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Stanford takes Oregon out of its comfort zone

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Finally able to get the Oregon offense out of its comfort zone, Stanford flipped the Pac-12 conference on its head as we enter into the homestretch.

Steve Dykes

Finishing drives. When the Oregon Ducks look back at last Saturday’s 17-14 loss to the Stanford Cardinal, their inability to finish drives will likely sting the most. While the Ducks obviously were not their usual dominant selves, it should be noted they were still able to put up 400+ yards, including 198 rushing yards against the nation's third-best rushing defense. But what Stanford made sure not to let Oregon’s decent yardage and occasional big gains result in big points.

One simply needs to look at the Pac-12 South’s marquee matchup this past Saturday, between the USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins, to see the importance of turning yardage into points. The UCLA offense produced 406 yards of total offense, almost identical to Oregon's 405. But the similarities between the two offenses end there, as UCLA was able to score 38-points (compared to Oregon’s 14) in a 10-point triumph over its heated-rival.

Similar to the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy discussed in last week’s Kansas State piece (yes, I realize the irony in Baylor breaking through everything the Wildcats threw at them this past weekend), Stanford repeatedly made big plays that stalled Oregon’s explosive machine. More importantly, Stanford’s big plays on defense consistently took place on early downs, leaving Oregon in many undesirable third-and-long situations.

Five times in the first half, Stanford put Oregon in third-and-7+ situations. The Cardinal were able to accomplish that difficult feat six more times in the second half. Guess what happened on the Ducks’ only possession in overtime? Yep, the Oregon offense was faced with a third-and-9 it was unable to convert. Normally the Ducks thrive on third downs because their elite running attack consistently puts them in easily obtainable third-and-short situations. Against Stanford, that simply wasn’t the case, and the stats showed the consequences.

Coming into the contest, the Ducks had converted 77 of 149 (51.7%) third downs on the season. This past Saturday, the Oregon offense converted just four of 17 (23.5%) and went 0-for-2 on fourth-downs conversion attempts as well. The goal of most defenses is to hold an opponent to a 33% conversion rate on third downs. Not only did the Cardinal achieve this goal against one the most dynamic offenses in the nation, but they accomplished it with room to spare.

For what seemed like the first time this season, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota played like the young, first-year starting freshman that he actually is. While Stanford should be credited for making him uncomfortable all evening, Mariota’s inexperience revealed itself on several occasions. There were numerous instances throughout the game where Mariota eagerly scrambled out of the pocket when there was no real pass rushing threat forcing him to do so. Consequently, Oregon’s receivers had to break off their routes in an attempt to help their scrambling quarterback, only to come up empty handed as Mariota eventually ran out of real estate and simply threw the ball away.

It has been written often that the Ducks do not have the most sophisticated passing attack in the nation. Benefiting greatly from one of the most potent rushing assaults in the nation, the Oregon passing attack often faces simple, single-safety coverages that are easily exploited for big gains via the play-action. Coming into this game against Stanford, Mariota was completing 71.7% of his passes for an average of 8.6 yards per attempt. Against Stanford, Mariota completed just 56.7% of his passes for a lowly average of 5.6 yards per attempt. While Mariota’s completion percentage was still respectable, it should be noted that even that number is a bit misleading given the Ducks’ propensity to throw bubbles and quick hitches to their speedy receivers.

Winning first- and second-downs proved to be the ultimate difference in the upset. If you take away Mariota’s 77-yard gain on a coverage scramble midway through the first quarter, the Cardinal were able to hold the renowned Duck rushing attack to just 3.1 yards per attempt. Coming into the contest, the Ducks were averaging a gaudy 6.1 yards per attempt on the season. By being the first opponent this season to slow (by the Ducks’ ridiculously high standard) the Oregon ground game, the Cardinal were able to force Oregon and its young quarterback into unfavorable third-and-long situations. Because of that, along with several missed opportunities by the Ducks in the kicking game, Oregon’s Pac-12 destiny now rests in the hands of Stanford and UCLA. With the a shot at the Pac-12 title on the line, will the Stanford defense once again keep points off the scoreboard? Or will UCLA continue its high-scoring ways and allow the Ducks to slip back into the Pac-12 title game? Obviously, the clipped Ducks are hoping for the latter.