Turnover margin key factor in matchup between Stanford and Oregon

Posted by David Lieberman on Friday, Nov. 11 at 5:55 am.

When most casual fans (and NFL scouts) observe No. 3 Stanford, the brilliance of junior quarterback Andrew Luck tends to rise to the surface. This makes sense. After all, Luck — the presumed top pick in next year’s NFL Draft — has completed 71.3 percent of his passes this season with 26 touchdowns (and only five interceptions) to his credit. However, a closer look at Stanford’s offense shows the Cardinal will offer much more than a one-dimensional attack when they face No. 6 Oregon on Saturday.

Stanford’s rushing attack — led by junior running back Stepfan Taylor — is more than a complementary aspect of the offense. The team is collectively averaging 5.7 yards per carry and 225 yards per game on the ground (16th in the NCAA). In fact, the Cardinal has racked up 26 rushing touchdowns this season — the same tally that Oregon has accumulated with nearly 30 more carries thus far in 2011.

“We’re going to have to come out scoring pretty much every time we have the ball,” junior receiver Tyler Gaffney said to GoStanford.com. “We’re gonna have to manage the time and keep the ball out of Oregon’s fast-scoring hands.”

If you have been buying into the hype surrounding this matchup between two of the Pac-12’s best, you may be expecting a shootout. In fact, even history supports the notion of a high-scoring contest between the sides. The last time the Ducks traveled to Palo Alto, an unranked squad from Stanford upset then-No.7 Oregon 51-42. That day, the Ducks’ traditionally robust offense performed as expected (570 total yards, 6.9 yard per rush, 334 yards passing). However, Oregon simply had no answer for Stanford’s smash-mouth, up-the-gut rushing attack that painfully accrued 258 yards on 52 carries over 60 trying minutes for Nick Aliotti’s unit.

Since then, both teams have beefed up on the other side of the ball, and the rest of the conference has taken notice. Stanford is currently allowing a mere 16.6 points per game (11th in the NCAA) while Oregon has yielded 20.8 per contest (26th in the NCAA). In short, both sides have undoubtedly become stingier since their highly entertaining barn-burner in 2009. The difference separating the two West Coast powers is the manner in which they have managed to amplify their defensive prowess.

“Our mantra this season, which (head coach David Shaw) has said all season, is to do what we do,” junior linebacker Jarek Lancaster said to GoStanford.com. “So we just have to stay focused this week and don’t go out of character of everything we’ve been doing this season because it’s been working.”

Last season, during a competitive 52-31 loss to the Ducks, Stanford yielded 388 yards rushing (7.6 per carry) to Oregon. LaMichael James (257 yards rushing) and Darron Thomas (117 yards rushing) led the way for the Ducks. This year, Oregon fans shouldn’t expect a repeat performance. Stanford is giving up only 79 rushing yards per game (2.98 yards per carry), good for third in the country. The Cardinal has been similarly resolute on third down, allowing a 29.91 percent conversion rate, which also puts them in the top five nationally.

“It’s about being sound on defense and making sure you’re where you’re supposed to be,” Shaw said to GoStanford.com. “Making sure you’re in the proper gap, trying to limit big plays. You want to try to limit and corral (Oregon) as best you can.”

This season, the Cardinal is averaging 48.2 points per contest. Their opposition has only managed 16.6 points per game. Accordingly, Oregon fans may wonder: Where can Oregon break through the brick wall? The answer lies in the turnover margin.

This season, Darron Thomas has thrown only five interceptions, versus 19 touchdowns, for the Ducks. The better news for Oregon is that although Stanford’s defense has been stellar against the run, it has failed to get its hands on many an errant pass this season. The Cardinal has only four interceptions this year, meaning that Thomas will likely have a high margin of error against Stanford’s secondary this weekend. Considering Thomas’ leisurely delivery and tendency to float passes in key situations, this bodes well for the Ducks.

In addition, Stanford must brace for a bloodthirsty pass attack on Saturday. Make no mistake: The Cardinal’s offensive line is more than qualified to protect Luck. Stanford has allowed only four sacks in nine games this season and boasts one of the nation’s top offensive tackles in senior Jonathan Martin. But Oregon’s aggressive pass rush isn’t afraid to roll the dice in an effort to force Luck into uncomfortable situations that could lead to an uncharacteristic mistake. The Ducks are currently 6th in country with 3.22 sacks per game and will bring down everyone and anyone when they find it advantageous.

Stanford has matured — especially on the defensive side of the ball — since its matchup with Oregon in 2010. The same could be said for the Ducks. Execution, and turnovers, will be a huge factor in determining a winner on Saturday. The team that takes care of the ball will leave The Farm with aspirations of a BCS berth this season.