Oregon fans have been conditioned to have a healthy level of respect and fear over the past decade or so when the annual matchup with the Stanford Cardinal comes around. These two programs have yielded some excellent college football games in recent memory, each spoiling legitimate national title hopes for the other side on multiple occasions.
The iconic clash of styles was always what made this matchup so intriguing. It was the bull vs the matador, size vs speed, power vs spread. From 2010 through 2015, the Stanford Cardinal went to 5 BCS or NY6 bowl games in 6 years. In 2019, they finished at the bottom of the Pac-12 North, going 3-6 in conference. Despite all the respect that David Shaw has rightfully earned, something is a bit off in Palo Alto.
Oregon Offense vs Stanford Defense
Here’s my take: this isn’t the same Stanford team most of us Ducks remember. Specifically, this isn’t the same Stanford defense. What’s more, they’re dealing with a couple of key losses on the defensive side in this game specifically. Peaking behind the enemy wall on some Stanford message boards on 247Sports (I know it’s tough to believe they even have message boards given what that attendance usually looks like at the farm), you don’t exactly get a sense of confidence from this fan base in the defensive product they will be putting out Saturday.
On the defensive line, they lose Michael Williams and Jovan Swann, guys that figured to be heavily involved in the rotation up front. The biggest loss is star cornerback Paulson Adebo, who was no doubt a bright spot for the Cardinal a year ago (Todd McShay even had Adebo going in the late 1st round of a recent 2021 mock NFL Draft). Stanford also loses their number two corner to injury this week. Additionally, injuries and departures have delivered blows to Stanford at inside linebacker, leaving them a bit thin and under experienced. Then-starting outside linebacker senior Gabe Reid was determined to be likely out for the Oregon game. All this is before we even mention Stanford’s safety group, arguably the biggest question mark for the team, and not the type of question mark where a handful of really good 4 stars are competing for the spot. The safety spot is a genuine area of worry for Stanford fans. So, you get the picture, this isn’t the same type of dominant Stanford defense that was so often featured as a top ten unit nationally during the early 2010s.
Now, unfortunately, Oregon isn’t quite their 2012 selves on offense either. If they were, then the Ducks would be putting up 50 this Saturday, at least. Much has been made about Oregon’s question marks on the offensive side coming into 2020. Three spots in particular: The Ducks have a new quarterback, they replace their top-6 offensive linemen from last season, and they’re working in a new offensive scheme under Joe Moorhead.
I’ll go through these one by one. First, the QB spot, everyone wants to know about this one but honestly I’m not sure what new info I can really give you. I expect Tyler Shough to get the start, and I think he can play well. Everything out of the program sounds like we have confidence in this guy. He’s a leader, he’s got some swagger, and I think he’s ready to show some people. But, you never really know until you see a guy take snaps when the lights are on in a competitive Power 5 matchup. We’ve been told Lockie, Prukop, Burmeister, and others were capable QBs in the past, but have found that those guys couldn’t get us where we needed to go come game time. The nice thing is that Oregon has a backup option that has shown success at the Power 5 level, Boston College transfer Anthony Brown. To my mind, Brown offers a solid floor for this team. If Shough busts or has to be out for whatever reason, I believe Brown can get the job done. Really, I believe we can win any game in this conference with Anthony Brown. However, if this program has any intention of competing in a College Football Playoff this season, Shough is the one that needs to get it done. Shough has the potential to be really special, and we’ll get a clear window into how special he can become Saturday. The quarterbacks also get some help from a capable returning receiver group, particularly the top 3: Johnny Johnson III, Jaylon Redd, and Mycah Pittman. I have the utmost confidence in these three guys, each one has shown the ability to control games at this level. JJ3 was the best player on the field at times vs Arizona St and Utah. Redd is a touchdown machine and an explosive weapon from the slot. Mycah Pittman is just a dog, his talent and mentality speak for themselves, and I expect those ingredients plus an increase in playing time to translate into a breakout sophomore season for him. If Shough can get a rhythm going with these three receivers, he should be able to pick apart and relatively weak Stanford secondary.
Of course, an effective passing game requires capable offensive line play, which brings me to Oregon’s next potential area of concern. Everyone knows the losses Oregon is dealing with up front. From a national perspective, people tend to see question marks and assume weakness. That’s understandable, they don’t have the ability to follow this program year around the same way we do. What I want to do, is give people a quick idea of who this starting O line group will likely be, and why it’s worth believing that this unit is capable of competing in the Pac-12. The first 2 guys are long term program guys, center Alex Forsyth and tackle George Moore. They’ve got big bodies, and have spent years under Cristobal doing the mental reps and practice reps necessary to be prepared to lead this unit come Saturday. Malaesala Aumuvae-Laulu and TJ Bass are likely to fill the two guard spots Saturday. Sala is a huge presence, at 6’6 325. TJ Bass is a nasty blocker, a guy many have compared to Shane Lemieux. Likely the best player on this O line is tackle Steven Jones. Jones has been groomed as the replacement for Penei Sewell and the consensus is that he would have been a capable starter last year had the Ducks rotation not been so full. Duck fans have been excited to see Jones get regular playing time for a while now, and this Saturday I expect to see him make his presence felt. So is this an A+ group at O line? No, of course it isn’t and especially not this early in the season. However, I certainly am of the belief that this group can be very competitive in the conference and that Cristobal will make sure it delivers the effort necessary to keep Oregon on track.
Then there’s Joe Moorhead’s scheme. Duck fans are largely optimistic that Moorhead will be an upgrade to Oregon’s playcalling. Everything from the program has said since the start of camp that this offense was ahead of schedule on their install and that people had been impressed with Moorhead as a new addition to the staff. But, like so many things, we’ll just have to see come Saturday. If the Ducks put out a polished offensive product, they should be able to move the ball vs Stanford pretty consistently. If execution is an issue early, we may need to rely on CJ Verdell and just hope that this O line can get the necessary push in run block. Overall, I expect the Ducks to have an advantage when they have the ball on Saturday, the degree to which that advantage translates to points will depend on their execution and the chemistry this team has built through a difficult offseason.
Oregon Defense vs Stanford Offense
On offense, Stanford does lose their top offensive lineman Walker Little, but outside of th
at, the offensive line is expected to be very solid for Stanford. They will need to be to hold up against this Oregon front 7 (or more often front 6 given Avalos’s affinity for nickel). Kayvon Thibodeaux, Adrian Jackson, and Mase Funa (among others) need to force pressure. Or I guess I should say, that if they are able to consistently force pressure, they will define how this game goes. If Kayvon alone comes out and looks like the best edge rusher in the country Saturday, he could potentially shut the book on this game himself. That sounds hyperbolic, but the reality is Thibodeaux has that type of talent. In terms of the run game, I just don’t see Stanford pushing around the likes of Jordon Scott, Austin Faoliu, Popo Aumavae, and Brandon Dorlus for 4 quarters. That paired with Oregon’s capable tackling at linebacker and the potential for the Ducks to put up some points on offense, leads me to believe that Stanford will need to throw the ball in order to win.
Starting at quarterback for Stanford is former 5-star prospect Davis Mills. Mills has had some difficult times in Palo Alto, sitting behind KJ Costello for some time and dealing with injuries along the way. Still, the tools are there for Mills to be one of the top quarterbacks in the league this season. Unlike prior years, this Stanford passing attack figures to work more through the receiver position than their signature tight end spot. The Cardinal have a few capable playmakers in the passing game, who will be more than willing to take advantage of any drop-off seen from the departures of Holland, Graham, and Breeze in the Oregon secondary. Frankly, I don’t see that drop-off being too noticeable for the Ducks in 2020. Mykael Wright has the makings of a stud, I expect he will be getting early round 2022 draft hype by the end of this year. McKinley and Pickett are very capable, smart, and experienced players at the safety spots. The real newcomer is Jamal Hill, who is slotted to replace Jevon Holland at the critical nickel spot of Avalos’s defense. This is another spot we’ll find out a lot about Saturday, but in my mind, it says a lot that Jamal Hill has come in and claimed this nickel spot as a true sophomore. There were other options if the Ducks didn’t feel comfortable with Hill’s ability, but he has really separated himself, becoming a common fixture in Rob Moseley’s practice reports due to his impressive play. Ultimately, I think Stanford, in part by necessity, will try to target Oregon’s cornerbacks and that will be a major mistake. Deommodore Lenoir and Mykael Wright simply are not guys you want to throw at all game. If Mills tries to, I’ll bet that the Oregon secondary can find an interception, possibly two or three. Add to that, there’s potential for rain Saturday which could contribute to errant throws and dropped balls. Of course, these factors could inhibit the Ducks as well, but I think Oregon has the easier path to adapting their attack because I believe they are the more physical side. This matchup should be a bit closer, but I simply don’t see a year two Avalos defense coming out flat. I’ll be looking for Stanford to score in the teens.
I’ll take the Ducks to win 31-13. Both teams likely start off this game a little slow, but eventually Oregon finds its rhythm and gains some separation. The Ducks will mix it up in terms of their attack, maybe JJ3 puts his stamp on a drive, maybe Mycah goes off. Personally, I’d love to see Sean Dollars bust out a long run. Regardless, I feel confident that as the second half winds down, we’ll see CJ Verdell carrying the rock and moving the chains as this new O line starts to lean on an undermanned Stanford defense. On the other side, a capable Cardinal offense finds a way to get on the board a couple of times but isn’t able to sustain success against this vaunted Ducks defense. Oregon’s playmakers on defense will find a way to force a turnover or two, and this unit’s depth and talent will be enough to keep us fans from getting too uncomfortable. Go Ducks!
[cover image by Daniel Hartwig via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)]