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Oregon vs. Stanford: Intangibles

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Ty Montgomery of Stanford has emerged as one of the most dangerous return men in the nation. Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images.
Ty Montgomery of Stanford has emerged as one of the most dangerous return men in the nation. Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images.

Football.com beat writers John Baker (Oregon) and Henry McKenna (Stanford) square off against one another, much the same way the Ducks and Cardinal will battle it out tonight.

Much of the hype focuses on the Oregon offense and the Stanford defense, but the two Pac-12 writers take a look at other factors sure to be important during tonight's game.

Which Team Has Stronger Special Teams?

McKenna:

To the naked eye, Ty Montgomery and De’Anthony Thomas look like completely different players. Montgomery is a rangy athlete who uses his long and lean build to outstride his opponents. Thomas is short and compact with foot speed faster than a Tasmanian devil.

The result, however, is similar. They both have that acquired nose for the end zone. Thomas has not found the end zone this year on special teams, but he is almost impossible to track down in space.

But Montgomery is the clear choice. Stats tell the whole story. Montgomery wallops Thomas in yards with 683 to Thomas’ 116. He also has a much higher average per return with 32.5 to Thomas’ 23.2. Montgomery has also finished two of his returns for six points.

Thomas may be producing from the line of scrimmage in a way that Montgomery has not. But in the return game, Montgomery is not just the best returner in this two-man race, but perhaps in the country. He’s second in yards per return to Christion Jones (32.7), who only has one touchdown and 425 yards.

Baker:

As Oregon and Stanford square off Thursday night, plenty of attention will be given to the Oregon offense and how Stanford’s defense copes with all that speed and playmaking ability, or the Stanford offense’s ability run successfully against the Oregon defense, but too little will be mentioned about how special teams could be the X-factor in changing the game’s momentum.

As we know, Oregon has playmakers a plenty on special teams and the big question heading into Thursday is whether De’Anthony Thomas goes back to field punts, kickoffs or both. He didn’t need to in the Ducks win over UCLA 10 days ago, but he’s a potent and dangerous return man no matter what type of kick he fields. Oregon, as always, offers plenty of reasons to cover kicks well and Stanford knows this.

Fortunately for the Cardinal, they aren’t alone in the 'special teams making special plays' department. Thanks to Ty Montgomery, the Cardinal have their own version of DAT, a guy who can take it to the house really fast. Currently, the Cardinal lead the FBS is kickoff return average at just under 30 yards a return. Most of that is due to Montgomery, who has the same kind of dynamic playmaking ability that Thomas has for Oregon.

In fact, in Stanford’s shocking loss to Utah several weeks ago, Montgomery took a kickoff back for a touchdown (99 yards) and added another 68-yarder later in the game to set up a three-play scoring drive for Stanford. He’s averaging more than 32 yards a kick return, so he could play a key role in field position for the Cardinal.

Thursday’s game will offer plenty of questions about offensive line versus defensive line, playmaker vs. defensive scheme and coaching philosophy versus coaching philosophy, but nowhere is there greater opportunity for game-changing field position switches, short fields and gut-wrenching scores than in the return game.

On the surface, Oregon's speed and firepower seems to be a distinct advantage in that department with Bralon Addison having two punt returns for touchdowns and Josh Huff doing most of the kickoff return duties. Even without DAT returning punts and kickoffs, Oregon has playmakers manning the spots.

As for covering kicks, statistically the Ducks are far better at keeping opponents under control in the punt game (4.3 yards per return) than Stanford (8.0 ypr); however, the Cardinal do an outstanding job on kickoff coverage (17.8 ypr) compared to Oregon (21.7 ypr). A big play or a coverage breakdown could provide Stanford or Oregon with that one scoring opportunity they need to seize control of the game.

Special team could decide who wins Thursday night.

Special Teams Stats

Team Punt Returns Kickoff Returns Opp. Punt Returns Opp. Kickoff Returns
Oregon 15.7 yards 22.2 4.3 21.6
Stanford 9.3 29.4 8.0 17.8

The Winner

Although the stats are similar, the edge goes to Stanford. While the Ducks have proven they can win without Thomas, the same can't be said with certainty for Stanford. Gaffney and Thomas are both as dangerous as they come with the ball and room to run. Until we see the Cardinal succeed without Gaffney, we have to assume he carries more weight for the Cardinal special teams.