The Oregon football team emphatically answered several questions in the Stanford game.
Could it run the ball on a tough defense? Could it contain one of the top running backs in college football? Could it be physical against the most physical team in the Pac-12? Could it regain the lost focus and discipline that showed up in the previous win over San Jose State?
The answers were a resounding yes.
The Ducks allowed only 71 yards rushing while pounding out 178 of their own. If you look at the films, you see Oregon’s offensive and defensive lines playing very physical and dominating the Cardinal on both sides of the ball. Indeed, the Ducks have grown and worked to be a more aggressive, physical force on the line of scrimmage.
The only problem with this scenario is that Oregon lost a game it deserved to win. With the ball on Stanford’s 1-yard line and a 24-7 lead, a freshman running back fumbled, losing nine yards. And then on the next play, the senior center snapped the ball over quarterback Justin Herbert’s head and a Cardinal defender picked up the ball and went 80 yards for a score, cutting the Ducks’ lead to 24-14.
Then came the weakest part of Oregon’s game. Herbert, facing a third-down-and-3, threw incomplete (one of only two incompletions the entire game), and the Ducks were three-and-out the next two drives — the only times that happened in the entire game.
The Cardinal took over with 1:23 left in the third quarter and moved 65 yards in three plays in 1:11. The three plays were 11-yard and 32-yard completions topped off by a run of 22 yards for six points by Bryce Love cutting the lead to 24-21.
The next drive, Herbert moved the Ducks to another third-and-three and was sacked for a loss, one of four that Stanford chalked up during the game. The game stabilized going into the fourth quarter with both Oregon and Stanford being stopped for a series, with the Ducks' valiant defense holding the Cardinal on a fourth-and-one.
Oregon then drove for a score, going up 31-21, and looking good. Until the next Stanford possession. TJ Costello threw three straight completions for 49, 20 and 15 yards for the score, all this taking 79 yards in three plays and 1:29 in time. The Duck secondary looked beleaguered and overmatched, and the pass rush, though coming hard, was well blocked by Stanford.
The Ducks got two first downs and with Stanford having just one timeout remaining, coach Mario Cristobal decided to attempt to run the ball for a first down, sitting second-and-two. Big mistake. A freshman running back let the ball get away from his chest as five tacklers were grabbed at him, and they knocked the ball loose and recovered, allowing the Cardinal to go 41 yards on two 16-yard completions and a nine-yard run by Love. Stanford kicked the tying field goal as time expired and won in overtime 38-31.
Once Stanford decided to pass, they exposed the Ducks’ biggest weakness: a secondary with corners who can’t cover deep routes and others too small or weak to contest passes to the Cardinal’s array of huge pass receivers. This has happened the past three to four years. For Cristobal to compete with Stanford, he will need a better pass rush and bigger, more physical defensive backs.
Cristobal said he went for the first down because he wanted to be aggressive and that the Ducks had success on the same play previously. Several problems: it didn’t look like the freshman ball carrier received extra special cautions before the play from coaches about protecting the ball and Stanford’s defenders were vicious in their attempts to pull the ball loose on previous plays. Not the best position for a freshman running back against what was supposed to be the best defense in the conference.
This is where Cristobal being the line coach possibly conflicts with his responsibility as the head coach. The line coach wants to be aggressive and get the first down. The head coach would have said the No. 1 thing we need to do is to get Stanford to expend their its timeout, so let’s kneel the ball. With third down and about 40 seconds left in the game, the Ducks could kneel it again and run the clock down to 15 seconds, making it fourth down.
Oregon could then punt the ball inside the 20-yard line, running 7 to 8 seconds off the clock, allowing Stanford 7 seconds to go the length of the field to get in field goal range. As poorly as the Duck secondary was playing, chances were very good they would not have allowed that to happen.
The head coach has to make decisions considering many factors: what is the easiest, safest, thing to do, never mind what the line coach wants. Getting Stanford to use its last timeout was objective No. 1, not getting a first down. As dominating as the offensive line was over the course of this game, they could not blow the Cardinal off the ball on this critical play.
If only the defense could have made Stanford work harder for its two quick touchdowns. Instead of three-play drives, if they had forced the Cardinal to take one more minute on each drive, there never would have been enough time for the Ducks to find a way to lose this one.
The Oregon secondary is a serious problem and the defense has one too — it was unable to force any turnovers, although it did stop Stanford on a fourth-down run which ends up a turnover on downs. Stanford averaged 12.6 yards per attempt, which is five yards per attempt too many. The yards allowed per completion was a whopping 17.2. You can bet Duck opponents are licking their chops to try their luck against Oregon’s secondary, which is defenseless right now.
Fans wondered why the Ducks didn’t blitz more. But they did some blitzing and came with a hard pass rush from the front four. The problem was the Stanford pass blocking was much more effective than the rush. With all the passing teams Oregon will face in the next eight games, Cristobal and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt will have to scramble to fix this deficiency, which looks like a combination of lack of size and speed, and certain fundamentals which are not helping them cover any better.
The corners are not reacting to the releases of the wide receivers and evidently, been coached to line up outside the receiver, allowing them an easy release to the inside, which is a higher percentage throw for the quarterback and allows the receiver to shield the defender with his body. With the Ducks playing mostly zero coverage (man to man for every defensive back), there is no safety help for the corner. This problem deserves serious discussion in the defensive war room.
No. 1 (explosiveness, yards per play) — Oregon 6.4, Stanford 8.0 (Stanford. Leader wins 86 percent of the time);
No. 2 (efficiency, third- and fourth-down conversions — Oregon 10-of-18 for 55 percent, Stanford 5-of-11 for 45 percent (Oregon. Leader wins 83 percent of the time);
No. 3 (drive-finishing, points per trip inside 40) — Oregon 6-of-9 for 67 percent, Stanford 4-of-5 for 80 percent (Stanford. Leader wins 75 percent of the time);
No. 4 (average field position) — Oregon 29-yard line, Stanford 25-yard line (Oregon. Leader wins 72 percent of the time);
No. 5 (turnover margin) — Oregon 4, Stanford 1 (Stanford. Leader wins 73 percent of the time).
Former Oregon player Ken Woody coached college football for 18 years, including as an assistant at Oregon, Washington, Washington State and Utah State.