Brotherly Rivalries: Oregon At Stanford
My big brother used to beat me up. He used to pin me down on my back with my limbs trapped. Some brothers are capable of letting their spit droop tortuously slow down to your face, only so they can suck it back up and do it again. But his loogie would always fall, plastered to my face.
So there I was, back to the floor with spit on my face, my brother on my arms and obscenities spewing from my mouth. As I got a bit older, the obscenities became more and more diverse, yet my efforts were still in vein. He was my big brother, stronger and savvier. What was I to do?
By the time we were teenagers we had grown out of wrestling matches and had started getting along. During that time, I suddenly sprouted to a head taller than him. After an awkward phase of lankiness, both of us filled out but I ended up 20 pounds heavier. In our early 20s, my brother instigated me (by spitting beer in my face). I threw down the gauntlet and challenged him to a wrestling match.
Finally, I out powered him. I overcame the mental hurdle of being the little brother and pinned him. After the scuffle, both of us were a little dinged up and disoriented. We have not wrestled since — and probably for good reason. (He ended up with an infected leg as he went into Canadian wilderness … but that’s another story.) I still wonder whether my win was a fluke or for real. Would the result would be the same on any night?
Stanford has that chance. As the clock turns to 1 a.m. on Friday, Stanford likely will know whether their win against Oregon last year was a fluke and whether their time as Oregon’s little brother is over.
A changing of the guard in college football is rare. LSU has fought with Alabama. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State has been a hotly contested rivalry. Florida and Miami. Texas and Texas Tech — and now Texas A&M. Yet college football is as untamed a beast as it has ever been.
And the conditions are great for Stanford when they face Oregon on Thursday night. The Cardinal play at home with a two-game win streak against ranked opponents. Star running back Tyler Gaffney is coming off his third 100-yard rushing game. The unblockable Trent Murphy has racked up 5.5 sacks in two games against future top draft pick Brett Hundley and current passing leader Sean Mannion. The Cardinal backs are against the wall, which is how the team likes it. And even though they won last year, everyone has essentially counted them out. They love it that way. It only makes them play nastier.
Of course, the conditions are not perfect. Stanford has lost two of its best defensive linemen to injuries in Ben Gardner and Henry Anderson (the latter is expected to play Thursday). Stanford's win last year has put a chip on Oregon’s shoulder — one that does not belong there in the first place. Heisman frontrunner Marcus Mariota has 29 total touchdowns without a single interception.
That is the stat line that Stanford needs to change. It is fully capable of generating turnovers (Jordan Richards, we're looking at you). Last year Mariota threw one touchdown and one interception. This year, it needs to be similar — limit his points by taking the ball away. Mariota has accounted for 3.6 touchdowns a game. He had some trouble with fumbling, most notably against Washington State, but as a passer, Mariota has been nothing but perfect.
Stanford will enter the game looking to disrupt Oregon’s offense as whole and that starts with Mariota. The problem is that the run game is equally effective, ranking second in the nation for producing 331.5 yards per game, but even that starts with Mariota and the zone-read option. If Stanford can find a way to flap the unflappable man, they have an excellent chance to win. Realistically, they will only be able to hold him back for the first half. While Stanford managed to slow this offense down for a full game last year, the offense has improved through the incomparable running game. If they take Oregon out of a rhythm with a strong pass rush lead by Murphy and physical rush defense lead by Shayne Skov, it likely won't last an entire game.
So what then? What if Stanford manages to hold Oregon to 13 points or less, which has not been done this year?
Come the second half, Gaffney will begin chewing up clock. But if Stanford wants to draw from last year’s victory where Kevin Hogan went 26-for-36 for 211 yards, they will need some big-play magic — perhaps some Cajuste juice. Hogan has averaged only 146 yards against ranked opponents since that game and has passed for more than 200 yards in only one of those six games. Against UCLA, his passing yards were vital. They moved the chains and kept the defense honest for Gaffney. Hogan has to step up in a way that we have only seen against ranked opponents.
Devon Cajuste and Ty Montgomery are the perfect personnel to help him do so. Even Kodi Whitfield has stepped up in the clutch and made the SportsCenter Top 10 in the process. The receivers have provided big plays in the past, and it would not hurt to catch Oregon off balance, as the Ducks will expect run most of the game. Look to see if Hogan can connect on those ever-important deep balls against Oregon's talented secondary.
Stanford must also keep possession of the ball. Oregon is ranked fourth nationally in turnover margin at plus-12. Stanford has a history of getting sloppy with the football at bad moments (see: Stanford vs. Army). Against Oregon, the game can turn around in minutes. Giving the ball to Oregon once on a turnover is too many times, because it could mean seven points and the realization of a nightmare called "rhythm." It's Oregon's happy place and everyone else's hell.
So many have tried and failed, but the game plan is simple. Keep the ball out of Oregon’s hands and score more points than the Ducks. Stanford is equipped to do just that. They can keep Oregon’s offense at bay long enough to put enough points on the board that they can squeak by at the end like they did against every ranked opponent this year.
Call me stupid. Call me an optimist. But I'll call it an upset when it's all over.
Prediction: Stanford 34, Oregon 30