Gameday Preview: Stanford at Oregon

Stanford looks to improve on its road record and pass attack, stay strong on the ground and, most important of all, reach the sixth win that's remained out of grasp for seven years now. Oregon is Stanford's best shot at that bowl-clinching victory -- do we think the Card has what it takes Saturday?

Gameday Breakdown:
Stanford (5-4, 4-2 Pac-10) at Oregon (6-3, 4-2 Pac-10)
Sat. Nov. 8, 12:30 p.m. PT

Last year:  Oregon 55, Stanford 31. It only lasted for a half, but boy, was it fun while it lasted. Stanford was no match for Oregon's tailback Jonathan Stewart and quarterback Denis Dixon, and the two ran the zone read and spread up and down the field in the second half, as Oregon finished with their regular season-high in points and 589 yards. But in the second quarter, Stanford's offense snapped out of its five-year Buddy Teveens and Walt Harris-induced hibernation, scoring four straight touchdowns. Oregon scored the game's final 34 points, but fans had a real reason to believe that the positive steps the program has since taken were underway.

Stanford this year: The Card are 5-4 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-10, with wins over Oregon State (36-28),  San Jose State (23-10), Washington (35-28), Arizona (24-23) and, last week, Washington State (58-0). Stanford's losses have all come on the road, at Arizona State (41-17), at TCU (31-14), at Notre Dame  (28-21) and at UCLA (23-20). With USC and Cal to close the season, this week's visit to Eugene is Stanford's best shot at gaining the sixth win necessary for bowl eligibility.

Where would they go?
Disclaimers: If Stanford does reach six wins, they'd finish 5-4 in the conference, a better mark than most other six-win teams, which should give them priority. Stanford's head-to-head wins and losses would also matter in case of a tie. Finally, bowls flip-flop teams all the time to create matchups that fill stadiums.

Nonetheless, if Stanford gets to six, the Pac-10 final standings look exactly like this week's, and the bowls all played by the rules, here's our best guess of how it would look.

1. Rose (vs. Big 10 #1 or BCS at-large, Jan. 1, 2 p.m., Pasadena, ABC): USC vs. Texas (Penn State to national title game)
2. Holiday (vs. Big 12 #3, Dec. 30, 5 p.m., San Diego, ESPN): Cal vs. Oklahoma State
3. Sun (vs. Big 12 #4/Big East #2/Notre Dame, Dec. 31, 11 a.m., El Paso, Tex.): Oregon State vs. Pittsburgh
4/5. Las Vegas (vs. MWC #1, Dec. 20, 5 p.m., ESPN): Oregon vs. TCU (Utah to BCS)
4/5. Emerald (vs. ACC #5/#6/#7, San Francisco, Dec. 27, 5 p.m., ESPN): Stanford vs. Miami/Virginia/Wake Forest
6. Hawaii (vs. WAC #2/Hawaii, Dec. 24, 5 p.m., ESPN): Arizona vs. Hawaii
7. Poinsietta (vs. MWC #2, San Diego, Dec. 23, 5 p.m., ESPN): BYU vs. at-large (no remaining Pac-10 teams)

Oregon this year: Relative to last year, it's been a quiet season in Eugene. Still, the Ducks have done their part, beating everyone they should have, despite early-season injuries at quarterback. The three losses have all come to top-20 teams: Boise State (37-32), USC (44-10) and, last week, Cal (26-16). Oregon lacks a win over a marquee opponent, with its best wins UCLA (31-24) and at Arizona State (54-20). Their other victories come over Washington (44-10), Utah State (66-24), Purdue (32-26 in overtime) and Washington State (63-14). Not that impressive.

Oregon's trend of wins and losses is consistent enough to allow us to confidently state that the Ducks are worse than top-15 team, but better than anyone outside the top-50. Exactly where in that broad gap between 15 and 50 the Ducks truly belong will go a long ways toward deciding Saturday's outcome.

Key stats:

In Oregon's corner:

- Oregon wins its average game 39-25, better than Stanford's 28-24 mark.
- The Ducks outgain their average opponent 454-364 yards, better than Stanford's 344-366 mark. The Card also have yet to play USC and Cal, the Pac-10's two best teams. Yardage is the single truest indicator of a team's strength.

In Stanford's corner:

- The Card are allowing 33 fewer yards (311 to 344) than Oregon and one fewer point (24 to 25) over the last three games, but the Washington State contest skews Stanford's numbers significantly.

- Stanford's 47.1% of possession should be (and needs to be, if the Card want to go bowling) higher for a winning team, but it easily beats Oregon's 41.9% possession mark.


- Oregon's offense racked up impressive numbers early, but has returned to earth against the Pac-10, as the Ducks have scored 34 points and gained 397 yards on average over their last three games. Stanford's numbers over that three-game window are virtually identical (34 points and 398 average yards).

- Both teams commit 2.1 turnovers per game, a high mark. Stanford's 7.2 penalties per game are only slightly more than Oregon's 6.3.


Oregon has a clear advantage here, as the season-long overall yardage numbers are the most important statistic out there, with season-long scoring margin second. But the gap is closer than one might have guessed, and, on these stats alone, I would expect Oregon to be about a touchdown favorite over Stanford on a neutral field.

When Stanford has the ball:

On the ground:

Stanford runs for 209 yards per game, 15th in the country, and 168 yards per road game. Statistically, Oregon and Stanford's rush Ds are mirror images of each other. Both teams allow about 106 yards per game, 15th and 16th in the country, and have similar splits of about 72 yards allowed per home game and 135 yards allowed per road game.

Oregon's rush defense is pretty stout, especially at home, and I don't see any reason why the Ducks wouldn't be able to sell out against the run Saturday. The one other top-20 rush defense Stanford has faced is TCU, also on the road, and the Card ran for just 71 yards against the Frogs, who loaded the box on a rainy, windy day. Stanford's rush attack has appeared to get stronger as the year's progressed, however, finishing with 200-plus rush yards in five of their last six games. We'll project 140 rush yards for the Card -- bad luck in drawing an Oregon defense whose relative strength is defending the run, and a rainy, road game against TCU is not a bad template at all for what the Card will see Saturday. Stanford needs to exceed this number if it's going to spring the upset.

In the air:

Stanford's passed 25 times... the last two games combined. The two contests couldn't have been more different -- one was a rout, the other a last-second nailbiter - so it appears that no matter the opponent or game situation, the Cardinal coaching staff has realized what they are (or, more appropriately) aren't working with at quarterback and reciever, and have given up any pretense of a pass attack. Indeed, Jim Harbaugh said as much in as many words Tuesday:

"I'm not concerned about balance necessarily. It's gonna be whatever we can do to move the ball best, score touchdowns and put points on the board."

Oregon (and USC and Cal) will know this, and so I'd redefine success for Stanford's pass game: can it do enough to prevent an opposing defense from completely selling out to stop the run?

The Card pass for 135 yards per game, 108th of 120 FBS teams, and a similar 139 per road game. (The pass attack is one of the few Stanford statistics that look the same home and away, counterintuitively enough. You'd expect a young quarterback and receivers to be most affected by a hostile crowd.) Oregon's pass D is also highly statistically similar to Stanford's, and the Ducks allow 258 passing yards per game, 259 per home game. The issue appears to be more one of scheme or chemistry than raw personnel, as the Ducks' secondary was considered among the best in the country preseason.

Tavita Pritchard expressed a desire to throw more in the mid-week press conference, and now that the Card are playing an actual rush defense for the first time in nearly a month (after UCLA, bye, Washington State the last three weeks), he'll have to. If he can just have a good enough day to open holes for Toby Gerhart, nevermind a big day, Stanford has a real shot.

Oregon's pass defense is nothing special, but then again, Stanford's pass attack has been nonexistent against plenty of sub-par defenses this season, most recently against UCLA. I hope I'm wrong, but fool me once Tavita, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. It's nine games into the season, and we still have little concrete evidence that Stanford's pass attack can be functional. I call for 160 Stanford passing yards -- on a lot of attempts and with an interception or two tossed in -- but if the Card surprise here, the upset's well within their grasp. Look for Pritchard to split time with Alex Loukas, per Harbaugh's comments mid-week.

When Oregon has the ball:

In the air:

Oregon passes for 184 yards per game, 90th in the nation, and 200 yards per home contest. Stanford allows 260 passing yards per game, 105th in the nation, and 272 passing yards per away game.

Statistically, the most similar pass attack to Oregon's is Washington's, and the Huskies threw for 237 yards on the Card -- without Jake Locker most of the game. The next-most similar pass offense is UCLA's, and the Bruins threw for 285 yards and two touchdowns.

Harbaugh expressed concern over Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who reminds of a sophomore-year Vince Young between his agility, his rushing ability, and his lack of accuracy passing. Stopping Masoli's legs (53 rush yards per game) will be key, but through the air, he completes just 53 percent of passes, with a pedestrian six touchdowns to four interceptions. Terence Scott and Jaison Williams lead the way with 48 and 40 receiving yards per game, respectively.

I'd expect Oregon's pass attack to overperform its season averages given the homefield edge and Stanford's poor effort against similar teams. We'll call it 240 Oregon passing yards.


On the ground:

Oregon runs for 271 yards per game, fourth in the country. The Ducks gain 304 rush yards per game in home contests. Stanford's defense, like Oregon's, allows about 106 rush yards per game and 135 rush yards per away contest.

For Oregon, there is a true one-two combo at tailback, with Jeremiah Johnson's 77 yards per game and LeGarrette Blount's 72 yards per game each complementing Masoli's rushing threat. Johnson's received more carries thus far, but perhaps Blount's most dangerous, as his 6.9 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns both lead the team. 

Expect Oregon to start the game running, and make the Cardinal slow the ground game before moving to the air. I do think Stanford will do better defensively than they did last year against the Ducks, but a spread offense is tough for the Card, as it renders the defensive line, a relative strength, less important than a traditional, between-the-tackles attack. 210 Oregon rushing yards sounds right.

Vegas Prediction:

Oregon by 13.

Keys to the Game:

Weakness on weakness: Oregon's secondary has real issues, but does Stanford have a functional passing attack that can capitalize?

Strength on strength: Both teams have strong rush Ds, but stronger rushing offenses yet. I expect Oregon's D to be able to force Stanford to the air, but can the Card's front seven do the same to Oregon's No. 4 rush attack nationally? If so, Stanford has a real shot.

My Prediction:

Oregon 27, Stanford 17.

Frankly, I think Oregon's overrated. When your best win is over UCLA, by a touchdown, and you're 0-for-3 against top-25 teams, you shouldn't be a week removed from the top-25. A secondary that was atop short lists in preseason magazines but, statistically, is in the bottom quartile nationally right now, is a perfect microcosm for the Ducks' struggles this year. Stanford has found its identity -- they continue to run the ball phenomenally well -- and that's enough for me to predict a Cardinal cover.

But, I just think about Stanford on the road this season, an ugly 1-4, or Stanford's passing game, which singlehandely cost the Card in its last road game, at UCLA. UCLA is clearly worse than Oregon, and I get queasy thinking about the Card throwing or stopping the pass against the Ducks. (When you're praying to the weather gods for rain, you know you have issues.) Oregon also has a history of putting up big numbers against the Card in recent years, and Vegas is better at this than anyone, and a 13-point line is significant. So, alas, the prediction is  450 Oregon total yards to 300 Stanford total yards and a 27-17 Duck victory, but if Stanford's just decent in all phases of the game, they have a real shot.

This season:

Predicted: Notre Dame 30, Stanford 20. Actual: Notre Dame 28, Stanford 21.
Predicted: Stanford 28, Washington 27. Actual: Stanford 35, Washington 28.
Predicted: Stanford 34, San Jose State 24. Actual: Stanford 23, San Jose State 10.
Predicted: TCU 23, Stanford 10. Actual: TCU 31, Stanford 14.
Predicted: Arizona 34, Stanford 20. Actual: Stanford 24, Arizona 23.
Predicted: Stanford 28, UCLA 24. Actual: UCLA 23, Stanford 20.
Predicted: Stanford 34, Washington State 13. Actual: Stanford 58, WSU 0.
Predicted:  Oregon 27, Stanford 17. 

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