No. 20 Oregon opens its Pac-12 schedule with a huge game against No. 7 Stanford (5 pm, ABC) in a game that could set the tone for the rest of the season, good or bad.
The Ducks (3-0) are 8-2 in games where they hosted college football’s premier pre-game show and if they want to make it 9-2, they’ll have to play a lot better than they showed a week ago.
According to first-year coach Mario Cristobal, success begins up front.
“They’re excellent. We’ve studied them well. Coach (David) Shaw does a good job in calling an offense schematic that involves heavy physicality,” he said of the Cardinal offensive line group. “They really stress it and they get downhill, but they’re athletic to get the ball on the outside as well.”
The guy Stanford needs to get going behind that offensive line is Bryce Love, who also happens to be one of the best tailbacks in the country. The 5-10, 202-pounder from Wake Forest, NC is a load for any defense he faces.
Love racked up 2,118 yards last season and scored 19 touchdowns. And while he had somewhat of a slow start this year (165 yards in three games), that doesn’t mean the best tailback in the conference isn’t capable of exploding in front of a national television audience.
Although Love hasn’t been his usual self, that hasn’t stopped the Cardinal from being 3-0, including a 17-3 win over USC two weeks ago. Stanford has allowed just two touchdowns in those three contests. So while the Duck defense will have its hands full with Love, it’s not expected that Justin Herbert and the Oregon offense will be going up and down the field.
“One of those touchdowns came on the last play last week, so they really have given up just one,” Cristobal said. “It starts with their defensive front. They play what they play. They are so scheme sound, but they are also very disruptive. They understand protections very well.”
Stanford’s defense will be a problem, but Oregon might be one team that can handle it with the versatility it possesses. Along with Herbert, who is also a Heisman hopeful with Love, the Ducks can throw a couple of different looking tailbacks at the Cardinal defense.
Tony Brooks-James and CJ Verdell are the speed back and power back, respectively. Throw in Cyrus Habibi-Likio (four touchdowns on just five carries) and Travis Dye, who Cristobal describes as a combination of Brooks-James and Verdell, the Cardinal should have a tough time focusing on just one kind of back.
The game plan for Oregon against Stanford is always to run the ball and win the line of scrimmage. The Cardinal have won those aspects in the last couple of seasons, resulting in big Stanford wins. The Ducks, playing a back up quarterback last season could muster just 33 yards through the air. Even with Braxton Burmeister at quarterback, the Ducks’ main focus was to run the ball. They just didn’t have the air attack to compliment the running attack.
That changes on Saturday with Herbert behind center. The Oregon junior quarterback and Eugene native is eager to show the nation what he’s all about.
“Stanford has a solid defense and they’re really well coached,” Herbert said. “They’re a great team and they deserve our best. We’ll give them everything we got.”
That “everything” is set up for the Ducks to put the program back on the map with GameDay coming and the contest itself being televised to a national audience. Herbert’s Heisman campaign could legitimately begin with a big game and a win and Oregon might vault into the Top 15 or Top 10 once again.
“He’s the guy who makes it go,” Shaw said of Herbert. “He can throw it on a dime 50 yards.”
The return of the atmosphere that their stadium is famous for couldn’t hurt the Ducks’ cause either.
“We need Autzen to be Autzen,” Cristobal said.
Stanford knows what a raucous Autzen Stadium can do to an opponent’s chances of coming out of Eugene with a victory.
“There’s only so much you can say to prepare them,” Cardinal senior outside linebacker and Portland native Joey Alfieri said. “You just have to be in there to feel the noise and intensity of the crowd. We blast music in practice to try and get that drowned out noise. It’ll be a test for sure to see how our young guys play in a hostile environment.”
It might be hard to believe with it being a huge conference game on the road, but Stanford will have to fight against looking ahead to the next week. The Cardinal travel to No. 8 Notre Dame after their date with the Ducks.
“We really make that an emphasis each and every game,” running back Cameron Scarlett said. “The next game isn’t going to matter if we don’t focus on this one.”
It’ll be a heavy price to be paid if Stanford does overlook the Ducks. That price will be its first defeat of the 2018 season.
~ Don Smalley