Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck: scraggly, mouth-breathing God of football. He's got the Heisman trophy all but locked up. He has multiple NFL teams losing games on purpose, just to get the chance to draft him. He can throw a football over those mountains over there. But I want Andrew Luck to have to throw the ball a lot on Saturday. I want him to throw the ball a lot because it will mean the Oregon Ducks have shut down the real key to the Stanford offense: their running game.
Stanford is a running team, despite what the Andrew Luck Hype Machine will lead you to believe. The Cardinal rank 17th in the country, putting up 224 yards per game, and averaging 5.7 yards per carry as a team. Like Oregon's offense, an effective running game opens up all facets of the offense. But rather than spreading the field and utilizing the zone read, Stanford employs a power running game, and the playaction pass is their deception - see the Luck-to-Fleener touchdown in last year's Oregon-Stanford game as an example. But playaction is moot if the ground game is never established. Stop the run, and the Cardinal lose not one, but two aspects of their game.
Stanford is converting over 53% of the time on third down, placing them second in the nation in that category. This has very little to do with the actual third down play, and everything to do with Stanford's running game and their effectiveness on first and second downs. Time for some facts.
- Against washington, Stanford was 8-12 on third down; their average yards-to-go on third down was a shade over four.
- Against USC, their average yards-to-go jumped up to over 7 and a half, and the Cardinal only converted 6 of 15 third down chances,
- Against the huskies, Stanford's longest third down was 3rd-and-8, and that happened once.
- Against USC, Stanford faced a 3rd-and-8-or-more seven times.
Why compare these two games? Because against washington, Stanford ran for 446 yards, averaged 10.1 yards per carry, and scored 65 points. Against USC, they averaged less than four yards per carry and scored 34 points in regulation, their lowest total of the season. Forcing the Cardinal into third and long forces Andrew Luck to make predictable throws to a sub-par group of receivers (who will be even worse Saturday with the absences of Zach Ertz and Chris Owusu), and drastically lowers their ability to sustain drives, control the ball, and score points. Also of note: in overtime of the USC game, Stanford scored three easy touchdowns on all three of their possessions. They faced one third down in overtime. It was a 3rd-and-1.
Oregon's defense is coming off their best game of the season, holding washington to 82 yards rushing, 92 less than their season average coming into the game. They recorded six sacks, forced three turnovers, and never let anyone on the offensive side of the ball for the huskies get comfortable. It will take a performance like that one to keep the Cardinal under 40. Stanford boasts the best offensive line Oregon has seen since LSU, and the best group of blocking tight ends in the conference, even with the loss of Ertz. And even if Oregon's front seven is able to neutralize Stanford's rushing attack, they've still got Andrew Luck under center, and it'll take a great effort from our secondary to make Luck's job as hard as possible. And while I do think we can win a shootout, it'll be a heck of a lot easier to leave the Farm with a win if it doesn't become a "whoever gets the ball last, wins" kind of game.