When the sun rises on a duck hunt, you can only see the shadows. Their wings hum, barely audible in the cold. But you know the birds are there, circling you, waiting.
It’s been the same way for the Stanford football team this entire season–everywhere it goes, it can hear the sounds and see the shadows. The Oregon Ducks have been circling all season long.
Now, the No. 4 Cardinal (9-0, 7-0 Pac-12) finally gets its chance to knock off the No. 7 Ducks (8-1, 6-0) on Saturday in a game that will likely decide the Pac-12 championship and determine which squad will remain in the hunt for a national title.
Stanford will welcome the eyes of the national media and the focus of ESPN’s College GameDay on Saturday, as the matchup with Oregon was expected to be an important showdown even before the season started. The two squads now get their chance to embrace the season-long hype.
“We’ve been keeping this under wraps the whole season, but this is what we’ve been preparing for since the last time we played them,” said senior safety Michael Thomas. “I’ll just say, we’ve had this game circled since the last time we played them.”
“We absolutely can admit that,” said offensive line coach Mike Bloomgren. “Since I came in here, I heard a lot of talk about Oregon…This is why you do this. Whether you’re a player or a coach, you live for games like this.”
And if being in the hunt for a BCS title didn’t provide enough motivation, Stanford’s last loss before starting its current 17-game win streak was a 52-31 defeat at the hands of Oregon last season.
After opening up a 21-3 lead in the first quarter last year, the Cardinal fell victim to the Ducks’ speed and two costly second-half turnovers that allowed Oregon to run away with the victory by scoring 28 unanswered points–something that provides no extra motivation this time around to redshirt junior quarterback Andrew Luck.
“I try to put it out of my memory for the most part,” Luck said. “It was last year, maybe some guys use it for revenge, but last year has no bearing on this year.”
If Stanford hopes to keep its current win streak alive, it must first slow down the electric Oregon offense, which averages 46 points per game thanks to rapid scoring drives that give the Ducks the lowest average time of possession in the Pac-12.
Sophomore linebacker Jarek Lancaster said the key to stopping the Ducks’ attack is hemming in running backs LaMichael James, De’Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner.
Redshirt junior James leads the nation in rushing yards per game with over 151 per contest, and freshman Thomas has scored 12 touchdowns this season, the most for any true freshman. Together, the three running backs spearhead an offense that averages over 510 yards a game–298 of them on the ground.
“They have two speeds: fast and really, really fast,” Lancaster said. “We’ve got to cage them in. We’ve got to set the edges and force everything inside. That’s where the teeth of our defense is. If we keep them caged, we’ll do really well. We just can’t let them out.”
Lancaster did acknowledge that stopping the Quack Attack was easier said than done.
“It’s pretty tough…well, it’s really tough. I’m not gonna sugar-coat that one,” he said. “There is no freelancing on these guys, because they will burn you.”
Senior safety Delano Howell will return to action this weekend after missing the last three games with a hand injury. Howell will play with a cast on his injured right hand similar to the one he wore last season when he injured the same hand.
While countering the Oregon offense on the defensive side of the ball will be an exceptional challenge for the 11th-ranked Stanford defense, the offense will look to continue performing at its already authoritative pace.
Stanford is the only team in the Pac-12 to average more points per game than the Ducks, tallying 48.2 points per contest in a fashion that strongly contrasts with the Ducks’ (the Cardinal offense leads the conference in time of possession.)
Head coach David Shaw said the trick to countering the Ducks’ offense will lie in maximizing the Cardinal scoring output on every offensive possession.
“Against this team, it’s time of possession plus touchdowns,” he said. “You can hold the ball for a while and kick field goals and lose by 28 points…If you’re kicking field goals and they are scoring touchdowns, you don’t have a chance regardless of what the time of possession is.”
But perhaps the most important matchup for the offense will be keeping Luck upright and in position to pick apart the Oregon defense.
The Ducks lead the conference with 29 sacks this season–the sixth-most in the country–but the Stanford offensive line has only allowed four sacks all year, tied for the best mark in the country.
Bloomgren said the Ducks’ swarming defense reminded him of his days as a coach with the NFL’s New York Jets.
“They’re very similar to an NFL team,” Bloomgren said. “They list themselves as a 4-3 team, but they’re a [Patriots head coach] Bill Belichick 3-4 scheme, and they’re very different than anything we’ve played. It feels like preparing for New England.”
And while the Cardinal defense returns one of its most important players this weekend, the offense will be hampered by the loss of two of its biggest contributors.
For the second week in a row, junior tight end Zach Ertz will be sidelined with a knee injury, and senior wide receiver Chris Owusu will be out after sustaining a concussion last weekend. The two have combined for 57 catches, 684 yards and five touchdowns so far this year. Freshman Ty Montgomery will start at receiver in Owusu’s stead.
Despite the injuries, the Ducks’ speed and the national spotlight, Shaw says his team is fully aware that those circling shadows are now plain to see. The only question that remains is if the Cardinal can knock them out of the air–or if these Ducks are fast enough to escape unscathed.
“It’s not about being nervous,” Shaw said. “It’s about saying, hey, you know what, we’ve played well this year, but in this game we’ve got to play better than we’ve played all year. That’s just a fact.”
Stanford and Oregon clash for Pac-12 supremacy this Saturday at Stanford Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 5 p.m., with national television coverage on ABC.