Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE
The defense has been dominant this season, but if Stanford is to have any chance of upsetting the Ducks, the Cardinal has to get off the field on third down.
The presumption of just about everyone seems to be that the Oregon offense will have little trouble against the Stanford defense, and that it will be more of the same as the 2009, ‘10 and ‘11 games of the all-time series. That’s the implication of the 21-point spread and a high over-under. Most of the previews that do give the team in red a chance focus on Oregon’s injury woes...on defense.
Is this defense new and different from last years’ (and the year before)? Now’s an excellent time to prove it. There’s evidence both ways, sadly enough.
Start with the yards per play. As Oregon fans are quick to argue, yards per play is the best measure of actual effectiveness -- it’s efficiency that really matters. Stanford’s 4.48 yards/play is the best in the Pac-12; in fact, if Stanford holds the average over an entire season, it’d be the third-best yards per play total in the Pac-10/12 since 2007. Essentially, then, Stanford is stopping opponents from moving the ball in elite fashion.
There’s the other evidence, of course -- the debacle against Arizona and even the far-too-uncomfortable game against Washington State. These games are easy rejoinders for the Duck fan: can’t stop the spread (and Oregon’s spread is the very best.)
Yards per play reveals an oddity: Arizona’s performance came from ringing up 100 plays; they only got 5.99 yards per play -- which is bad, but not a debacle (normally, at least.) And, again, normally, giving up 4.58 yards per play to Washington State would yield a dominant performance -- not the kind of performance you need a last-second sack to preserve victory.
So what happened? Well, this may or may not be the key against the Ducks, but Chip Kelly’s a smart chap, so you’d imagine he’s noticed the defense’s weakness against: short passes consistently completed. Pro-style offenses, for whatever reason, haven’t done it; spread offenses have.
So a low number of yards per play, consistently gained, just becomes a long agonizing march down the field, with every manageable third and fourth down converted. That’s the case against both Arizona (who converted 12-19 combined 3rd/4th down) and Washington State (who went 11-18). The inability to get off the field was most memorably captured by Wazzu converting a 4th-and-23, otherwise known as the moment I had uncomfortable flashbacks to 2007 Stanford-USC.
The ineffectiveness on 3rd and 4th downs against those offenses is in contrast to Stanford’s 8th-best 3rd down conversion percentage against all opponents (though its 4th-down percentage is 83rd in the country....).
So, fine against most teams -- not so fine against an accurate spread QB. Which, sadly, the Ducks seems to have acquired during the offseason -- rather casually and far too easily, too, like some jerk who finds a spare Declaration of Independence in a canvas frame ("LOOK WHAT I FOUND!!!!! DO YOU SEE WHAT I FOUND LOOK I FOUND IT OMGHGHH" [everyone else, to self: what a frigging jerk.] "That’s so nice congratulations.")
In both games, the game became a test between whether the offense could score -- or the defense could knock the opponents off-schedule with a sack, or force a turnover. This seems unlikely against the Ducks: Stanford, get yourself off the field when you can.