Oregon (8-1, 6-0)
Stanford (9-0, 7-0)
A couple of years ago when All-Pac 10 safety TJ Ward injured his ankle in the team’s season opener, the Ducks defense appeared to be in serious trouble. Ward was the physical trend-setter in a secondary that needed one and when he went out in the second half of the Boise State opener in 2009, it seemingly spelled doom for a damaged unit.
Enter John Boyett. Not only did the Ducks defense not miss a beat, it may have actually been a bit better with the youngster from Napa Valley in the lineup. When Ward returned, the Duck coaching staff found a way to keep Boyett on the field. They had to, he was that good. And, continues to be. Boyett leads the team in tackles and has become the leader of the secondary, well, in all honesty, he’s been the focal point in the back from the day he stepped on the blue field in Boise a couple of years ago. But, he’s going to be on the spot throughout this game because of Stanford’s offensive duality.
To truly stop the Cardinal, Boyett has to be a factor in run support, even if he’s not truly playing in the box. He must fill in the alley and be a major player there or Stanford will be able to run all night long. But, the way that Andrew Luck and the Cardinal offense use play action and their tight ends, Boyett CANNOT get too aggressive or the secondary will get torched. Keep an eye on #20 in the white jersey and how much he impacts this game.
During a blowout win over Arizona, the Cardinal suffered their most glaring loss of the year, crazy as that may sound. The one guy the Stanford defense could ill afford to lose went down with a devastating knee injury – linebacker Shayne Skov. To say that I loved what Skov did on a field would be the understatement of the day. He could blitz. He could tackle in space. He could rush the QB as a fourth DE if necessary. He could drop in coverage. He was everywhere. And, he’s gone.
The good news, if there is such a thing in this situation, was that no offense could take real advantage of his absence over the last two months of the season. That changes on Saturday. In fact, Oregon’s offense is the perfect one to highlight Skov’s absence and the remaining Stanford linebackers. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Stanford counters with an additional safety/nickel cornerback in Skov’s spot to counteract the Ducks’ team speed.
Oregon, obviously, stretches teams sideline to sideline, as I call it “all 53”, so more DBs on the field makes plenty of sense. But, those additional defensive backs can’t read and fill against the run like Skov could. They can’t blitz the edge like Skov could. And, they can’t tackle as well in space like Skov could. More defensive speed will help against the Ducks gamebreakers, but the Cardinal need defensive game changers on the field. And, the one they need more than anything else will be on crutches. A ton of pressure rests on the shoulders of Chase Thomas, A.J Tarpley, Jarek Lancaster and Trent Murphy to handle all that Oregon will throw at it on Saturday night.
Quiz any casual college football fan with a little word association.
Now with each of those other teams, the casual fan will know about the Honey Badger, LaMichael James and the Montee Ball/James White running duo but get to Stanford and, well, you hear nothing but crickets. If you don’t follow the Rotary Lombardi Award (Jonathan Martin) or Outland Trophy (perhaps David DeCastro), then you may not any other player for the Stanford Cardinal.
However, the Cardinal are 9-0, so there aren’t a bunch of stiffs playing alongside Luck. That said, the key to beating a team of the caliber of Oregon is which “in-the-shadows player” will step up, especially on the offense side of the ball. RB Stepfan Taylor has been a capable ball carrier that has thrived running behind a massive, and tough, smashmouth, offensive line. WR Griff Whalen is now the number one wide out with WR Chris Owusu more than likely out with a concussion. TE Coby Fleener is one of those new age weapons who is more receiver than tight end, but he’s a weapon. The thing is that no one will understand how valuable these three are to the Stanford offensive mix.
But, one of these three must be a star against Oregon on Saturday night. It’s one thing to be a complementary bit player, but it’s time for one to share the spotlight with Luck and become a known commodity all throughout the country. Taylor, in particular, is the one player who Stanford would like to see be that guy because if the run game excels, it leaves the Oregon offense on the sideline. If it does that, then maybe it’ll be time to start the quiz all over again.
Stanford? Luck and (Insert name here).
When power meets speed, what wins out? You know, we’ve seen enough football to know that it can vary. Sometimes speed kills and sometimes power overwhelms. And, sometimes it’s the more desperate team that wins out, no matter what. It’s hard to say that one of these two teams is more desperate than the other, but I do think that Stanford has more to play for in this one.
Undefeated season. Shot at the national championship. Heisman Trophy. Revenge. All wrapped into a 60 minute slugfest with the 2X Pac-10 champions.
In the end, I think Stanford will control the last 10-12 minutes of this game and wear the Ducks down in the fourth quarter. Luck cements his Heisman candidacy with a solid performance, but more importantly, another win. However, the star(s) will be Taylor and the offensive line, making a statement for power in a Stanford victory.