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Darron Thomas will be key to beating Stanford and keeping the Cardinal defense honest

There's been plenty of discussion recently regarding playing Thomas versus Bennett for the Ducks.  The game against washington established pretty clearly that Thomas is the #1 QB while Bennett is still the #2.  I don't want to get into the debate because anything you might say is going to include conjecture, speculation, small sample sizes and a tremendous amount of opinion from a very narrow point of view.  Obviously the coaches feel like Thomas gives Oregon the best chance of winning, and as the ones that see them each play way more than any of us, I'm inclined to support that decision.

Instead, what I want to look at is how Thomas has performed in some of the bigger games in his career.  Games where he has faced an above average defense, or games where he was going into a hostile environment and needed to lead the team, or games that meant a lot for the season (i.e. bowl games and big time conference games).  So this analysis is going to throw out good statistical games like Ucla 2010 but it will also throw out bad statistical games like Arizona 2011.

The games I am looking at are:

2010 - @Tennessee, @ASU, Stanford, @USC, Auburn
2011 - LSU, ASU, @Uw

If you feel like there is a case to include or even exclude a game, make that case in the comments and we'll discuss.

First of all, before we look at any of the statistics, let's be clear about one thing.  This team is not built around Darron Thomas.  There is a clear case to be made that in the two games we've lost over the last couple of years it has been due to our ineffectiveness on defense, our inability to run or some combination of the both.  Oregon is a run first team, built to feature LaMichael James and its tempo.  Oregon imposes their will by running first and then catching you off guard with the pass.  As a matter of fact, in the last 2 seasons the only two losses Oregon has had, Oregon had 75 and 95 yards rushing respectively.  For a team that averages 292 yards rushing over the last two seasons, to be held under 100 total as a team, I think it's pretty clear what the cause of those losses was.

The same will hold true this Saturday against Stanford.  If the Tree hope to win they are going to have to shut down Oregon's rushing game.  They are going to have to stack the box, take away LaMichael's speed and advantage and force Oregon to beat them with the pass.  Thomas' role once again is going to be to keep them honest.  If he can convert some 3rd and longs, hit Paulson across the middle and force the linebackers to play a little deeper, get the ball out quickly to De'Anthony and force the corners and safeties to pay attention to someone other than LaMichael James, Oregon will be able to do what they do best.  

While the passing game won't be the reason Oregon loses, not having a passing game working effectively will allow Stanford to focus on the area that will beat Oregon; shutting down the running game.  

Let's look at the stats:

Games Att Comp Pct. Yards Yds/Game Yards/Att TD Int Rating
Total 2010-11 21 548 334 60.95% 4412 210.10 8.05 49 14 162.17
Against Top Teams 8 262 159 60.69% 1947 243.38 7.43 17 8 144.75


The two stats that stick out to me are 1) the completion percentage and 2) the yards per game.  Thomas is depended on more often in those big games by the fact that he attempts 32 passes per big game versus 26 per game otherwise.  Even though his attempts are going up, his percentage completion is roughly the same.  That leads to more yards.  While his yards per attempt and touchdown to interception ratio both take a hit, it's not unexpected given the increase in the level of competition he is facing compared to those other games (side note: if you take out his 8 INTs and 17 TD in those 8 big games, he has 32 TDs and only 6 INTs in those 13 other games, a 5:1 ratio in non-big games).

On top of that 44% of his passing yards have come in 38% of his games.  It's apparent that teams are fully aware that they need to focus on Oregon's running game in these big games.  This allows Kelly and Oregon to attack them where they are vulnerable with the pass.  Thomas has shown he can step up and complete just as many passes.

While I still think the key to beating Stanford this weekend is going to be running the ball consistently, Darron Thomas is going to have to keep the defense honest with the pass.  Obviously, Thomas hasn't had his best 2 games the last couple of weeks, but I think Thomas thrives and does well in these big game environments.