After one quarter of play last year in Eugene, Stanford led Oregon by a 21-3 margin. They converted two Oregon turnovers -- a fumble at the Ducks' 12, an interception near midfield -- and scored three times in just 15 plays. Stepfan Taylor's first six carries had gone for 61 yards, Andrew Luck had completed six of seven passes and rushed for a 10-yard touchdown, and the Ducks were, in general self-destructing.
Over the next three quarters, Oregon would outscore the Cardinal, 49-10. How did they do it, and can they follow the same formula to victory when the two teams meet tonight in Palo Alto?
For the second straight year, the Ducks and Cardinal meet as Top 10 programs; a win and an Oklahoma State loss (and let's face it: with the way Texas Tech's last month has gone, they will probably beat the 'Pokes in Lubbock today just because it makes no sense) would combine to give either team a strong shot a spot in the national title game. The Cardinal are favored this time around, but with so many of the same names playing key roles this year, it is worth it to see if there was anything unique (and replicable) about the last three quarters of last year's game. What did Oregon do to come back, and would they be able to do the same thing this year?
1. They Took To The Air
When Taylor rushed for a 44-yard touchdown that put the Cardinal up 21-3, Oregon changed the game plan a bit. To that point, they had run the ball 10 times and passed six; Thomas' last pass had been intercepted. But over the next three drives (all resulting in touchdowns), the Ducks changed the script. No, they didn't abandon the run -- in these three drives, LaMichael James still carried six times for 38 yards, Darron Thomas four times for 41 -- but the ratio shifted. Thomas passed 14 times, completing 11 passes for 145 yards, finding Jeff Maehl open for an easy touchdown off a play-fake, then finding Josh Huff for another touchdown on another fake. The Ducks still employed the threat of the run (it was their identity, and it was too early to scrap the gameplan entirely), but they utilized quick bubble screens and sideline passes to their benefit, and once they had Stanford spread side-to-side, they were more aggressive in poking holes in the defense downfield.
Can they do this again? Possibly. Their run-pass ratios this year are nearly identical to last year's: they ran the ball 67 percent of the time on standard downs and 49 percent on passing downs last year; those percentages are 68 percent and 48 percent, respectively, this year. Plus, despite the loss of Maehl, they seem to actually be passing the ball a little better in 2011. It is still clearly a secondary piece of the Oregon equation (running the ball 48 percent of the time on passing downs is insanely high), but the Ducks do rank eighth in the country in Passing S&P+ and were just 21st last year. And with Thomas and James both returning from injuries after a gimpy October, the threat of the run should be just as realistic and dangerous as last year. Thomas' top four receivers (Lavasier Tuinei, Josh Huff, freshman De'Anthony Thomas and tight end David Paulson) are all averaging at least 8.0 yards per target and give Chip Kelly plenty of options. Meanwhile, Stanford ranks 24th in Def. Passing S&P+, just like they did last year. The opportunities are there for the Oregon offense.
2. They Took Chances
Stanford had touched the ball three times and scored three times. Oregon's defense was incredibly underrated last year, but there was no immediate evidence that they would ever stop Luck and the Cardinal that day, so once they fell down a service break with the two turnovers, they knew they might have to take a chance to get that shot back. They didn't waste any time, unleashing one of the most perfect surprise onside kicks you'll ever see. The bounce may have been 25-percent skill, 75-percent luck, but it worked. Luck left the field up 21-3, and the next time he went back out for a series of downs, the score was 21-17.
Aggressive risk is part of the Oregon DNA with Chip Kelly. One has to figure they will be ready to unleash a surprise or two if the situation calls for -- or in the case of last year, demands -- it.
3. They Unleashed Defensive Hell
Oregon clawed back into contention (the halftime score was Stanford 31, Oregon 24), but to that point, the Ducks had still offered little in terms of being able to stop the Stanford offense. Their final four drives of the first half included two punts, but the Cardinal still scored 10 points and gained 7.5 yards per play (18 plays, 135 yards) overall on those drives.
In the second half, however, the Ducks stiffened. Stanford got the ball seven times in the second half: they turned the ball over three times (twice on interceptions), punted twice, turned the ball over on downs inside the Oregon 10 once, and ran out of time on their final possession. It was the type of bend-then-strike whirlwind that the Ducks unleashed on just about every team last year, and the Cardinal could not hold up to the pressure.
The key to Oregon's second-half success was what they were able to do on standard downs. As Stanford slowly became one-dimensional (the Ducks took the lead 10 minutes into the third quarter, then went up two touchdowns on the first play of the fourth quarter), the vice tightened; but from the start of the second half, the Ducks were attacking. On standard downs, Stanford attempted 11 carries and gained just 37 yards. Meanwhile, the Ducks hurried Luck twice and picked him off twice on those same standard downs; Luck was just 8-for-15 passing for 82 yards (and the aforementioned picks) on standard downs, and Stanford's leverage rate (their ratio of standard downs to overall plays) fell to just 63 percent (the national average: 69 percent). No matter how good the quarterback is, the more passing downs he faces, the worse his offense is going to perform. Throw in two red zone stands (Stanford had second-and-goal from the Oregon 2 and failed to score, then threw a pick from the Oregon 11 on the next drive), and it was a very Oregon way to pull away.
Despite losing some serious playmakers on the defensive line, Oregon's defense has actually improved in 2011, from 13th in Def. F/+ to eighth. Meanwhile, Stanford's offense has actually regressed -- yes, Heisman voters, regressed -- from second in Off. F/+ to eighth. The Cardinal are still excellent, obviously, but if the Ducks were able to get under Luck's skin with their speed and pressure last year, there is nothing saying they cannot do it again this year.
Statistically, Oregon grades out better in 2011 than in 2010, which is impressive considering how far they went last year. The onus on Stanford is to prove that they are capable of withstanding Oregon's 60-minute assault better than they did 13 months ago. The Oregon game was a bit of a turning point for the Cardinal; from the minute that game ended, the Cardinal might have been the best team in the country over the last three months of the season. They haven't actually lost since they left Eugene, and they have done what they've need to do thus far in 2011 to put them in position for a national championship appearance. They do get Oregon at home, which should help immensely, but the pressure is on Stanford to prove they are more ready for Oregon's attack than they were last year. In 2010, they blinked; what will they do this time around?