In the Pac-12’s marquee matchup this weekend, No. 3 Stanford and No. 6 Oregon feature a pair of the nation’s highest-scoring and most innovative offenses, showcasing schemes and stars that take remarkably different paths to success. Power vs. Speed. Luck vs. LaMichael.
Two contrasting styles that promise points – unlike top-ranked LSU’s 9-6 overtime victory over previously No. 2 Alabama last week – when the Cardinal (9-0, 7-0) host the Ducks (8-1, 6-0) Saturday night on The Farm. The winner likely locks up a spot in the inaugural league title game and maybe even a chance to play for a BCS championship.
First team to score 50 wins?
Most sports books monitored by the SportsOptions odds product have installed Stanford as a 3 1/2-point home favorite, with the total set at 68.
“It’s all about putting points up on the board. Our offense tries to do that and their offense does, too. It doesn’t matter how you get to that point,” Stanford quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Andrew Luck said. “So long as you score.”
Oregon’s spread-option, no-huddle offense headlined by running back LaMichael James relies on speed and misdirection. And while Luck anchors a prolific passing game, the Cardinal count on a powerful pro-style offense, bunching up formations that often include three tight ends or seven offensive linemen.
“It’s not just Andrew Luck,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said.
The Ducks and Cardinal lead the Pac-12 and also rank among the Top 10 in the nation in almost every major offensive category. The staggering statistics are the kind usually reserved for video games, producing similar results despite the differences.
Stanford averages 48 points and Oregon 46 points, good for third- and fifth-best in the country, respectively. The Ducks have averaged 510.67 yards per game (seventh) to Stanford’s 505.78 yards (eighth), with Oregon gaining slightly more on the ground and the Cardinal racking up more in the air.
All of it is based on opposite personnel.
“It’s a vicious circle, to a certain degree,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “We’re probably the only team in the nation with four scholarship fullbacks on the team. This is who we are. We’ve got multiple, big offensive linemen who can play. It’s just what we do. They do the same thing. They have a scheme, and they’re recruiting to a scheme that fits them.”
Kelly developed his version of the spread when he was an assistant at New Hampshire, then tailored his scheme after arriving in Eugene as offensive coordinator in 2007 to accommodate running backs Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Johnson, as well as dual-threat quarterback Dennis Dixon.
Already running a no-huddle offense, Oregon further sped things up last season by streamlining play-calling, using distinctive posters flashed from the sidelines to signal plays as they surged to the BCS championship game, where they lost to Auburn.
“We’re not a finesse team. We just have fast players,” James said.
The style also makes the Ducks efficient – at times even too efficient, if that’s possible.
Oregon is often so quick to score behind big-play bursts that its offense is hardly on the field. The Ducks rank 51st in the nation in time of possession, averaging only 23:52 per contest, meaning they’re only on the field a little more than a third of the game. In comparison, Stanford’s grinding offense averages a time of possession of 33:17.
“The way they use their athletes and their speed and the way they put points on the board is very impressive for an offensive guy,” Luck said.
Stanford’s system, meanwhile, is designed to methodically maul opponents with zone blocking.
The Cardinal have a pair of projected first-round picks on the offensive line – left tackle Jonathan “Moose” Martin and guard David DeCastro – anchoring a blocking scheme former coach Jim Harbaugh developed under Michigan great Bo Schembechler. The designs have only continued to evolve.
Nowhere is that more apparent than at tight end.
Stanford has a trio of NFL-caliber tight ends that have a rare combination of size and speed, creating mismatch nightmares all over the field. Coby Fleener (6-foot-6), Zach Ertz (6-foot-6) and Levine Toilolo (6-foot-8) have affectionately been nicknamed “Tree’s Company,” inspired by the school’s mascot.
Ertz has a right knee injury and is “doubtful” to play against Oregon, and that could limit one of the Cardinal’s favorite formations: All three tight ends on the field together. Fullback Ryan Hewitt is expected to see time at both positions for the second straight week after playing a big role in Stanford’s 38-13 victory at Oregon State last week.
In an age when spread offenses have become cool, Stanford has simply taken the opposite approach.
“(Stanford) will look like 1950 sometimes, they’ll have everybody within 10 yards of each other,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said.
The Cardinal also used combinations of fullbacks, receivers – even linemen in years past – out of the backfield for passes, and Luck has been known to spread the ball around. Only five of Stanford’s 27 touchdowns passes this season have been caught by wide receivers, while the tight ends have 16.
“The thing about them is their diversity,” Kelly said. “That’s what sets them apart.”
Each style might even suit the surface.
Two years ago on grass, the Cardinal jumped out to a 17-point first-half lead and held on for a wild 51-42 win. Last year on turf at Autzen Stadium, Oregon rallied from a 21-3 deficit in the first quarter with a dominant second half, breaking away for a 52-31 victory – the only blemish for Stanford during a two-year run of near-perfection.
Perhaps a little rain or some thick grass to slow the Ducks?
“We can play on sand,” Shaw said. “They’re fast.”