Unlike last year’s upset, there was no magic for Stanford (1-4, 0-3 Pac-12) in Saturday’s game against Oregon (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12). A lead in the first quarter gave Stanford fans false hope until the Ducks scored a touchdown on six of their last seven possessions, gliding over and over into the end zone.
The 42-6 victory for Oregon kept Ducks firmly in the Pac-12 title picture but marked the fourth consecutive loss for the Cardinal after the season-opening victory against Hawaii. Stanford struggled on both sides of the ball Saturday, with several flaws in the team’s performance.
Defense falters as game wears on
Despite a couple of three-and-outs early on, Stanford’s cover three match defense could not keep up with Oregon’s potent offense. Defensive coordinator Bobby April’s scheme did not appear subpar on film: cover three match kept enough men in the box to hinder offenses from running the ball effectively while also offering adequate support in the secondary to prevent deep balls.
Especially in the first half, Cardinal defenders were in position to limit additional yards after catch and initial contact. The differences in athletic talent between both teams were on full display; Stanford defenders simply lacked the closing speed to tackle Oregon’s skill players in space. At other points in the game, Cardinal linebackers and safeties could not read whether the play was a run or pass quickly enough.
Football has evolved to become a game predicated on spreading defense out and placing back-end players in quandaries through run-pass options. The Cardinal will therefore need to drastically increase its athleticism at both the safety and linebacker positions.
The cover three match defense also provided plenty of one-on-one opportunities for Ducks star receiver Troy Franklin, who absolutely did not disappoint. The 6’3” junior, who attended Menlo-Atherton high school, tallied seven receptions for 117 yards. While there is not much any cornerback in college football can accomplish against Franklin, who’s in the running for the Biletnikoff Award, perhaps more could’ve been done to direct Franklin towards safety help. This includes having cornerbacks play an outside leverage technique against him.
While many may point toward coaching as the main source of Stanford’s defensive struggles this season, there’s not much more April can do from a scheme standpoint to assist his players.
Offense unable to generate big plays
The Stanford offense showed promise on the first two drives, converting key third and fourth downs to keep the Oregon offense off the field. In both drives, the Cardinal skill players were able to win some one-on-one battles with defenders in order to keep the chains moving, something that will become increasingly important as Stanford moves down its schedule.
“There’s a point where we have to end up making big plays,” said sophomore quarterback Justin Lamson during the post-game press conference. “Contested catches, I got to break some tackles one-on-one. Against a good team like [Oregon] you have to make those big plays to win the game.”
However, the skill and athleticism possessed by the Ducks at linebacker and cornerback made that a difficult task for Stanford to accomplish throughout the game, particularly in the second half.
The Cardinal had zero plays in the game that went above 20 yards and only seven plays that went above ten yards. Four of those seven plays came on Stanford’s second drive of the game.
There are manifold reasons why Stanford hasn’t been able to hit big plays thus far this season. Stanford currently does not have a true “number one” receiver that can consistently win one-on-one matchups, and the offensive line struggles leave running backs to deal with multiple defenders coming at them from different angles.
Stanford will not be able to stay in many games this season by going on methodical drives, especially against explosive offenses like Colorado (3-2, 0-2 Pac-12) and Washington (5-0, 2-0 Pac-12). The bottom line is that if Stanford wants to pick off an upset win on the remainder of its Pac-12 schedule, it will be from 60-yard runs or 50-yard pass completions rather than 15-play drives.
Benjamin Yurosek struggles again
Senior star tight end Benjamin Yurosek had a terrific opening day game against Hawaii, tallying nine receptions for 138 yards. Unfortunately, he has been unable to replicate that performance in the four games since. In the last four games, Yurosek has only put up six receptions for 89 yards.
Early in the game, the Cardinal found a creative way to get Yurosek the ball on outside runs in the flexbone. But Yurosek was non-existent in the passing game, accumulating zero receptions against a stout Oregon defense. This was not the first time that Yurosek had no catches in a game: he had a similar performance against the Sacramento State Hornets (4-1, 1-1 Big Sky).
As the most talented pass-catcher on the team, the Cardinal must find a way to get Yurosek involved in the passing game, whether it is through screens, wheel routes or crossers. But with an offensive line that’s allowed 18 sacks in five games, it may be difficult to even get the ball out of the pocket. This is especially true when defenses are keying in on the six-foot-four tight end, but the mismatches he offers on linebackers and safeties are too good for Stanford to pass up.
Stanford has its bye week this weekend, before the Cardinal heads to Boulder, Colo. to take on Deion Sanders (known as Coach Prime) and the Colorado Buffaloes. While Sanders’s team has received less hype due to back-to-back conference losses, the Buffaloes possess a bevy of talent at skill positions, particularly on offense. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders will likely be a top-ten pick whenever he declares for the draft, and he is surrounded by star receivers including Xavier Weaver, Jimmy Horn Jr. and Travis Hunter.
Other skill players emerged in the last several weeks for Colorado, including freshman Omarion Miller and tight end Michael Harrison. To keep up with this Buffaloes offense, the Cardinal will need to strike quickly and convert its red zone opportunities. Kick-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 13th.