King’s Keys: Oregon opener

Nov. 3, 2020, 7:45 p.m.

Stanford and No. 12 Oregon enter the 2020 football season on very different program trajectories. 

The Cardinal are coming off their worst season of the David Shaw era, a 4-8 debacle that left the former perennial Pac-12 favorites at the bottom of the Pac-12 North. Meanwhile, Oregon surged towards national contention with a dominant Pac-12 Championship Game victory and a close win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. The Ducks came within a couple plays of the College Football Playoff in Mario Cristobal’s second season as head coach. 

Oregon enters the season as media favorites to win the conference. Some members of the national media have even picked the Ducks to reach the College Football Playoff. Meanwhile, Stanford was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 North. The Cardinal did not receive a single vote in this week’s AP Poll

In the early 2010s, Stanford-Oregon was the most important game on the West Coast. In this Saturday’s game, Oregon is expected to comfortably dispatch the Cardinal en route to a Pac-12 title. But Stanford has a chance to send a jolt through this strange Pac-12 season with a resounding road upset. The Cardinal are closer to the Ducks than most media members seem to think. Here’s three keys to a Stanford opening-week upset that would alter the conference landscape. 

1) Protect Davis Mills

Considering Stanford’s season likely rests on senior quarterback Davis Mills’ right arm, this will be a key for the entire campaign. But protecting Mills will be even more important this week. The strength of Oregon’s defense lies in the front seven. Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux returns after nine sacks in his true freshman season. Thanks to three straight Top 15 recruiting classes with an emphasis on defense, Ducks defensive coordinator Andy Avalos has a depth chart full of size and speed at his disposal. Yet opt-outs have left Oregon’s secondary vulnerable — the Ducks lost three presumptive starters in the secondary to opt-outs — and Stanford’s wide receivers are ready to take advantage. If the young Cardinal offensive line can keep Mills upright, he might just pick apart the Ducks defense. 

(Photo: BOB DREBIN/isiphotos.com)

Stanford returns its starting offensive line from the final six games last season: sophomore Walter Rouse at left tackle, sophomore Barrett Miller at left guard, senior Drew Dalman at center, sophomore Jake Hornibrook at right guard and senior Foster Sarell at right tackle. The Cardinal finally found continuity up front after injuries decimated the position early in the season. But those five are not even guaranteed to start this season; sophomore Branson Bragg and freshman Myles Hinton, Stanford’s top recruit in the 2020 class, could challenge for starting position as well. The Cardinal offensive line might be one of the team’s strengths in 2020, but it will receive perhaps its stiffest tests in the opener. Stanford must protect Mills to have any shot at an upset. 

2) Force the Ducks to fly

Oregon running back CJ Verdell was a monster last season, amassing 1,220 yards on a gaudy average of 6.2 yards per carry. With Travis Dye (658 yards in 2019) and Cyrus Habibi-Likio (10 TDs) also returning, Oregon has the best running back room in the conference. But they were running behind one of the best offensive lines in the country last season. This season’s Ducks offensive line returns zero starters after All-American left tackle Penei Sewell opted out. With a new starting quarterback, Oregon will likely look to establish the ground game in Game 1. If Stanford’s defense can stop the run and force the Ducks to win through the air, the Cardinal could stymie the Oregon offense. 

Redshirt sophomore Tyler Shough is the presumptive starter at QB, although Boston College transfer Anthony Brown is still in the mix according to Cristobal. Shough showed promise in limited action last season (144 yards and three touchdowns on 80% passing), but neither he nor Brown is likely to match the production of NFL Rookie of the Year frontrunner Justin Herbert. With Herbert gone along with last year’s entire starting offensive line, first-year Oregon offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead probably wants to keep it simple and rely on the run game early in the season. Stanford’s defense wants to make Moorhead and his inexperienced quarterback take flight. 

3) Take back the North

After winning the Pac-12 North four times in six years from 2012-17, Stanford has not been back to the Pac-12 Championship Game since. Oregon is the new darling of the Pac-12, deservedly. The Ducks’ 37-15 win over Utah in last season’s Pac-12 Championship seemingly signaled the beginning of a Green Reign in the North. Cristobal and his staff are significantly out-recruiting the rest of the conference. Oregon is currently building a National Championship-worthy program.

But they have not built it yet. Oregon may be significantly overrated this season. In addition to Herbert and the starting offensive line, the Ducks also lost five of their top six tacklers from last season. Last year, the Ducks had unquestionably the best offensive line and defense in the conference. This year, they just have questions. 

Stanford can take advantage of Oregon’s turnover. The Cardinal wide receivers should find holes in the depleted Ducks secondary. Stanford’s front seven should frustrate the brand new Oregon offensive line. The Cardinal have a chance to chase down Oregon’s presumptive lead in the Pac-12 North, DK Metcalf style. If they do, expectations on the Farm will skyrocket for this shortened season. 

Contact King Jemison at kingj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Contact King Jemison at kjemison 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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