Pac-12 football fans are in for a treat this weekend when the high-octane Oregon Ducks host the bruising Stanford Cardinal in a matchup of Top-15 squads at Autzen Stadium.
Built on its punishing defense, Stanford has grinded out an 8-2 overall record this season. Last weekend the Cardinal won for the fourth straight week since a heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame in mid-October, with a 27-23 victory at home over Oregon State. Stanford is also 6-1 in conference play meaning its hopes of getting to the Pac-12 championship game are still intact.
It hasn't mattered who they or where they played, the Oregon Ducks have flattened everything in their path this season. After a 59-17 win over California last weekend the Ducks moved to 10-0 and rose to No. 1 in the top-25 by virtue of previously unbeaten Alabama's loss to Texas A&M. Oregon has won 13 straight games, scoring 40 or more points in each game, an NCAA record. The Ducks' winning streak is the longest active streak in the country.
Last season these teams also met with one team still undefeated. In that matchup it was No. 3 Stanford that had the perfect mark, but No. 6 Oregon ruined that, winning 53-30 at Stanford Stadium. Oregon has won back-to-back games in the series, but Stanford still leads 44-30-1.
It seems that Kevin Hogan is here to stay at quarterback for Stanford. Hogan made his first start of the season last weekend against Oregon State and excelled, throwing for 254 yards and three touchdowns on 22-of-29 passing. Hogan did throw two interceptions in the contest but it seems he has secured the starting gig from Josh Nunes, who started the first nine games.
Head coach David Shaw was impressed with what he saw from his sophomore quarterback in the week leading up to his first start.
"Early in the week, we knew he could handle quite a bit," Shaw said. "But by the end of the week, he had a hand in changing protections and calling audibles."
Even with Hogan at the helm, Stanford isn't exactly an explosive offense. Stanford relies on its powerful offensive line and running game primarily. Having a running back like Stepfan Taylor has made that a more than suitable gameplan. Taylor has piled up 1,061 yards and nine touchdowns on the season and has also been an important part of the passing game. His 28 receptions are the second most on the team. Taylor finished with 114 yards and a touchdown last weekend against Oregon State and is currently the third most productive back in the Pac-12.
Hogan has clearly already established a rapport with Zach Ertz. The tight end hauled in nine passes for 75 yards and a touchdown against Oregon State. Ertz is the most productive pass catcher on the squad, with 47 receptions for 641 yards and five touchdowns. Ertz was named a Mackey Award semifinalist this week.
Thanks to its defense, Stanford has not needed to be as offensive juggernaut. The Cardinal are by far the best defensive unit in the conference, holding teams to 17.2 points and 320.7 yards per game. Stanford is not just effective in comparison to its conference foes but on a national scale as well, ranking 17th nationally in total defense. Stanford is especially strong against the run, where it is second to no team in the country (58.6 yapg).
The defense feeds off of the play of the front seven which has racked up incredible numbers in tackles for loss (91) and sacks (42), both the top marks in the country as well. Trent Murphy (14.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks), Ben Gardner (12.0 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) and Henry Anderson (8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) have been pillars or consistency up front, while linebacker Chase Thomas (51 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks) has directed the squad from the edge.
On the other side of the field awaits the Oregon Ducks' offense, which produces most of its yards on the ground. Running a relentless no huddle offense that features multiple packages and formations, the Ducks have been the third most productive offense (562.5 ypg) in the country, while scoring at a rate (54.8 ppg) few teams are even close to. In fact other than Louisiana Tech (53.4 ppg) and Oklahoma State (43.9 ppg) no team in the country is within 10 points of Oregon's scoring average.
Oregon has rushed for the third most yards (3,251) in the country. That puts them in company with teams like Army, Air Force and Georgia Tech, whose run- option offenses ignore the passing game almost entirely.
Oregon though, can still pass the ball and it has used a freshman quarterback to do so. Marcus Mariota has been excellent in his first season, throwing for 2,164 yards and 28 touchdowns, while completing 71.7 percent of his passes. He has also thrown only five interceptions and has shown excellent mobility (516 yards, 3 TDs). In last weekend's win over California, Mariota showed his toughness as he withstood an injury and still managed to tie a school record with six touchdown passes.
Star running back Kenjon Barner, who was named a Doak Walker Award semifinalist this week, was also slowed by an injury in the game which accounted for a rather weak performance by his standards (65 yards). When healthy, Barner is almost impossible to stop as he has racked up 1,360 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground.
The offensive weapons do not stop there, with the versatile De'Anthony Thomas (521 rushing yards, 7 TDs, 37 receptions, 378 yards, 4 TD receptions). Josh Huff (20 receptions, 355 yards , 6 TDs) and Colt Lyerla (16 receptions, 260 yards, 6 TDs) have also made the most of their touches.
"You have to pick your poison really with them," California coach Jeff Tedford said after watching the Ducks run the Golden Bears off the field. "If you're going to get up in there and try to stop the run, then the play-action, you're covering really fast guys running down the field."
On defense Oregon has given up its fair share of yards (377.6 ypg) but that is largely a symptom of the pace at which the offense plays. Teams are often given many more possessions with the Ducks scoring so quickly, which allows for more opportunities to pick up yards. A better barometer of the Ducks' defense is how well it does in stopping teams from turning those yards into points. Oregon is currently third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (22.3 ppg), for a scoring differential of more than 30 points per game.
While it might seem that the offense has stockpiled all the athleticism, there are playmakers on the defensive side of the ball for Oregon as well. Three different players have at least three interceptions this season (Ifo Ekpre- Olomu, Kiko Alonso and A Patterson). Ekpre-Olomu has been especially stingy in coverage, with a Pac-12 leading 17 passes defended. Taylor Hart (8.0 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks) and Dion Jordan (8.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks) have been effective on the pass rush.
Oregon is well aware of how big a challenge this game presents but isn't distracted by how important it is on a national scale.
"That's what's so good about this team," Huff said. "We don't pay attention to the rankings and what's around us. We just play Oregon football. We'll pick our heads up in December and we'll see where we're at."