ig Game might still be over a week away, but there’s little doubt that the biggest game of Stanford’s regular season will happen this Saturday in Stanford Stadium. Oregon comes into town as the only legitimate challenger to Stanford’s berth in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game, the #7 team in the country and the last team to beat the Card.
Saturday’s game will include about as much hype as Stanford has ever had for football, what with College Gameday on the Oval and a national, primetime telecast on network TV. And the game will be filled with college stars, no doubt, with Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck leading the pack. Kirk Herbstreit and Brent Musburger will salivate over Luck and marvel at the speed and precision of the Oregon offense. And in all likelihood, there will be more than a few references to “kids doing it the right way” and “a good example for the rest of college sports” in the wake of the terrible scandal at Penn State.
But neither team comes into Saturday with the guarantee that its finest players will be able to contribute consistently or at all. The injury report for Stanford includes arguably the team’s best defensive player–inside linebacker Shayne Skov–a tight end (Zach Ertz), a safety (that’s Delano Howell, who will play on Saturday), an offensive lineman (Cameron Fleming), a big-play wide receiver (Chris Owusu, who certainly won’t) and… well, you get the point. The extent to which Howell can re-engage with the defensive unit and get in on tackles without worrying about re-injuring his hand could make a significant difference as Stanford faces the most effective offense on the Card’s 2011 slate of opponents. Regardless of how successful the Stanford front 7 is in curtailing the Oregon running game, Duck running backs LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas are going to get into the open field. That’s when Howell and senior co-captain Michael Thomas, the starting free safety, have to be ready to take care of business.
After all, Oregon leads the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game, rushing touchdowns per game, rushing attempts per game and rushing first downs per game. The Ducks also lead the conference in total offense and offensive touchdowns. The trio of James, Barner and Thomas (which, coincidentally, wouldn’t be a bad name for a Eugene law firm) has wracked up 2011 rushing yards so far this season.That’s only 11 fewer yards than the entire Stanford roster has recorded on the ground. But unlike Stanford, Oregon likes moving the ball on the ground in big chunks. Each of the three Duck tailbacks has a run of longer than 60 yards this year, and Barner and James each have 80+ yard runs in the books in 2011. As Scott Allen pointed out on Wednesday, Oregon leads the country in runs of 40 or more yards.
But the Ducks have some injury concerns of their own. James just returned from an elbow injury that kept him out of game action for roughly 2.5 games, and Oregon beat writer Patrick Malee told us earlier in the week that James is not completely back to full speed. Meanwhile, quarterback Darron Thomas missed the team’s October 22 visit to Boulder with a knee injury that’s left him looking shaky at times. Last week at Washington, Thomas barely completed half of his passes and only gained an average of 6.8 yards per completion. He was never confused for the best passer in America, and the wounded knee has further unsettled his game.
As lethal as the running back trio can be, the James-Thomas pairing was the catalyst for Stanford’s collapse last fall in Autzen Stadium. The dynamic duo accounted for 612 of the team’s 626 yards from scrimmage and James’s emphatic jumping up and down in the Oregon endzone might be the most iconic image of the game. Needless to say, head coach Chip Kelly and Oregon fans would love to see a repeat performance from the team’s backfield, and their degree of success at moving the ball against the Stanford defensive will largely determine which team wins on Saturday.
Stanford should be able to get moving on offense given the home field advantage, the 31 points it posted on Oregon in the 1st half of last year’s match-up and the fact that Oregon defensive back Cliff Harris, who intercepted 2 of Luck’s passes last season, will not suit up this time. That Ertz probably won’t play and Owusu absolutely will not doesn’t make too much difference to the Cardinal passing game, which still offers tight ends Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo as well as wide receiver Griff Whalen, who has emerged as Luck’s favorite target. True freshman Ty Montgomery and Drew Terrell have also come on as viable receivers in the last few weeks, and Luck–in the mold of a true pro-style quarterback–is a specialist at hitting a bevy of receivers each game.
The Oregon run defense is nothing to write home about–it falls right around the middle of the conference–so Stepfan Taylor should be able to record another 100-yard game (as he did last year against the Ducks) and Stanford should have no trouble scoring at least in the mid-30s.
For Stanford, the game will be won or lost in the trainer’s room before the game and in the opening 30 minutes of play. If Stanford begins the game with yet another lackadaisical 1st half, Oregon will win. But if Stanford gets on the board right away and at least tempers the Duck attack, the Card will stand a very good chance to wake up on Sunday still undefeated.
The Card haven’t looked good before halftime in a long while now, though, and Oregon is no forgiving opponent. If Stanford stumbles out of the gate, as it has nearly every week this season, Oregon will capitalize and not look back. Even strong 3rd and 4th quarters from Stanford won’t be enough to catch the Ducks.
Verdict: Oregon beats Stanford, 45-39
How to Follow the Game
5:00 pm PST, Saturday, November 12
Live: Tickets at StubHub
Radio: KZSU (90.1 FM or streaming online); KNBR (1050 AM)
Social Media: @DailyAxe on Twitter
(Headline image courtesy of Monica’s Dad on Flickr)