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Previewing the season: Stanford Cardinal

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If you dig into the middle of the Pac-10 preseason rankings and look for a team who might beat Oregon on the road, the answer will often come up Stanford. It's premature to get too excited about what third-year coach Jim Harbaugh is doing on The Farm, but it would appear Stanford is a team that's moving on up. The evidence? The Cardinal won five games last season for only the second time in seven years. At 5-7, Stanford just could not come up with that one road upset, losing to Notre Dame, UCLA and Oregon each by seven points or less. That, and Stanford's recruiting is getting better with each year of Harbaugh's tenure.

At the very least, Stanford in 2008 established success in protecting their home turf. The Cardinal won four straight at Stanford Stadium, including wins over bowl-teams-to-be Oregon State and Arizona, before dropping a late-season game to USC, 45-23.

Will 2009 be the season that Stanford takes the next step forward?

The Cardinal return 17 starters from last year's team (9 offense, 8 defense). That makes Stanford one of the most veteran teams in the conference. This is a group with a lunch pail mentality, coached by a man who ESPN's Ted Miller referred to as "high energy, high optimism". Probably the only thing holding Stanford back from being a bowl team is a winning mentality, and you can bet Harbaugh's been working on that obstacle.

Oregon travels to Stanford on November 7, one week after the Halloween party with USC in Eugene. Stanford has the advantage of a bye heading into the game with the Ducks...this match-up representing the end of Stanford's "lighter" part of the schedule. After Oregon, the Cardinal play at USC, then host Cal and Notre Dame. Will Stanford face a Duck team battered by its early schedule, looking for late-season redemption? Or, will they face a Duck team basking in the national spotlight, looking to seal the deal down the stretch?

The answer to that question may very well dictate who the favorite is in this game. Whatever the case, the 2009 Oregon vs. Stanford game could end up being a pivotal point in the Pac-10 race. Let's look at the match-ups.

Oregon Offense vs. Stanford Defense

You won't get much of a read on the Stanford defense by talking to their D-coordinator, Ron Lynn. In a recent Q&A, Lynn threw around earth-shattering phrases like "making progress...not there yet...probably online with where we need to be...never satisfied." The soul of Stanford's defense is its front line, where three starters return. However, the Cardinal gave up 153 yards rushing per game last season, and that group will have to do better against a premier running game like Oregon's. The one new starter on the d-line will be DE Thomas Kaiser, a pass rush specialist who led the Cardinal with six sacks last season.

Stanford's linebackers will be experienced, and very likely improved. And, there is depth at the position. The secondary should be a strength. That group including safety Bo McNally, who led the 2008 team in tackles (76) and interceptions (4).

The word we hear over and over about Stanford is "tough". There's no question the Cardinal can pressure a QB. They ranked 3rd in the conference for sacks last season. The question is, for all its toughness, does Stanford's defense have the speed to defend Oregon's one-on-one-in-space running scheme? Probably not. But you can bet the Cardinal will be well prepared for the quirks of Oregon's spread following two weeks of preparation.

I still give Oregon the advantage here, though it's probably less of an advantage than it was last season when the Ducks struggled to find their rhythm offensively until very late in the game.

Oregon Defense vs. Stanford Offense

Toby Gerhart runs left. Toby Gerhart runs right. Wherever Toby runs defenders better tackle him at his ankles. Gerhart is a 235-pound bruiser who set aside pro baseball to come back for his senior year as a running back at Stanford. He put up 1,135 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. Good stuff. Now, forget all that. Oregon's defense excels at stopping the run. Gerhardt will do some damage, but he can't beat Oregon on his own. The wild card to this game is Stanford's passing game, which will fall on the shoulders of redshirt freshman QB Andrew Luck.

If Luck lives up to the hype - he did beat out senior Tavita Pritchard for the job - he could create something Stanford's offense hasn't had for a while: balance. Reports suggest Luck has all the tools. He's 6-4, sees the field well and has a strong, accurate arm. What he may lack is a quality group of receivers. Stanford returns its three top receivers from last year, but that's not necessarily saying a lot. Ted Miller's preseason ranking for the Cardinal receiving unit was no. 9 in the Pac-10. It's only fair to suggest that ranking might be more a reflection of Stanford's prior passing woes than what Luck might achieve this season. Whatever the case, those receivers have a lot to prove.

For Will Tukuafu, a 6-4, 235-pound pocket passer must sound like a hot, juicy steak or maybe lettuce wraps from P.F. Chang's. If Luck delivers an effective passing attack - we'll certainly know by Nov. 7 - Oregon may have to dial up the pressure. Expect the Ducks to bring some blitzes and varied defensive looks to force the inexperienced Luck out of his comfort zone. It's the kind of pressure we've heard both Nick Aliotti and d-line coach Jerry Azzinaro talk about his fall. Time will tell if Oregon can bring the pressure effectively.

I this case, I can't call an advantage one way or the other. Luck is simply an unknown. If he's on and a better-than-average Stanford offensive line can protect him, this could be a shoot-out.

Special Teams

Both teams appear to have potential field goal issues, though Oregon's Morgan Flint is mostly reliable inside 40 yards. Stanford will have a new kicker this season, probably Nate Whitaker, a transfer from Notre Dame. David Green will handle the punts again this year for the Cardinal. He averaged 39.9 yards a punt as a sophomore in 2008. Stanford finished in the upper half of the Pac-10 for both punt and kick returns, and those units are largely intact. Still, Oregon's overall team speed and depth at linebacker probably give the Ducks a slight edge in special teams.

Conclusion

Expect a battle from a Stanford team which probably is going bowling if they can win one of their final four games. With an opportunity to rest and heal up while Oregon is pounding it out with USC, Stanford undoubtedly will see their game versus the Ducks as the best opportunity to get that win. Unless their early season has gone horribly wrong, the Cardinal will be hungry.

There also could be plenty of motivation for Oregon. If the Ducks are coming off a win over USC (yes, that's a big IF), it's full throttle to the finish. Expect a very physical contest in which neither team pulls away and a margin of victory of a touchdown or less. Oregon has the edge in talent and team speed on both sides of the ball. Still, it will take a huge effort to get past Stanford on the road if they're sniffing their first bowl game since the 2001 Seattle Bowl.