For several seasons now, Oregon has fielded an irrepressible offense. Even after losing head coach Chip Kelly to the NFL, they haven't missed a beat with their relentless assault of touchdowns. New coach Mark Helfrich has his charges at 8-0 and No. 2 in the polls, but they face a tough test at No. 6 Stanford on Thursday night.
Despite Oregon's offensive prowess, they never achieved an undefeated season in four years under Kelly. Last November, The Cardinal nipped the No. 1-ranked Ducks in an overtime thriller, 17-14. It was the only game that season, aside from their 35-17 Fiesta Bowl win, in which Oregon scored fewer than 42 points. Stanford held the ball for 37 minutes and actually out-gained the Ducks 411 yards to 405.
They will look to repeat that feat this week, but it will be a tall order to ruin Oregon's dreams of perfection two years in a row. If they want to cook the Ducks, Stanford must control the clock and avoid turnovers.
Marcus Mariota has been fantastic all year and is making Heisman voters forget all about Johnny Manziel. He's thrown for 20 touchdowns on 2,281 yards with zero interceptions. Zero interceptions! He's also found paydirt on the ground nine times this season, using his legs to score in seven of their eight games.
Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas boasted to GoDucks.com that "we should at least put up 40" against Stanford. That statement would be ill-advised and cocky, except that Oregon has scored at least 42 points in every game this season. They wear down defenses and run away with games in the second half. But did Thomas learn nothing from last year's loss to Stanford?
Taking the understated route, Stanford coach David Shaw offered no rebuke when asked about that comment, but you can bet he's getting his defense motivated from Thomas' boast. They will also get defensive end Henry Anderson back from injury, who posted a huge game in last season's win over Oregon (per Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News).
Stanford's Plan on Offense
Stanford's best hope of containing the Ducks is to slow the game down and control the ball as much as possible. They have an offense geared toward that, as they run the ball like it's the NFL in the '50s, deploying pro sets to out-muscle opponents and tire defenses. RB Tyler Gaffney is coming off a three-touchdown game against Oregon State, and the Ducks can expect a heavy dose of him.
Ty Montgomery is Stanford's best receiver, and they will need all of his dynamism on Thursday. Aside from setting up their passing game through the run, The Cardinal desperately require some big plays to keep pace with high-octane Oregon. Montgomery has two kickoff returns for scores on the season, and this week would be a perfect time for another one.
Behind Montgomery, WR Devon Cajuste has a knee injury but will return on Thursday (per Wilner). Stanford needs his electric potential, which he showed with seven catches for 109 yards against UCLA and two touchdowns on 115 yards against Washington State.
Taking Care of the Ball
It will be imperative for Stanford to win—or at least not lose—the turnover battle. The Ducks defense has forced 22 turnovers this season, which is double the takeaways for The Cardinal D in 2013. Stanford has collected only two fumbles so far, and they will have to hope that Mariota is due to throw a pick at some point.
Stanford's defense is ranked 23rd in the nation, allowing 353.4 yards per game. Unfortunately, that's less than six yards per game better than the Ducks D.
Oregon will get their yards, but Stanford can win if they keep the ball for as long as possible and don't cough it up. If they can get the Ducks out of rhythm, they just might be able to hang on in the second half.
The Cardinal stubbed their toe in a 27-21 loss at Utah early in October, but a win over Oregon would keep their hopes of a conference championship alive. Meanwhile, Oregon will be looking for a convincing victory as they try to stay ahead of Florida State for No. 2 in the polls. De'Anthony Thomas better hope he was right.