Oregon Football: Should Marshall or Thomas Be the Lead Back Against Stanford?

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Oregon Football: Should Marshall or Thomas Be the Lead Back Against Stanford?
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
In the last four years between Oregon and Stanford, the team to rush for more yards has won the game.

In four games between Oregon and Stanford since 2009, success in the run game has been the biggest factor. The team with the most rushing yards has won each time.

In each of the contests, the winning team used a feature back who carried the load for the offense. Both squads still feature dominant rushing attacks, but there is no Toby Gerhart, LaMichael James or Stepfan Taylor in 2013.

For the correlation between the rushing battle and winning the game to continue, the Ducks need to plan their attack accordingly. Oregon has three legitimate options in the backfield and the ability to win the game regardless of which player it utilizes as the lead back.

However, if the Ducks want to take advantage of personnel matchups, the choice seems pretty clear.

But who will carry the load for Ducks in 2013?

Running back De'Anthony Thomas led the Ducks in rushing in the three games prior to injuring his ankle on the opening kickoff against Cal. He returned to the field when the Ducks faced UCLA two weeks ago, but was mostly ineffective in limited action against the Bruins.

Whether it was a lack of trust in his injured ankle or not being in game shape, Thomas looked hesitant and paid for it. UCLA tossed the 5'9", 175-pound Thomas around like a rag doll in the first half and he watched his team's dominant second-half performance from the sideline.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
Sophomore Byron Marshall has gained confidence and emerged as a star in the absence of De'Anthony Thomas.
With Thomas out of the first four conference games, sophomore Byron Marshall took over as the primary ball-carrier and the Ducks didn't miss a beat.

Marshall has rushed for 683 yards and eight touchdowns on 101 carries in five games as the lead back.

He has embraced his new role as Oregon's leading man in the backfield and his performance shows it. Since taking over, his confidence has seemingly grown with each carry. He doesn't have the speed of Thomas, but he doesn't slow down the Ducks in any way.

The 5'10", 205-pound Marshall is better-suited to carry the load for the Ducks against a physical defense like Stanford. He can run between the tackles and take it out wide for a big play. His size and versatility make him the ideal weapon for the Ducks to attack the Cardinal.

Clearly, Thomas is no slouch, but he can be used in so many different capacities.

Against the Cardinal last season, Thomas rushed for 43 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. Despite his slight build, Thomas knows how to run in between the tackles.

But why buy a Porsche and keep it in the garage? The biggest advantage the Ducks have over the Cardinal is their comparative speed.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Thomas is unmatched in college football with his speed and skill in space, so the Ducks should help get him there.

The Cardinal have a talented defense, but no one on the team can compete with Thomas in space. It makes the most sense for Thomas to line up in the slot with some carries sprinkled in. He is likelier to stay healthy that way and have a game-changing play in the open field.

If Oregon wants to leave Palo Alto undefeated, it should ride Marshall's hot streak. He is a proven commodity who can pound the ball into the line if needed. The Oregon rushing attack has developed a rhythm with Marshall leading the way and there is no need to change anything with its toughest opponent of the year up next.

Against a power team like the Cardinal, the Ducks would be wise to utilize Thomas' speed and talent on the edge, where he can change a game like no other player in the country.

At his weekly press conference on Monday, Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich spoke with OregonLive.com about how he and Stanford head coach David Shaw have similar philosophies when it comes to getting the most out of their teams. He had high praise for Shaw's ability to recruit the right type of players and how the Stanford staff puts them in a position to succeed.

If Helfrich wants to stay undefeated in his head coaching career, he should follow the example set by Shaw and the Cardinal by riding Marshall's momentum and unleashing Thomas in the open field.

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