Stop Slow Down Not Get Annihilated by the Ducks
Stanford faces the daunting task of heading up to Eugene to play the #1 team in the country with the #1 scoring offense, #3 rushing attack, AND the #1 rated passer in FBS. I'm guessing defensive coordinator Derek Mason has spent some sleepless nights following the Cardinal win over the Oregon State Beavers last week trying to figure out how to keep the Chip Kelly led offense from scoring 50+, something the Ducks have done against Stanford each of the last two years. Here are some of the problems the Duck offense presents, and what the Cardinal can do to counter punch:
- Kelly's up tempo play calling and limited time between plays typically physically and mentally exhausts defenses. The Oregon offensive linemen are conditioned to run a large number of plays in a short period of time which makes their blocks easier as the game goes on. Stanford is actually built to handle this as the constant rotation and depth (18 different players have recorded a tackle for loss in 2012) should minimize the advantage Oregon typically has. The Cardinal can also help the defense by controlling the clock, converting 3rd downs (7-12 last week against the Beavers), and running the ball effectively against the injury ravaged front 7 for the Ducks.
- Chip Kelly keeps the pressure on defenses by going for it on 4th down early and often, and many times doing it in Duck territory. Stanford is outstanding at creating tackles for loss and getting to the QB, so forcing 3rd and long or 4th and long situations would keep Kelly from going for it and punting the ball back to Stanford. It isn't necessarily a risky strategy employed by the Ducks as Kelly rightfully believes that his offense is better and picking up 2-5 yards is a matter of calling and executing the right play (which they often do as Oregon is converting on 76% of 4th downs this year). However, even Kelly isn't going to risk going for it on long yardage situations, and the Cardinal can do that by penetrating and getting tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
- Oregon is able to create running lanes by spreading the formations and making defenses declare how they are going to play. The zone read option can attack the middle of the field and the perimeter depending on how the defense plays each snap. Stanford's DL have to be able to shed blocks and the inside linebackers have to maintain gap discipline because Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas are as good as it gets at turning 2 yards of daylight into 80 yard TD runs. It is also critical for Derek Mason to disguise the safety pressures and do everything possible to confuse young Marcus Mariota. Inside LBs on twisting blitzes, Usua Amanam coming off the edge in the nickel package, and safeties Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards rotating just before the ball is snapped will help the Cardinal create some of those TFL discussed earlier.
- The WRs for Oregon block better than any group in the country. They are big, strong, physical players who are consistently the ones responsible for springing those edge rushes or quick screens into big plays. However, the Cardinal have two of the best tackling corners in Alex Carter and Terrence Brown, while third CB Wayne Lyons is the biggest and strongest of the group. The true freshman Carter made one of the most athletic plays of the year against Oregon State when he shed a WR block, jumped over another, and turned a quick screen into negative play. They are going to need that type of effort against the Ducks, but the good news is that the entire secondary are excellent tacklers.
I certainly don't envy Stanford defensive coordinate Derek Mason because the Oregon offense is one of the best I have ever seen. Kelly has his best group physically, and they are experienced in the system which allows him to call any play at any time. Combine that play calling ability with lighting speed and a QB who can make all the throws, and the result is a team which should break the NCAA scoring record. In fact, they might already would have if Kelly didn't take his foot off the pedal in 5 games this season, as evidenced by them outscoring opponents 348-90 in the first halves of games this year. To put that into perspective, only 34 teams in the country have scored more than 348 all season.
I would also be curious to see how Oregon handles adversity because they have dominated almost every team they've played this season. Would panic set in if the Cardinal come off the ball and figuratively punch Oregon in the mouth? I think we will find out on Saturday because Stanford's front 7 is as physical and quick as any unit in the county. Stanford needs to do all it can to force 6 possessions where the Ducks don't score touchdowns, and Stanford's defensive personnel, scheme, and coaching staff seem like the team best equipped to handle that task.