The Oregon Offense: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
We might as well get right to it. Oregon's blitzkreig offense is downright scary. They scored 34 points last week against Washington, and that was the first time they'd been held under forty points since they're season-opening loss to LSU.
The Oregon offense is unlike any other offense in the country. They rank tenth in the nation at 489.4 yards per game, and more than half of that (283.8 yards per game) comes on the ground, good for fourth in the country.
You'd think a run-heavy offense like that would be focused on grinding out long, time-consuming drives, but that's not Oregon's style. Right now they rank dead last out of 120 FBS teams in time of possession with an average of only 24:17 per game. (By way of comparison, Stanford ranks 11th at 33:17.) The Ducks don't believe in holding the ball, they believe in scoring, and they've done that well. They average almost forty-five points per game, good for sixth best in the nation.
You've heard the expression that a dangerous hitter is in scoring position as soon as he steps up to the plate? Well, the Ducks are always in the red zone. They're a threat to score on any play from anywhere on the field. The main threat, of course, is running back LaMichael James. Even with two mediocre weeks to open the season and two games lost to injury midway through, LMJ's numbers are positively disgusting: 133 carries for 1,061 yards and nine touchdowns. In case you didn't do the math, that's an average of eight yards per carry. Eight.
And what happened when James was out with that injury? No problem. The Ducks simply plugged in Kenjon Barner, and Barner responded with 171 yards against Arizona State and 115 against Colorado. Waiting in the wings behind James and Barner is true freshman De'Anthony Thomas, the one-time USC commit who fled north in the wake of the Trojans' most recent scandal. Thomas probably won't carry the ball very often, but watch for him in the passing game where he's been devastating to opposing defenses.
After reading all that it might seem like the Cardinal has no chance at all to unseat the Ducks, but fear not. Oregon is definitely a running team, but the strength of Stanford's defense lies in the run stoppers up front. In fact, the Mighty Card is currently ranked 2nd in the nation with only 78.9 yards rushing allowed per game. If there's one matchup worth watching, one that will give you an immediate gauge on where the game might be headed, this is it.
But enough from me. Matt Takimoto from the Oregon blog Addicted to Quack stopped by to answer a few questions about the Oregon offense. Enjoy...
Let's start with LaMichael James. I've found that sometimes when you're only seeing the highlights of a player like James, you don't truly appreciate what makes him great. What do you see on a week-to-week basis that fans of other teams might not? What is it that makes him great?
Addicted to Quack:
I think the most common misconception opposing fans have about LaMichael James is that he is a "system" back, that he's simply a really fast guy who breaks big runs thanks to gameplanning and bursting through huge gaping holes already made by his blockers. But LaMichael James can grind out yards as good as any back in the Pac-12 . The plays that don't gets shown on highlight reels are ones like this, where he's stopped behind the line and somehow manages to pick up five yards anyway. The tools in his arsenal are many: the spin move, his ability to stop on a dime and reaccelerate in a different direction, and his elusiveness in traffic that turn two yard gains into seven yards gains. Oh yeah, and the breakaway speed. And if you want to question his physical toughness, you try popping your elbow back into its socket in front of 60,000 people.
As great as LaMichael James is, there isn't much of a drop off when Kenjon Barner replaces him, and there isn't much of a drop off when De'Anthony Thomas replaces Barner. Talk about the similarities and differences of these three backs. Does it really matter which is in the game?
When LaMichael James needs a breather, the task of chewing up yards on the ground falls to Kenjon Barner. Barner is a notable step down from LMJ, but James is a once-in-a-while talent. Make no mistake, I think Kenjon Barner would be a starting back at at least half the schools in the Pac-12, and will most likely be the feature back for the Ducks in 2012, assuming LaMichael declares for the NFL Draft after this season. In the two games LMJ missed, Barner ran for 296 yards on 41 carries, a 7.2 ypc average. 31 of those carries came against Arizona State, including 20 after Darron Thomas left the game with a knee injury.
When I wrote my preview for the Oregon game last year, I didn't mention Darron Thomas until the last sentence, and even then it was only to point out that he had never played in a big game in his life. I certainly wasn't worried about him. Thirteen months later, it's clear I didn't know what I was talking about. How good is Thomas, and what will he need to do for the Ducks to win on Saturday?
Darron Thomas has the ability to put the offense on his back if needed (like the first half comeback in last year's Stanford game), but will mostly be called on to drive Oregon's racecar offense. I actually think he's regressed a bit from last year's performance, but that is also due to a subpar receiving corps. He tends to be overamped at the start of games, leading to overthrown passes, or passes that are too hot to handle. But his playmaking ability with both his arm and his legs is exceptional. All he really needs to do for Oregon to succeed is to make the correct read on the Zone Read, and make enough throws to keep the Stanford secondary from selling out to stop the run, which is what you need to do to shut down this offense.
When you helped me with my preseason preview this past summer, you mentioned that wide receiver and offensive line were the two biggest concerns facing the team. How have those two units come together thus far?
The offensive line has been fabulous this season. Center Hronnis Grasu has really played well in his first year as a starter. Since the opener against LSU, the Ducks have rushed for over 200 yards in every game this season, going over 350 yards four times. The receiving corps is still a work in progress. De'Anthony Thomas' play as a receiver really bailed out the shortcomings of the rest of the unit early in the season. Lavasier Tuinei has caught 28 passes this year, and is our strongest blocker out wide, but hasn't established himself as a real elite threat. Sophomore Josh Huff is back and healthy, and former walk-on Justin Hoffman has really come on strong the past three games. Former quarterback Daryle Hawkins had three drops against washington, including one that was a sure touchdown. And David Paulson has shaken off early season rust to return to form as one of the Pac-12's premiere tight ends. But drops and an inability to get space from coverage is the story of the season for the group.
Finally, let's have a prediction. Let me know how you think the game will go, and be sure to give me your final score.
I see a few keys to this game. First, Stanford is banged up. Losing Shane Skov was a big time loss for the defense, and Ertz and Owusu will be sorely missed on offense. Second, the Oregon defense is hitting its stride. The Ducks D went into Seattle last week and shut down a high powered husky offense to the tune of three takeaways, a 2.3 yard per carry average, and only 17 points. Finally, the two teams enter the game moving in different directions. Stanford played very shaky for two and a half quarters against a terrible Oregon State team after almost losing to USC. Oregon enters coming off a convincing win in a rivalry game, and will all key pieces back healthy. Even with my Homer glasses off, I see Oregon making a national statement in this game, and forcing their way back into the national title discussion. Ducks 45, Cardinal 31.