Well before Stanford kicked off its season against San Jose State, Nov. 12 was the date every Stanford fan had circled on the calendar. Well before the season began, most believed the matchup against the Oregon Ducks would decide the Pac-12 Conference.
As Stanford's season has progressed, however, it seems the focus of the Stanford faithful has shifted. Stanford fans now seem to be as consumed with the current BCS standings as they are with Stanford's remaining schedule. And while in its first nine contests No. 3 Stanford has appeared vastly superior to the rest of its conference opponents (with the exception of USC), this is not a week to be concerned with computer formulas and how the team is perceived in the national polls. Look past No. 6 Oregon, and none of it will matter, because the Ducks have the firepower to derail Stanford's dreams of a BCS title shot in the blink of an eye.
While Stanford has ripped off 17 straight victories in impressive fashion, Stanford's most recent loss is cause for concern. Last year in Eugene, Stanford had the Ducks dominated in every facet early on, and jumped out to a 21-3 lead. Stanford appeared on its way to a victory over Oregon, a conference title, and more. But swiftly and relentlessly, Oregon erased the 18-point deficit and beat the Cardinal into submission, outscoring Stanford 49-10 in the final three quarters en route to a 52-31 win. Oregon steamrolled the Cardinal for 388 yards on the ground last year in Eugene, including 273 yards from 2010 Heisman Trophy finalist LaMichael James.
Yes, this is a new season. And yes, statistically, Stanford's run defense is considerably stronger this year, but there's a reason that these statistics still matter. The 388 rushing yards that Stanford yielded to the Ducks last season were the most the Cardinal had allowed in a game since 1996 -- and Oregon's current ground attack is every bit as potent as it was last season. In fact, with Shayne Skov on the shelf and Owen Marecic no longer in uniform, it's reasonable to suggest that Stanford's run defense may be even more vulnerable to the Ducks' dominant, hurry-up ground attack than a year ago.
Oregon's team speed is unparalleled, and though the Cardinal are currently allowing just 78.9 yards per game on the ground (No. 3 in the nation), those numbers can easily be categorized as misleading. Despite stone-walling conference bottom-dwellers, Stanford's run D hasn't exactly been stout against the conference's stronger rushing offenses. Consider that Washington's Chris Polk and USC's Curtis McNeal averaged 144.5 rushing yards against Stanford, and the notion that the Cardinal can bottle up James is far-fetched. Oregon's star back leads the nation in rushing and is averaging 184 yards per game on the ground against conference opponents. Stanford fans may have breathed a collective sigh of relief when James dislocated his elbow against California five weeks ago, but last week against Washington he ran for 156 yards and looked every bit as healthy as he did before the injury.
The health of the Ducks' star players brings to light another major issue for the Cardinal this week -- injuries. While James and QB Darron Thomas are coming back from midseason injuries at the best possible time for the Ducks, the same cannot be said for Stanford. Though weeks ago it appeared that Stanford was equipped to withstand a shootout against the Ducks, Stanford now finds itself missing key offensive contributors Zach Ertz and Chris Owusu, with tight end Levine Toilolo trying to return from injury this week. The aforementioned trio were on the receiving end of 74 of Andrew Luck's 203 completions this season (34 percent), leaving Stanford with few reliable and experienced options to support its All-American signal caller in the passing game. It begs the question: Does the Cardinal even have the personnel to keep up with an Oregon attack that's currently gouging opponents to the tune of 46 points per game?
Sure, the Ducks have their own issues. Their defense was ranked second in the nation last year in takeaways, and it forced three Stanford turnovers in Eugene. But the 2011 version has struggled to pry the ball away from opponents. Thomas has at times been wildly inaccurate; he currently has a lower completion percentage than he did a year ago.
That being said, Oregon's shortcomings may be masked in Saturday's battle in Palo Alto if Stanford can't find solutions for the most glaring problems -- stopping Oregon's running game and finding suitable replacements to support Andrew Luck in the passing game.
Realistically, Stanford isn't stopping James and the Oregon ground attack. Before injuries began taking a toll, Stanford could take solace in the fact that it had the ability and personnel to match Oregon's scoring output point-for-point. Now, that proposition is hardly a certainty. For Stanford to keep its national championship aspirations alive this week, it will have to either find a way to slow down Oregon's running game or come up with some solutions in the receiving corps that allow Luck's offense to remain balanced. If neither problem is remedied, Stanford's title hopes end Saturday.
With an unblemished record this deep into the season, it's easy to get caught up in the hype and look ahead to potential postseason scenarios, perhaps questioning a system that could leave an undefeated team out of the national championship picture. But this isnt a week for Stanford to be asking questions. With the two-time reigning Pac-12 champion Ducks in town, it's a week for Stanford to prove that it has some answers.
Ryan Buckley is a production assistant with Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and a graduate of the University of Oregon.