No. 7 Oregon is at Stanford on Saturday in a game that looks like it could be a dangerous one for the Ducks.
It’s two teams that excel in many of the same areas, and the end result should come down to which one is able to stop, or slow, the other in one of those areas.
Both teams bring a run-first attitude on offense. Both have a kick returner who’s among the best in the nation. Both have been pretty stingy on defense in Pac-10 Conference play.
So what gives?
The Ducks’ first task will be reining in Touchdown Toby, Stanford’s 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior running back who earned his nickname after scoring 15 touchdowns last season. Toby Gerhart has already scored 13 touchdowns this season, and leads the Pac-10 with 994 yards in eight games, a year after setting the Stanford single-season rushing record with 1,136 yards. He ranks third on the school’s all-time list with 2,645 yards.
Gerhart on Wednesday was named one of 16 semifinalists for the Maxwell Award, given annually to college football’s best player. Florida QB Tim Tebow took home the trophy last season.
It seems unlikely that the Ducks will stop Gerhart. I won’t be surprised to see him get 100 yards and a touchdown or two.
But where Oregon’s defense should make its biggest mark on Saturday is by bottling up redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck and the Stanford passing game.
The Ducks are first in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense. In conference games, Oregon yields just 11.6 points per game, 259.6 total yards and 155.8 passing yards.
On the flip side, Stanford will do well to slow Oregon’s offense at all. The Ducks have been prolific in the four Pac-10 games Jeremiah Masoli has started at quarterback, putting up 47 points against USC, 43 points at Washington, 52 points against Washington State and 42 against California.
And Oregon (7-1 overall, 5-0 Pac-10) was at its best a week ago against the Trojans, compiling 613 yards of offense en route to a 47-20 victory.
Stanford (5-3, 4-2 Pac-10) is coming off a 33-14 home victory over Arizona State, in which the Cardinal finished with 473 yards of offense and Gerhart rushed for 128 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries.
As good as Gerhart is, the Ducks have the superior running game, with both Masoli and tailback LaMichael James running better against USC last week than they had all season. Oregon, which averages a conference-best 285 rushing yards in Pac-10 games, ran for 391 against the Trojans, with James finishing with a career-best 183 yards and Masoli 164.
Special teams play could be exciting on Saturday, with two of the nation’s top kick returners in the game. Oregon’s Kenjon Barner is ranked fifth in the nation with a 35.36 average per return, and Stanford’s Chris Owusu ranks sixth with a 35.15 average.
And then there’s the X factor.
Saturday’s game is the first in which running back LeGarrette Blount is eligible to return, per coach Chip Kelly’s arrangement with the suspended senior. Blount has still been working out with the scout team in practice this week, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Ducks made a soft announcement on Friday saying Blount would be cleared to play against the Cardinal.
The reinstatement must first be recommended by Kelly, then approved by Oregon athletic director Mike Bellotti, UO president Richard Lariviere and, ultimately, by the Pac-10 itself. But I still wouldn’t be surprised to see it go down.
Announcing Blount’s return as late as possible allows Kelly to deploy Blount knowing Stanford hasn’t been able to properly prepare for him. And while Blount won’t take any carries away from the productive James, he would provide the Ducks with a bruising, change-of-pace runner that could finish off a few of those drives that stalled inside the 20 against USC.
Blount or no Blount, the Ducks win this one big:
Oregon 41, Stanford 21