Stanford Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Oregon
The Stanford Cardinal football team faces its biggest challenge of the season on Saturday against the Oregon Ducks in Autzen Stadium.
The Ducks have not been kind to Stanford the past couple seasons, handing them their only regular-season losses and preventing Andrew Luck from playing in a BCS title game.
This year, the Cardinal have a chance to exact revenge. The Ducks are in position to make their second BCS title game appearance in three years if they win out.
With a win Saturday, coach David Shaw's team can not only knock the Ducks out of the title picture, but they can take hold of the Pac-12 North as well.
More than anybody else, the Ducks have been a major thorn in Stanford's side. You can bet the Cardinal will be fired up on Saturday night.
Here are five keys for Stanford pulling the upset against the high-flying Ducks.
1. Run, Run and Run Some More
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It's no secret that the weakness of Oregon's defense is their defensive line.
That's not due to a lack of talent, but rather an abnormal amount of injuries that have taken a toll on the team. Against Cal last Saturday the Ducks were outgained on the ground, a rarity for them.
At one point in the third quarter of that contest, Cal had four straight running plays where it looked like they were facing six or seven defenders instead of 11.
Stanford is a power running team, and it has an offensive line capable of holding its own against anybody. It shouldn't have much trouble pushing around an Oregon defense that will likely be playing freshmen up front.
This report (courtesy of Rob Moseley with The Register Guard) takes a look at how the defense is regrouping after the Cal game. Several starters are likely to return, but the Ducks will still be thin at key positions on defense.
Stanford can accomplish two things by keeping it on the ground. First, the Cardinal can keep the clock moving which takes time away from the fast-paced Duck offense. Second, they can wear down the defense and put points on the board without forcing freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan to take chances through the air.
If Stanford wins this game, the running game will be a very large part of the victory.
2. Don't Fall Behind Early
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One of the biggest keys when facing the Ducks, or any elite team for that matter, is to not fall behind early.
Of course, that didn't help the Cardinal very much in 2010 when they jumped out to a 21-3 lead and still lost by three touchdowns.
But for an offense that relies on the ground game, getting into a hole early could be disastrous. It would force the team to go away from a strength on offense and away from Oregon's weakness on D.
The Ducks haven't been behind at the end of the first quarter all season. Their closest halftime lead was four points against Washington State, but they extended that to 25 before the third quarter was over.
It's also important to take the raucous Autzen crowd out of the game, especially when you're starting a redshirt freshman who hasn't been in that kind of environment.
Of course, getting a lead is just the first step. But if Stanford gets out to a lead in the first half it will be a step in the right direction.
3. Prove Hogan Can Do Damage Through the Air
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The Cardinal are going to run the ball a lot on Saturday, as they should. But if they can prove to Oregon that Hogan is capable of making plays with his arm, it will open up the entire offense.
Hogan has been extremely efficient thus far, completing 41 of 53 passes on the season.
But that was mostly against Colorado and Oregon State. While the Beavers have a solid secondary, it won't be the same as facing the Ducks in Autzen Stadium.
If the Cardinal can mix a few throws into their game plan early, it will have the Ducks D on its heels. But if Hogan struggles to hit his receivers, Oregon will be able to load the box and stop the run.
Remember, this Stanford offense couldn't outscore the Ducks the past two seasons, even with Andrew Luck and a pair of first-rounders on the offensive line.
But if they can at least show they are capable of moving the ball through the air, the offense will flourish in all aspects.
4. Play Mistake-Free Football
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Another key to a Stanford victory on Saturday will be not turning the ball over, especially in critical moments.
The Ducks are a team that takes your mistakes and turns them into points more often than not. If there's any chance at an upset, the Cardinal will have to be on the right side of the turnover margin.
Kevin Hogan threw two interceptions against the Beavers last weekend, but that can't happen Saturday.
Anytime you have an underdog going into a hostile environment, limiting mistakes becomes vital. You can overcome turnovers at home against inferior opponents.
But the Ducks will run away with the game if Stanford can't keep possession of the ball and control the clock.
5. Make Barner (Not Mariota) Win the Game
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It sounds crazy to think that making Oregon run the ball is a key to winning the game, but I think that's the case on Saturday.
If you look at the past two games, the Ducks scored 62 and 59 points. The 62 points came in a game against USC where Kenjon Barner rushed for 321 yards and five touchdowns. But in the same game, Mariota also threw for 300 yards and four touchdowns.
Against Cal, the Ducks scored 59 points but Barner was limited to under 100 yards rushing and he didn't score a touchdown.
What this says is that the Ducks can beat you in multiple ways. But it also says that Mariota is the guy who makes things go for Oregon.
Stanford has the best front seven the Ducks will face all season, and it might be able to hold its own against the run without having to pile defenders in the box.
Mariota has thrown 10 touchdowns the past couple games, and there's no doubt about what he can do to the Cardinal secondary. But if Stanford can rely on its defensive line to hold its own, they'll be able to crowd the secondary and force Mariota to make ill-advised throws.
Of course, the Ducks are likely to score 40-plus regardless of what defense Stanford employs. But if the Cardinal can dominate up front without sacrificing all three linebackers, they may limit what the Ducks do offensively.