Stanford football (1-2, 0-2 Pac-12) has now failed to reach the win column in eight straight conference games. The path ahead isn’t much easier: This weekend, the Cardinal hit the road to take on their third-straight ranked opponent in No. 13 Oregon (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12).
The last two weeks have been unkind to Stanford, who has dealt with the injury bug among other miscues and struggles on the field. However, history is on their side in this one. The Cardinal are 6-4 in their last 10 matchups against the Ducks, with the most recent victory coming last year when the overtime contest concluded in favor of Stanford. Upset victories have been plentiful in these two teams’ battles.
The Daily’s Drew Silva, Kaushik Sampath and Peter Gofen discuss the struggling offensive line, Oregon’s legitimacy and what this weekend’s matchup entails.
Stanford’s offensive line was porous this past Saturday against No. 15 Washington (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12), giving up eight sacks. After the solid start to the season, was this performance a blip due to injuries or a sign of a greater problem?
Drew Silva (DS): The Cardinal’s solid start to the season should certainly be taken with a grain of salt. Following a good performance against Colgate (1-3, 0-1 Patriot League), Stanford has given up 13 sacks in two conference games. In last week’s victory against Washington State (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12), Oregon linebacker Noah Sewell, brother of Detroit Lions offensive tackle Penei Sewell, recorded two and a half tackles for loss, including a sack. Sewell could be in for another big game against a Stanford offensive line that has experienced its fair share of problems in the last few years, and junior quarterback Tanner McKee should expect to be under a lot of pressure on Saturday night.
Kaushik Sampath (KS): It’s certainly a sign that the depth on the offensive line, and particularly at the tackle position, is spotty. But the Cardinal even had trouble in pass protection against USC’s defensive line, which is mediocre at best. Stanford has put up good numbers in the running game, and this can continue. But the line has already lost two starters thus far, and doesn’t seem to be getting any healthier. With linebackers like Justin Flowe and Sewell at their disposal, Oregon will be the toughest challenge yet for this offensive line.
Peter Gofen (PG): Well for one, to what extent are those injuries and absences resolved? Positional units on a football team function in myriad ways, and when it comes to offensive line play, I will always stress the importance of considering it as a weak link system. Against Washington, three of Stanford’s top five offensive players per PFF grades were lineman; however, if an opponent can pick on an individual or two, a fair share of dropbacks will inevitably get blown up. Ultimately, I expect positive regression over the coming weeks yet not vintage Tunnel Workers Union play given the available personnel.
Oregon has recovered well from its embarrassing season-opening loss to No. 1 Georgia (4-0, 1-0 SEC), rattling off three straight wins since then. Are Bo Nix and the Ducks legit, and where do you slot them in the Pac-12 hierarchy?
DS: While Georgia certainly has looked like the best team in the country, I have trouble overlooking a 46-point loss, despite the Ducks’ current win streak. Bo Nix could certainly lead Oregon near the top of the Pac-12, but a national championship run is likely out of the picture. I would put the No. 6 USC Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) in a tier of their own at the top of the Pac-12, with Oregon in the following tier, accompanied by Washington and No. 12 Utah (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12).
KS: Nix is one of the most unpredictable quarterbacks in the country. One day he looks like a Heisman contender, while another he looks like a backup. I also don’t believe the No. 19 BYU (3-1) win is as good as advertised since the Cougars looked porous in their game against Wyoming (3-2, 1-0 Mountain West). I slot the Ducks fourth in the Pac-12 hierarchy, behind USC, Utah and Washington. Oregon State (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) also has the potential to jump them in the coming weeks.
PG: I see the top group of teams (Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State) as a significant chunk better than anyone else in the country — so while one could harp on the 49-3 score differential, it’s not as if the Pac-12 has anyone who wins that contest in Week 1 at what was effectively a road site. As for the conference stacked against itself, my read is that USC and Utah lead the way followed by a second tier consisting of Oregon, Washington and Oregon State.
Junior running back Casey Filkins rushed for 100 yards in place of the injured junior E.J. Smith, who will be out for the year, per head coach David Shaw. How confident are you in the running game moving forward?
PG: Filkins has room to grow, but I’m not sure the success of the run game entirely hinges on the backfield’s performance anyway. Three things that will have a bigger impact on rushing efficiency going forward this season are schematic decisions (see: gap scheme plays getting blown up at UW vs. the relative production of inside zone runs that were called more frequently later in the game), line play and perimeter passing. Of course, the last two points are intertwined; protection needs to hold up to throw much beyond alerts outside, and that’s where McKee needs to be able to link up with his receivers such that opponents are forced to play two high safeties.
What is the key to the game if Stanford wants to upset Oregon for the second-straight year?
KS: The offensive line must give Tanner McKee time to make decisions on the slow mesh RPO. This is a basic prerequisite for the Cardinal to be successful. Without this, more negative yardage plays and turnovers will occur, which have plagued the Cardinal all season. Stanford’s receivers must also win their one-on-one matchups, or else the Ducks can commit more players to the box in order to disrupt the run game.
PG: Be opportunistic. Last year, Stanford won the turnover battle (Gabe Reid’s interception being the lone one on either end), stopped Oregon on the goal line at the half and — with the game in reach— came up with clutch play after clutch play down the stretch. The Cardinal’s turnover differential through three contests, -10, is obviously not conducive to hanging around in a tricky road test. However, find and create a couple of breaks that go your way — whatever they may be — and it’s more than feasible to wrestle away a close game in its late stages.
DS: I have to agree with Kaushik on this one; a Stanford upset is not possible if Tanner McKee does not have time to make decisions. The offensive line needs to give McKee the opportunity to show why PFF regards him as a top NFL prospect. The Cardinal need to make sure their offensive leader is not constantly under pressure if they want to have a reasonable chance at taking down the Ducks in back-to-back seasons.
What are your score predictions for this matchup?
KS: Oregon 45, Stanford 21. With this game being at Autzen Stadium, I believe we’ll see a better version of Bo Nix in this game. Stanford’s defense has shown little resistance in Pac-12 play, and their struggles won’t disappear over the week. I also think Stanford will lose the turnover battle once again, as Flowe and Sewell will be able to get to the quarterback all evening.
DS: Oregon 45, Stanford 27. Oregon’s defense has not necessarily impressed me to start the season, and I think the Cardinal will be able to get a decent number of points on the board. However, I can see the Ducks capitalizing on short fields yielded by Stanford turnovers which will ultimately lead to yet another high-scoring Pac-12 bout for the Cardinal.