It wouldn't surprise me in the least if Stanford beats Oregon on Saturday at Stanford Stadium with the same recipe it has cooked up for most of its opponents -- a power running game that gets better as the game goes on, perfect execution in the red zone, and an opportunistic defense that bends but doesn't often break.
But if you're looking for the deciding factor in this Pac-12 North showdown between two of the nation's most impressive and well coached teams, it couldn't be more obvious: The Cardinal has an Andrew Luck and Oregon does not.
Stanford should be able to run on Oregon, as it has in each of the past two years. The Ducks' rushing defense (58th in the country) isn't great, but it is coming off one of its best performances of the season, having limited Washington's Chris Polk to 80 yards in last week's 34-17 win.
In all likelihood, Stanford's defense will break more often than usual on Saturday. That's not an indictment of a unit that has held opponents to less than 17 points per game. It's just foolish to expect any defense to shut down Chip Kelly's crazy good offense, which put up 27 points in its season-opening loss to immovable LSU. (When they're not playing Stanford, the Ducks are a joy to watch, preferably with some Dramamine.) LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner, and De'Anthony Thomas form the scariest trio of running backs in the country, while Stanford, with Stepfan Taylor, Anthony Wilkerson, Tyler Gaffney, and Jeremy Stewart, boasts one of the most fearsome and unheralded foursomes.
Oregon's backs are a threat to score every time they touch the ball, which doesn't bode well for a Stanford defense that's been prone to giving up the big play. While the Cardinal are tied for third in the country in fewest runs allowed of 10 yards or more (24), three of those runs have gone for 40 yards or more, including one to Polk that accounted for 61 of his 144 yards at Stanford Stadium last month. The Ducks, by comparison, have allowed 41 runs of 10 yards or more. Not surprisingly, Oregon ranks first in runs of 40 yards or more with 10.
Enough about that for now. I'll have more statistical analysis later in the week, but this was supposed to be about Andrew Luck. Sometimes he hands the ball off so often that it's easy to forget he's there. That shouldn't be a problem Saturday. Luck would be content watching Stanford's RBs run over and through Oregon to the tune of 6 yards per carry, but he'll probably need to do more than that if the Cardinal is to knock off the Ducks and remain in the BCS National Championship race.
That may not mean big numbers from the Heisman candidate. In Stanford's 51-42 win over Oregon in 2009, Luck completed only 12-of-20 passes, but the Cardinal averaged more than 20 yards per completion. Most importantly, Luck didn't turn the ball over in that game. In last year's 52-31 loss at Autzen Stadium, he threw two interceptions, both to Cliff Harris, who won't play Saturday. Luck and the Cardinal haven't lost since that game and they've had this game circled on their calendar for a long time.
My grandfather, the biggest Stanford fan I know, sent me an e-mail after Luck and the Cardinal shook off a sluggish first half, which included the loss of Shayne Skov to a season-ending knee injury, in an eventual blowout win at Arizona.
"Watching the game and especially watching Luck last night, I thought of Luck's predecessor Elway. As a collegian Elway had an unparalleled genius and artistry as a quarterback, but he lost quite a few games. (As a pro, he retained all or most of the genius but became a, sometimes most inartistic, winner.) Luck is a middling good -- that's not fair, very good -- quarterback, lacking Elway's genius and art, BUT HE WINS GAMES. Thus, maybe not a Heisman Trophy but maybe a national championship -- if something can be done about the pass defense."
I know, I know. It seems preposterous that my grandfather would even consider describing Luck as middling good or that he wasn't a legitimate Heisman candidate at that point in his career, so I reached out to him again today and asked for his thoughts on Luck now.
"I still say that Luck’s greatest attribute is that he wins games, but today I would rate him considerably higher for quarterbacking skills than I did in that message. Albert, Plunkett, Elway – perhaps better than any of them."
I think most Stanford fans would agree. There's revenge to be had, a potential National Championship or Rose Bowl berth on the line, and the pass defense, not to mention tackling in the secondary, should be better with the return of Delano Howell. There's a good reason to believe Luck will find a way once again. (For everyone's sake, let's just hope his latest Heisman moment doesn't follow a late-game interception.)
There's much more to the Cardinal's success than Andrew Luck, and anyone who is watching this year's Stanford team for the first time on Saturday will see that. That said, no one will have a greater effect on the outcome of the game than Luck, and that's a good thing for Stanford fans. It could be a last-minute drive, a crucial third down conversion, or an audible at the line that we only learn about later. But expect to see it. Expect to see Luck and Stanford find a way to win. It's what he does best.
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