Thursday, 7 November 2013

The 2013 Pac-12 Journey Game 71: The Game of the Year(s)

What teams are playing?

The Oregon Ducks and the Stanford Cardinal

Where is this game being played?

Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California

What time does the game start and where can I find it on my television?

6:00 PM (PT) on ESPN.

What is the point spread?

Oregon is favored by 10 points (-10). The line opened at -7.

What should I watch for when Oregon has the ball?

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

A lot of hoopla has come from De'Anthony Thomas promising that the Ducks should score at least 40 points on Stanford's immovable defense but far more attention should be paid to his right ankle and the role he will play in this game. Thomas returned from his ankle injury against UCLA following a four game absence but had a mostly down performance with only 31 yards on 10 carries. He then asked out of the game after halftime because his ankle didn't feel right. The Ducks did not miss him at all though as Byron Marshall (averaging 6.76 yards per carry, the most among Pac-12 runners with at least 60 carries) produced his fifth straight game of at least 100 rushing yards and scored multiple touchdowns for the fourth time in the past five games (the stretch of time Thomas missed). Marshall has been better as a feature tailback than Thomas was not to mention the emergence of true freshman Thomas Tyner who has accounted for 6.43 yards per carry for the season.

Duck fans have clamored for Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost to copy the Ducks' 2011 offense that had LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner controlling the offense as feature backs with a younger Thomas as an accessory play maker at both running back and slot receiver. Will Helfrich lean on Marshall with Thomas healthy? Or will he go back to his original game plan with Thomas as a feature back? Will it even matter considering what just happened to Stanford's defense?

Stanford's task of shutting down the high flying Ducks for a second year in a row took what could be a fatal hit last week when senior All-American defensive lineman Ben Gardner tore a pectoral muscle and was pronounced out for the year. 2012 second team All-Pac-12 selection Henry Anderson will make his season debut in an attempt to replace Gardner but there is absolutely no guarantee that Anderson is either a) actually healthy or b) not prone to re-aggravating his injury in the first quarter. Even if Anderson is 100% and a full go for tonight, there is absolutely no depth behind him. Oregon will of course go up tempo like they always do and force Stanford to substitute and that could create irreparable problems for the Stanford defense.

Despite how great Gardner was, the Cardinal still have loads of talent at other levels of its defense. Outside linebacker Trent Murphy might be the best defensive player in the Pac-12 and his partner at the other OLB spot James Vaughters is a star in his own right. Ed Reynolds hasn't had the same production that he had last year but is still the most talented safety in the nation. The Cardinal are violently physical, smart, and athletic and that makes them capable of shutting down anyone. But, these Ducks aren't just anyone.

Oregon has gotten a lot better on offense since last year and yes, that is possible. The Ducks possess the single best player in all of college football in QB Marcus Mariota. The Ducks have become more physical and versatile at the running back position with the emergence of Marshall and Tyner, they have their best tandem of wide receivers since 2001 with Josh Huff and Bralon Addison, and a veteran offensive line that has learned a lot and gotten much better since being eaten up by the Cardinal last year. In terms of units, as in one offense versus one defense, this may be the best match up a college football fan could dream up other than perhaps Oregon or Baylor facing Alabama. It's ironic though, that this game will probably come down to the other offense versus defense match up.

What should I watch for when Stanford has the ball?

All the hype surrounding this game has been paid to deciphering Oregon's offense against Stanford's defense and to a degree that is rightfully so. However, the most important question to be asked about this game has nothing to do with either of those units. The most important question in this particular game is, "Where are Stanford's points going to come from?" This game has been circled since it was announced back in July but Stanford may have lost its shot in this one back in January when then offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton left his post to accept the OC gig with the Indianapolis Colts. New offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren and head coach David Shaw (a former OC in his own right) have left a lot to be desired in picking up Hamilton's slack.

The problem isn't so much that Stanford is boring and conservative as many fans lament but it has more to do with the Cardinal being incredibly predictable. A formation with eight or sometimes nine offensive linemen sounds cool in theory but it doesn't work in practice because there is no threat of a pass at all. The one inherit advantage that offenses have over defenses is the ability to dictate the play. They know what is being run and the defense doesn't and sometimes a defense can be exploited because they are left guessing and play a base defense against a particular offensive play and/or formation that is designed to exploit them. Not only do opposing defenses know that Stanford is going to run the ball but they also know where the run is going.

Stanford has not threatened the edges with the run this season and has been woefully uncreative with its play calling. The Cardinal have a great tailback in Tyler Gaffney and a gifted running quarterback with Kevin Hogan but both are running plays that aren't suited to their abilities. Hogan in particular has been hampered this year without Hamilton. Last year, Hamilton got creative with Hogan by allowing him to use his best asset, his legs, to his advantage. Stanford's bread and butter was still the inside running game but Hamilton mixed it up with outside runs, read options, creative multiple option screens, speed options, and designed roll outs with multiple run/pass options. All of that creativity has been starkly missing this year as Bloomgren and Shaw have inexplicably tried to force Hogan into the box of a conventional QB like his predecessor Andrew Luck. Unfortunately for Hogan, it's a box he is simply not built to succeed in.

Making matters much worse for Hogan is the infirmary report both for his Cardinal and the opposing Ducks. Hogan's second best receiver Devin Cajuste will miss a second straight game with a knee injury leaving him with Ty Montgomery and little else to throw to. The Ducks possess perhaps the most talented secondary in all of college football lead by the nation's best corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Ekpre-Olomu is more than capable of holding Montgomery down so if Ekpre-Olomu plays the way he normally does and puts a blanket on Montgomery, where else will Hogan find completions? You might remember last year that Oregon was really banged up on defense late in the season. All-American pass rusher Dion Jordan was out with a shoulder injury, Arik Armstead and premier linebacker Kiko Alonso both had a huge cast on one hand, true freshman Alex Balducci's redshirt was burned to cover for ailing nose tackles Wade Keli'ikipi and Ricky Heimuli, and steady safety Avery Patterson, the quarterback of the defense, blew out his knee the week before the Stanford game. It's all hands on deck for the Ducks defense this year as no significant defensive players are out and none have been playing with noticeable pain in recent weeks.

Which team should I bet on and which team will win?

To answer the most important question of where will Stanford's points come from? They won't. The Ducks played their best defensive ball of the season last time out against UCLA and should eat up a predictable Stanford offense with an average passer at QB and a depleted receiver core. The Ducks will make good on Thomas' promise of 40 points as well as Mariota makes a bold Heisman statement and the Ducks' receivers and offensive linemen play at a much higher level than last year. Oregon has not lost consecutive games to the same opponent or lost a true road game since 2009. That means that literally not a single player on Oregon's roster knows what it's like to lose twice to the same team or lose a road game. Athletes in Space would feel comfortable laying the points even if the line were a full touchdown higher and thus expects the game of the year to fall into a blowout. The Ducks take this one big, 42-17.

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