This week's HuffPost Sports spotlight game is No.7 Oregon at No. 4 Stanford.
This is quickly becoming the premier rivalry in the Pac 12, and as much hype as LSU-Alabama received last weekend, this game could very well be the best matchup of the season. Andrew Luck is the best player in the country, LaMichael James is the fastest, and Oregon head coach Chip Kelly may just be the craziest offensive genius. Plus, a night game of this magnitude on The Farm? Yeah, get ready.
Let's take a look at some of the key bullet points for Saturday night's showdown in Palo Alto, which will kick off at 8:00 p.m. EST on ABC.
1). Andrew Luck, of course!
The thing about Luck that separates him from other guys is composure. The guy never gets rattled. When he threw that brutal pick-six against USC, he came right back onto the field and led a game-winning drive. After the game, he talked about just wanting another shot. Why? Because in his mind, he knew that's all he needed. When you have a quarterback in college in as much control as Luck (he's completing 71 percent of his passes), it's almost impossible to lose close games down the stretch. Akin to Aaron Rodgers in the NFL this season, Luck instills the confidence in his team that all he needs is a chance ... and he won't lose. That helps the entire team, from the offense to the defense to the coaches. NFL scouts and GMs alike marvel at his leadership and coolness in the pocket even more so than when Peyton Manning was at Tennessee in 1998. In my mind, he's the absolute best prospect to enter the league since Manning, and even then, there was the Ryan Leaf debate.
2). Oregon's Speed
“I recruit speed," Kelly told ESPN.com. As dominant as Luck and Stanford are offensively, they are much different than Oregon because they grind you down by using four different fullbacks and a power running game. The Ducks, meanwhile, rank just 51st in the country in time of possession. But that's just fine by them. The ultimate quick-strike offense, they rely on a barrage of speed option runs and the country's most electric running back tandem in LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, who average 8 and 6.8 yards per carry, respectively. The key for Chip Kelly's (25-2 overall at Oregon) offense is quite simple: execute the no-huddle to perfection and in turn, tire the defense and burn it by utilizing great athletes in space. The X-factor Saturday may be freshman De'Anthony Thomas, another burner who doesn't get a ton of touches, but is very dangerous nonetheless. If Oregon can exhaust the Cardinal defense by using a slew of speed demons on the outside -- just as it did in 2010 -- Stanford's national title hopes will be over.
3). "Mr. Mismatch," aka Coby Fleener
One of the reason's Luck has been so dominant this year is because he has three future NFL tight ends at his disposal. But Fleener, more so than his brethren, is the key for this offense. At 6'6," 244 lbs., he has great size, but just as importantly, can really run and catch. Fleener is averaging a Pac 12-best 21.6 yards per catch. His 8 touchdowns are evidence that Luck not only looks for him down the seam, but in the redzone as well, where Fleener, a former hoops player, can simply post up smaller defensive backs in the endzone. He's one of the main reasons why Stanford holds the nation's best redzone offense, having scored in all 52 possessions. Look for a massive game for Fleener, who must step up in the absence of fellow tight end Zach Ertz and Stanford's best receiver, Chris Owusu, both out on Saturday.
4). Can Anyone Play Defense?
Actually, yes; both teams can. Common knowledge is that this game will be a wild west shout out, and while that may be true, it is worth noting that both defenses have been stout this season.
Stanford doesn’t have the sheer speed of Oregon, but is an uber-physical bunch that I believe is better. Utilizing the 3-4, the Cardinal features Chase Thomas, likely the second-best linebacker in the conference (to Vontaze Burfict), and a key cog to a defense surrendering just 16.6 points per game. That same defense has registered an impressive 28 sacks thus far, good enough for sixth in the country. And, that may be the key right there, given that Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas struggles when under pressure, as witnessed in the LSU game earlier this season. Thomas moves well but has an elongated delivery which won't bode well against an effective Stanford blitzing scheme. Furthermore, with the welcomed return of starting safety Delano Howell, the Cardinal once again have one of its best tacklers and its most physical secondary presence healthy. If Stanford can set up its dominant aerial attack with running back Stepfan Taylor -- who is quietly having a terrific year -- the Oregon corners will be forced into one-on-one isolation situations on the perimeter ... which Luck will most certainly exploit.
On the other side, this is an opportunistic Oregon defense (26th in points against) that will gamble and sometimes give up the big play, but is athletic and fast enough to make big plays itself. While it hasn't forced the volume of turnovers it did last season (second in the nation), the Ducks are coming off perhaps their most impressive defensive performance of the season, having held a prolific Washington offense to just 17 points, on the road. This is where senior cornerback Eddie Pleasant comes into play. Pleasant, who had two interceptions in that game, is Oregon's premier cover man and one of its most consistent tacklers. And, at 5'11", 213 lbs., he has the size and strength to defend Fleener at times. Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti is going to dial up a ton of blitzes in this game and, as a result, trust the cover skills of Pleasant. If they do not hold up however, this game will get ugly just as fast for the Ducks.
5). Common History
Last season in Eugene, Luck was lethal in the first half, leading Stanford to a 21-3 first quarter lead. Then, it all fell apart. James torched them for 257 yards and 3 TDs on the ground and the Ducks outscored Stanford 49-10 the rest of the way. The 388 rushing yards that Stanford yielded to the Ducks during that game was the most the Cardinal had allowed in a game since 1996.
But that was at Autzen Stadium, perhaps the best home field advantage in the entire country.
The 2011 Cardinal are currently allowing just 78.9 yards per game on the ground, which ranks third best in America.
Stanford has won 17 straight games, their last loss being at Oregon in 2010. The Ducks meanwhile, have won 18 straight conference games. Their last loss? You guessed it: against the Cardinal in 2009. Expect a close affair throughout this game. Luck and the Cardinal offense will try and play keep-away from the dynamic Oregon offense as much as possible. Taylor will get at least 20 touches to ensure this and, while the Ducks will generate the big play as always, the Stanford defense is good enough to limit it just enough.
Pick: Stanford 38, Oregon 32
This is the seventh installment of our new weekly series previewing the college football game of the week, which comes out every Thursday afternoon. Thus far, we are 5-1.
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