Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - November 11, 2011

Defense will be crucial

High-powered Oregon needs to be stopped in Pac-12 showdown

by Rick Eymer

Jarek Lancaster, a graduate of Texas high school football, had himself fired up to play Oregon on Tuesday, even though he was warned there should be a steady climb through the week so as not to run out of energy too early.

"I'm trying to stay even keel," Lancaster said. "But it's impossible. I'm ready to go. I think as a football player, you just want to get to the game."

And this is The Game as far as third-ranked Stanford (7-0, 9-0) is concerned. After the sixth-ranked Ducks (6-0, 8-1) dropped a 40-27 decision to nationally top-ranked LSU to open the season, they have reeled of eight consecutive victories without much sweat.

The winner of Saturday's 5 p.m. contest will most certainly appear in the inaugural Pac-12 championship contest on Dec. 2.

The Ducks are back in the conversation as a possible candidate for the national championship, perhaps with the idea of a little vengeance on their minds.

So too does Stanford remember well last year's reversal of fortunes in Eugene and the second-half collapse as Oregon exceeded the speed limit and zoomed into the national title game. It was the lone loss of last year's greatest Cardinal season in school history.

"This is what we've been preparing for since the last time we played them," Stanford free safety Michael Thomas said. "We've had this game circled since then."

Lancaster and Thomas are among those assigned to stopping the high-powered, explosive, high-octane offense that is Oregon.

"They have two speeds, fast and very fast," Lancaster said. "There's no free-lancing on these guys; they will burn you if you do."

Oregon's LaMichael James is the national rushing leader, averaging 151.6 yards a game. Ducks' quarterback Darron Thomas has a passing efficiency rating of 157.35, 13th best in the country. Receiver De'Anthony Thomas is the national leader among true freshmen with 12 touchdowns. Jackson Rice, Oregon's punter, ranks fourth nationally with his 46.9 average.

Even on the rare occasion when teams slow down the Ducks' offense, they still have the ability to pin you down in your own territory.

"This is the week everything has to be right," Cardinal receiver Griff Whalen said. "We'll be paying extra attention to all the details."

The game has all the trimmings of big-time football: ESPN's College Game Day makes its Stanford debut this weekend, the game is sold out and tailgate space will be at a premium. By kickoff, Stanford Stadium, or at least its latest incarnation, will be rocking like never before.

Storylines and subplots abound in this easily-hyped contest. Stanford and Oregon are among the top five nationally in scoring offense, with the Cardinal holding a slim 48.2-46 advantage. Stanford ranks third in rushing defense, grudgingly giving up 78.9 yards a game, while the Ducks are fifth nationally with their 298.4 rushing yards per game.

Stanford shut down the run against Oregon State, but allowed USC's Curtis McNeal and Washington's Chris Polk to gain about 145 yards each. James averages 30 yards more than Polk.

Oregon and Stanford rank 1-2 in the conference in quarterback sacks and in sacks against.

Quarterback Andrew Luck, who may be the first overall pick in the next NFL draft, helps Stanford rank high in team passing efficiency and Oregon ranks high in pass efficiency defense.

It's strength against strength, though Stanford coach David Shaw freely admitted that "we don't have a guy on our team like Darron Thomas."

Speaking of Thomas, Oregon has three of them, all on offense, with Darron, De'Anthony and Brandon (a lineman). Stanford counters with a pair of defensive Thomas' in Michael and Chase.

The Cardinal will get the services of Delano Howell, who missed the past three games with a hand injury. The senior strong safety is considered the hardest hitter on the team and one of its inspirational leaders.

"His presence will be felt just by the physicality he brings," said Michael Thomas. "Having him back inspires us."

Chris Owusu, on the other hand, will not play against the Ducks after taking yet another blow to the head against Oregon State.

"He feels great and he's in good spirits," Shaw said. "We're being overly cautious."

Tight end Zach Ertz remains doubtful for the game, while kicker Jordan Williamson and lineman Cameron Fleming are probable.

Stanford puts a few streaks on the line this week, including the nation's longest current winning streak at 17 games. The Cardinal can match the school's best start in history (10-0 in 1940) with a win, can win its 12th straight home game and beat its fifth consecutive ranked opponent.

Oregon has beaten Stanford in eight of their previous nine meetings, and has won 18 straight conference games, second-longest current streak in the nation. The Ducks have never beaten a Top 5 team on the road and their last road win over a Top 10 team was in 1997.

Oregon played in the national championship game last year. Stanford wants to play in the national championship game this year.

"We're aware of how prolific their offense is," Luck said. "But we try not to do something out of character, or blow it out of proportion. We don't want to be doing anything different in week 10 than we've been doing all year."

Luck hopes that includes winning.

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