For the Oregon Ducks, never this season has their “win the day” mantra been more meaningful.
With ESPN College Gameday on hand to oversee what could be the matchup of the year, No. 7 Oregon travels to face No. 4 Stanford this Saturday evening in a game that should do plenty to decide the fates for not just the two teams involved, but the remainder of the top-five BCS schools as well.
The Ducks have been dreaming of this opportunity ever since their 40-27 Week 1 loss at LSU (I say “at” due to the fact that anyone who can read a map knows that Dallas is nothing close to a fair middle ground between Oregon and Louisiana), and it could not have come at a better time. With Alabama, Boise State and Oklahoma vulnerable to an Oregon team with a statement win over the No. 4 team in the nation, there is no looking back. It is now or never.
For the Cardinal, it really is simple. A win over Oregon should give them the inside track to the promised land and a shot a LSU, as long as Oklahoma State loses one of their remaining games and the pollsters see currently undefeated Stanford as a superior team to one-loss Alabama. From a ratings standpoint, this would be virtual gold for the BCS, as Andrew Luck against the best defense in the nation would be a tough matchup to stay away from for any fan of the sport.
Before we get ahead of ourselves with what is at stake, there is plenty to examine on game day.
While the Oregon-Stanford rivalry is relatively new, it has become a staple of autumn football, dating back three years to Andrew Luck’s redshirt freshman season. In that first meeting, the Cardinal would throttle the No. 7 Ducks in the first half, jumping out to a 31-14 lead. Despite a frantic attempt by the Ducks to draw even, Stanford would secure a 51-42 victory behind Heisman-finalist Toby Gerhart’s school record 223 yards.
The 2010 meeting looked to be more of the same, as Luck led the Cardinal to a 21-3 lead in the first quarter aided in part by two Oregon turnovers; however the No. 4 Ducks had something to prove to the nation, and would use No. 9 Stanford as their jumping off point.
Despite trailing 31-24 at the half, Oregon would steamroll the Cardinal in the second half behind three touchdowns from QB Darron Thomas, holding the Cardinal scoreless while exploding for 28 points of their own. For many, the 52-31 final score told a very different and closer tale than the actual game.
This season is likely to see the final chapter in what has become an epic trilogy for the two teams, with the expected departures to the NFL for Stanford QB Andrew Luck and Oregon running back LaMichael James, both redshirt juniors.
Luck is coming off of a marvelous 2010 campaign, wherein he threw for 3,338 yards, 32 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. Often praised as one of the most accurate and efficient passers in the nation, Luck currently has a completion rate over 70 percent, and is averaging 270 yards and three touchdowns through nine games this season.
James, the nation’s leading rusher in 2010 and holding the same honor this year prior to going down with an elbow injury against Cal, finally seems to have shaken off the rust and is ready to get back to being Oregon’s No. 1 offensive threat.
Despite only playing in seven games this season, James boasts a per-rush average of 8.0 and is already over the 1,000-yard mark on the year, averaging a ridiculous 151 yards per contest.
James won’t be alone in the fight as freshman back/receiver De’Anthony Thomas and senior wideout Lavasier Tuinei are helping the Ducks offense carve up defenses regardless of who plays QB. David Paulson, the senior TE and most dependable set of hands on offense, should aid in getting things going early on if the Cardinal try to contain James.
Should running against a very big and physical Cardinal defense take its toll, Kejon Barner and Tra Carson are more than capable reserves in the running game, especially late in contests after the defense is exhausted from chasing down James on his now signature long and entertaining runs.
On defense, the Ducks will need plenty to go their way if they want to slow or even stop one of the most efficient schemes in the nation. In a balanced offense built on the power running of junior Stephan Taylor, the Cardinal relentlessly attack the middle of the defense, then showcase their three tight-end set, which has been giving defensive coordinators fits.
To stop Luck or Taylor is difficult enough, but the Ducks will need to have their wits about them as they will look across the formation and see two tight ends lined up on the line, and one in the H-back slot, as well as Taylor and one to two receivers on the outside. With conceivably up to five receiving threats out of a max protect scheme, getting pressure on Luck could be difficult, if not impossible.
If the Oregon defense has trouble slowing Taylor, look out. Play-action with three tight ends could spell trouble for a team that has struggled to slow the running attacks of the opposition all season long, and will need to keep pursuit up despite what the offense is showing.
Steady coverage on the outside and plenty of safety help in the running game from John Boyett and Eddie Pleasant should keep this contest honest. Despite Luck seemingly producing better each week, this Stanford team is much the same as it was last season, with a few wrinkles thrown in thanks to OC David Shaw in position as the team’s new head coach following Jim Harbaugh’s departure to the NFL.
Despite Stanford’s lack of big-time playmakers in the passing game one cannot fairly expect a game similar to last season, although it should be safe to assume that the Cardinal will continue with their approach of power running between the tackles early, leading to balanced offense in the second and third quarters to build a lead, followed by yet more running to secure victory.
While they are averaging 48 points per game, Stanford has yet to play a team of Oregon’s offensive firepower, often relying on the mistakes of their opponents to open the scoring floodgates rather than their own offensive prowess.
This will be the third meeting against ranked teams for either team this year, although Oregon will be the first top-ten team Stanford has faced this season. As Stanford’s two ranked opponents have been USC and Washington, there is little debate that Oregon is the more battle-ready team, and will be the Cardinal’s first real test on the year.
Regardless of the outcome, there should be plenty of high football drama, big plays, and ideally, a photo finish. While it will not take a great deal of luck for Oregon to win, a big portion of Luck is exactly what is on their plates, and ultimately what they must defeat if there is any chance for a BCS berth this season.
Oregon will need to adjust on the fly and prove for the umpteenth time that they have put in the work in the gym and that they are not just a soft finesse team. Michael Clay, Deon Jordan, and Taylor Hart will need to find a way to stop Taylor with a relentless pursuit as well as cover the tight ends and dial up enough pressure on Luck to keep him from getting too comfortable.
While Oregon has respectable numbers on the defensive side of the ball, their stats often tell a different tale than the film, as their “bend but don’t break” defensive efforts seem to come dangerously close to snapping in half.
In a win-or-go-home moment, it is all survival. You break him or he breaks you, there is no middle ground.
Someone who knew too much about win or go home moments was recently departed boxing legend Joe Frazier, the only man who ever beat Muhammad Ali in his prime years. Known for his strength, conditioning, unrelenting will and “smokin” left hook, Frazier is a man who knew how to train and show up for the biggest fights, so it seems fitting to use his words in closing:
“You can map out a fight plan, but when the action starts, it may not go the way you planned, and you’re down to your reflexes. That’s where your roadwork shows. If you cheated on that in the dark of the morning, well, you’re going to get found out, under the bright lights.”