Oregon heads on the road this weekend to take on the Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto. And after Oregon's victory over USC on Halloween, there is a lot of speculation that the Ducks will have a letdown game against the Cardinal.
First off, I don't think a letdown will happen. I have never seen such a focused Oregon football team. The Boise State loss really brought this team together, and the California win has spurred this team to work as hard as any team in the nation, week in and week out. All reports out of practice this week are that the Ducks are working as hard and as fast as ever.
But even beyond the trap game talk, it seems that there are many pundits and fans that are questioning Oregon coming into this game. They point to the bruising Toby Gerhart, to Oregon's close victory last season, and to the promising Andrew Luck.
However, when it comes down to it, this Oregon team is the best in the Pac-10, and Oregon should beat Stanford by two scores on Saturday.
First of all, the gameplan to beat Stanford has been developed: score a lot of points. Stanford has a porous defense. They are in the middle of the Pac-10 in most defensive categories (even though they have played a weak Pac-10 schedule thus far). Against those competent offenses they have faced (Oregon State and Arizona), they gave up 38 and 43 points. On the season, they are giving up 5.7 yards per play (in contrast, Oregon is giving up 4.2).
The Stanford defense can be scored on, and they simply do not have the athletes or depth to keep up with the Duck's offense for an entire game. Could Stanford stop the Ducks? I guess so, but there isn't any good reasons to think that will actually happen. I would be quite surprised if the Duck offense did not surpass the 40 point mark for the 5th time in 6 Pac-10 games.
On the opposite side of the ball, throughout the season Stanford has made up for these defensive deficiencies through ball control and a power running game on offense. The offensive line and Toby Gerhart lead a rushing attack that accounts for over 200 yards per game on over 5 yards per carry. Not surprisingly, this attack has allowed Stanford to lead the conference in time of possession.
Stanford has won those games where they have run the ball and controlled the ball, and lost those games where they could not control the clock and were forced to throw the ball. Stanford has lost every game where they have thrown 30 or more passes. Against Wake Forest, Stanford simply failed to run the ball. Against OSU and Arizona, Stanford got into a shootout and their team is simply not built to win those games.
In this week's game, I think the Oregon defense will be able to do a great job against Toby Gerhart. I expect the Oregon defensive line to plug the middle as they did against USC last week, and dare Stanford to try and take the ball outside. While Stanford will have solid plays every now and then, as with all other teams the Ducks have faced, the Cardinal will have a very difficult time moving the ball the length of the field.
If the Cardinal can't develop a consistent running game, the game will be placed in Andrew Luck's hands, and he has not excelled at that this season. While he has proven a great game manager, he has not quite reached the level of taking over games on his own. And if he is forced to throw, the Oregon defense will be free to pin their ears back and go after the QB When this happens, moving the ball will become even more difficult for Stanford.
Barring some sort of collapse on offense and defense, the Ducks should win this game easily. The Oregon offense should be able to move the ball. The Oregon defense is the best in the Pac-10, and should be able to limit both the Stanford passing and rushing games.
As always, that's not to say that Stanford can't win the game. This is college football. As we all know, crazy things can happen. Oregon could turn the ball over 5 times, give up some big returns in the kicking game, and maybe throw in two blocked punts and an onside kick for good measure.
But Oregon has most of the matchup advantages in this game, and I believe they'll leave Palo Alto with a victory on Saturday.