Keys to the Game - Stanford vs. Oregon

By John Harris
November 16, 2012

How much can the Ducks' defense bend before it breaks? According to John Harris, it's not happening this weekend.

The past two years have been a nightmare for the Stanford Cardinal against the Oregon Ducks.  Even with Andrew Luck under center, the Ducks ran all over the Cardinal in a 52-31 win in 2010 and a 53-30 win at Stanford in 2011. And, scarily enough, the Ducks might actually be better in 2012 and Luck is a Colt.  As in the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.

So, the pressure of beating the Ducks in Eugene falls on the youthful shoulders of QB Kevin Hogan.  The second year signal caller threw for three touchdowns in a 27-23 win over the Oregon State Beavers to keep its Pac 12 North title hopes alive.

Oregon got a sublime performance from QB Marcus Mariota, throwing for 377 yards and six touchdowns against Cal, to stay undefeated.  A win by Oregon clinches the Pac 12 North title and keeps the Ducks in the top two of the BCS standings.  A win for Stanford won't lock up the North title (it would need to beat UCLA in the finale to clinch), but it would end the Ducks hopes of heading to Miami for the BCS National Championship game.

Keys to a Stanford win

1.  Don't let three and four wide receiver sets defeat the run defense just by alignment - Oregon has killed the Cardinal in recent years playing four wides and running inside zone to wide open spaces.

2.  Attack the depleted defensive line with power run game. Keep the Oregon safeties out of the mix by aligning with three receivers, but the continued pounding will take its toll on the Ducks.

3.  Dominate the middle of the field in the passing game with TEs Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo against a 3rd string free safety.

Stanford Players to Watch

1.  QB #8 Kevin Hogan - had a solid debut as a starter against Oregon State, improved passing dimension with him as the starter.

2.  RB #33 Stepfan Taylor - full on beast mode, a poor man's Michael Turner in my opinion.

3.  ILB #17 A.J. Tarpley & ILB #11 Shayne Skov - without Skov last year, Tarpley took on blockers all night long, must "win" at 2nd level in the run game against Ducks vaunted zone scheme.

Keys to an Oregon win

1.  Spread to run.  Use the full 53 yards with 3 and 4 WR packages and keep running with the inside/outside zone as in prior years against Stanford.

2.  Establish Mariota on the perimeter early with zone read throws - fake the zone, carrying out the read fake to get LBs to bite and then hit throws behind LBs vacating the middle of the field to come tackle him.

3.  Reduce the defensive game plan, keep it simple, keep it in front - with "new" safeties in the back and a ton of defensive linemen on the mend, the last thing Ducks' DC Nick Aliotti wants is confusion.  Just play.

Oregon Players to Watch

1.  MLB #47 Kiko Alonso - he improves every single week, but DL is banged up beyond belief, so his protection may be limited.

2.  FS #4 Erick Dargan - First John Boyett then Avery Patterson.  Season ending injuries have put Dargan on the spot in the middle of the field.

3.  G #74 Kyle Long - getting better every week, but this is a stern test against the power, strength and depth of the Stanford defensive line.

Conclusion

I normally don't look at Vegas lines before making a prediction but I heard this one in passing and I'm a bit shocked.  Oregon favored by three touchdowns??  Now, there's a trend as noted above -- 21 point win in 2010 and a 23 point win last year.  On one level, it makes a ton of sense as Oregon's better and Stanford doesn't have Luck.  As such, covering 20.5 would seem like a cinch...

However, the injuries have piled up for the Oregon Ducks over the past few weeks.  In particular, the Oregon defensive line is a mash unit, to say the least.  The Ducks started nearly its entire second unit against Cal and then lost DE Taylor Hart at some point during the game. The Ducks also lost their second free safety of the year when Avery Patterson got knocked out for the season.

The issue is whether Stanford has a formula it can follow to keep this competitive.  Fortunately, it does.  Consequently, it must ground and pound with Taylor and the experienced OL to keep the Ducks offense off the field as much as possible.  With so many DL banged up and the safeties a problem, the Cardinal won't mess around.  They'll punch and plow and mash and grind in the run game for much of the game to see if Oregon can handle it.

Not surprisingly, the Ducks will bend defensively, but the offense will, yet again, exploit Stanford's physical unit with its spread alignments on running downs.  Mariota and company will get the win but it won't be all that comfortable for the soon-to-be 11-0 Oregon Ducks.

Oregon - 38 vs. Stanford - 31

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