).
The linebackers are especially fast and have the ability to play the run as well as any unit in the Pac-10. Kevin Mitchell (6.5 tackles-for-loss) and the aptly named Wesley Mallard play the outside spots and also have decent cover-ability. Middle linebacker David Get me another Morretti has admirably filled the shoes of the departed Matt Smith - to the tune of 33 tackles, five for loss. The weakest area of the team is the undersized defensive line. Ends Seth McEwan and Quinn Dorsey are quick, but tackles Zack Freiter and Chris Tetterton should be able to be contained by Stanfords O-Line. Look for Stanford to try to establish a running game early to try to quiet the intimidating Autzen.
The kicking game is solid. Jason Siegel is 4-of-6 on field goal attempts, with a long of 46-yards. His 38-yard boot in the closing seconds spelt doom for Southern Cal last month in Eugene.
The blueprint for a Stanford victory this time around is that of their near-flawless performance in their 28-21 victory in Eugene in 1995: Stay close early, take advantage of turnovers, and keep the crowd a non-factor. A 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown would sure help this time around too. Stanford must limit its own mistakes, unlike last week. Think Stanford can win with getting a punt blocked for a touchdown, as well as spotting the Ducks a 21-7 lead? Not me either. PREDICTION: Keith Jackson is once again the good luck charm, as the Stanford offense not only scores at will, but also stops Joey Heatherton and the Oregon offense when they have to. 38-35, Cardinal!