When is 198 rushing yards in a game a bad thing?
Average it every week, and it'd put you 35th in the NCAA this year - just half a yard behind Miami, and half a yard ahead of Stanford. Those are two of the better running teams in the country... so that seems like good company. So how can 198 rushing yards be a bad thing?
It's a bad thing when you're used to averaging 315 yards a game on the ground.
That's exactly what Stanford's defense did to the Oregon offense a year ago - took the nation's 3rd best running offense and turned it into the nation's 32nd best for just one game - and that was enough for the Cardinal to score a huge upset win.
So what makes Oregon's running game so good - and how did the Cardinal swamp the Ducks' runners in the mud a year ago? Let's go to the tape and find out.
First, it's important to note a few basics of Oregon's run game. The majority of their runs come on two plays: an inside zone and an outside zone, and the quarterback almost always has the option of keeping the ball and running with it himself. (There's also a straight speed option that the Ducks like to run, but it's blocked like the outside zone play.)
So let's first look at a successful inside run - a touchdown run - and see how the Ducks win up front.
On second and goal from the six yard line, Stanford stacks the box with eight guys. Five down linemen, two outside linebackers walked up on the line of scrimmage, and a middle linebacker. Generally, this is not a front you want to run into.
At the snap, the entire line slides and blocks the man to their left. Meanwhile, Shayne Skov steps up and waits on the line, knowing that he's unblocked (Oregon only has six blockers) and if he slow-plays the option, he'll force Marcus Mariota to hand it off to De'Anthony Thomas. Stanford did this throughout the entire game a year ago - asked the outside linebackers who were being read in the read-option to step up slowly and force Mariota to hand the ball off.
But by leaving Skov unblocked and focusing on getting six blockers on six defenders, the Ducks win easily - the block that opens a running lane is just the center shoving Terrence Stephens to the ground (red arrow). Thomas, who's short and shifty enough to slip through these small holes, easily gets through the line and into open space.
Now it's just Thomas against AJ Tarpley. And that's a one-on-one matchup that Thomas will win every time. He's just that fast. Touchdown.
Don't let De'Anthony Thomas do this to you. You know how this ends. These kind of one-on-one opportunities make him tweet things like this:
WISH I HAD MY OWN REALITY SHOW— DE'ANTHONY THOMAS (@EATBLACKMOMBA6) November 2, 2013
I NEED SOME CHERRY CHAPSTICK— DE'ANTHONY THOMAS (@EATBLACKMOMBA6) October 5, 2013
HOW YOU A STEAK HOUSE AND OUT OF PRIME RIBS— DE'ANTHONY THOMAS (@EATBLACKMOMBA6) August 12, 2013
However, this wasn't the case most of the night for the Oregon running backs - they had a lot of trouble running the ball inside. It all starts with a small defensive alignment adjustment up front. Instead of having the two defensive ends in Stanford's 3-4 defense line up in a traditional fashion, Derek Mason pinched those defensive ends in, setting them up over the Ducks' guards. That pinch creates problems for teams who want to run inside.
Here's an example. It's third and one, and the Ducks will try and use the inside run to pick up the first down. Stanford's two middle linebackers are set back from the line, while the two Stanford defensive ends are pinched in.
At the snap, the right guard pulls (red arrow) - this play is designed to be run like the famous "power" run play - and the right tackle is supposed to (legally) cut block the backside defensive end. But the DE is just too far inside for the tackle to reach, so he ends up flopping on the turf (yellow arrow). Meanwhile, Henry Anderson basically bear crawls into the backfield to stop the play dead in its tracks.
Here are two examples of the outside zone run that Oregon uses - two perfect examples of why this run is so deadly.
So now that it's a year later and the stakes are just as high, how does Oregon counter the Stanford defense in 2013? I think they'll borrow Texas A&M's offensive style and let Mariota go full Manziel. By using the pass to set up the run, Oregon can get Stanford's defensive backs running backward, and Mariota can just carry it himself. (Or throw. He hasn't thrown a single pick this year). If Mariota can handle the rock all game long, he might take a few extra hits - but he's fresh and he's big enough to handle a few shots.
But for now, Stanford's playbook to stopping Oregon's prolific run game remains the same as last year: Be aware of where you are on the field because they're probably going to run it to the wide side. Plug the middle with your defensive ends. Have the outside linebacker force Mariota to hand it off. Play with flawless technique on the front side. And don't allow cutback lanes. Got it?
Now we'll see if the Cardinal can do it again - or if these Ducks have some serious tricks up their sleeves.