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16 Nov 2012

SDA: Stanford's Last Stand

by Matt Hinton

In the course of its Jim Harbaugh-inspired renaissance, Stanford has conquered every hill on the West Coast except one: Oregon's offense. Since Chip Kelly arrived with his relentlessly up-tempo spread scheme in 2007, the Ducks have taken four of five against the Cardinal while averaging a little over 47 points per game. The last two in the series, in 2010 and 2011, both decided the conference championship, and both left Stanford on the bloody end of a shootout in its only loss of the regular season. If Stanford could stop Oregon -– if Stanford could even slow down Oregon -– Harbaugh and Andrew Luck may have left Palo Alto as national champions.

In that context, the notion that Stanford's defense presents any kind of unique challenge to Oregon's undefeated season this weekend probably seems like a reach, to put it mildly. But if there is anything at this point standing between the Ducks and the BCS Championship Game, it's the Cardinal front seven, which is beginning to look an awful lot like the handful of defenses that have given Oregon trouble in the past. Besides leading the Pac-12 in total and scoring defense, Stanford also leads the nation in rushing defense, sacks, and tackles for loss for the second week in a row. Of the six games Oregon has lost since Kelly was promoted to head coach, five of them –- against Boise State in the 2009 opener, Ohio State in the 2010 Rose Bowl, Auburn in the 2011 BCS title game, LSU in last year's season opener, and USC last November –- have come against teams with deep, disruptive defensive lines featuring future draft picks. Oregon has averaged just 118 yards rushing in those games, a far cry from its prolific output in wins, on less than four yards per carry.

Stanford's rotation against the run includes at least four future pros, who have already proven more than capable of making the most venerated senior look like a disoriented freshman in the pocket when he has no ground game to lean on. Oregon's quarterback is an actual freshman, redshirt Marcus Mariota, who may be precocious (he currently leads the nation in pass efficiency after bombing Cal for six touchdown passes without an interception), but has not faced a defense capable of containing Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas without sacrificing its safeties to the mission. Last week, Cal sold out against the run, dared Mariota to make plays with his arm, and watched him turn a close, seven-point game in the third quarter into a 35-point romp in a span of ten minutes. If the Cardinal can't beat the Ducks physically at the line of scrimmage, they'll just be another speed bump.

No. 22 Rutgers (+6.5) at Cincinnati (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET, Big East Network)

OVERALL When Rutgers
Has the Ball ...
When Cincinnati
Has the Ball ...
Category Rutgers
(8-1)
Cincinnati
(7-2)
Rutgers
Off
Cincinnati
Def
Rutgers
Def
Cincinnati
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 43 27
2012 FEI Rk 32 17
2012 S&P+ Rk 62 81 114 68 25 87
2012 FPA 28 30
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 115 103 16 70
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 98 43 34 101
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 110 81 23 94
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
59.7% Run
(58)
67.1% Run
(24)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 115 40 42 71
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
38.9% Run
(29)
36% Run
(40)

This game would carry so much more cachet if Rutgers (8-1) and Cincinnati (7-2) hadn't both blown undefeated seasons against double-digit underdogs from the Mid-American Conference, which is just one more reason the Big East deserves to lose its seat at the adults' table when the despised Bowl Championship Series finally yields to a new, four-team playoff structure in 2014. For now, though, winning the league still carries an automatic bid to one of the big-money games, and the winner here will find itself right alongside Louisville at the front of the pack.

For Rutgers, that's due almost entirely to the defense, which has held the Knights' first four Big East opponents to a grand total of 41 points on a little under 300 yards per game. On the other side, Cincinnati has cast its lot with a new quarterback, Brendon Kay, in place of junior Munchie Legaux, whose spectacular name could not overcome the feast-or-famine tendencies that landed him on the bench. Kay looked just fine last week in his first career start, a 34-10 win at Temple, but figures to find himself in a very different world when the worst defense in the conference is replaced by the best.

No. 18 USC (-3.5) at No. 17 UCLA (Saturday, 3:05 p.m. ET, Fox)

OVERALL When USC
Has the Ball ...
When UCLA
Has the Ball ...
Category USC
(7-3)
UCLA
(8-2)
USC
Off
UCLA
Def
USC
Def
UCLA
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 14 30
2012 FEI Rk 18 22
2012 S&P+ Rk 18 42 13 50 31 34
2012 FPA 33 7
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 32 43 49 51
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 6 64 22 23
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 18 64 31 36
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
51.4% Run
(108)
60.2% Run
(52)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 13 14 76 32
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
29.2% Run
(88)
34.2% Run
(54)

USC crushed UCLA last year, 50-0, a beating so thorough it cost UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel his job the following day and eventually propelled the Trojans to the top of the preseason polls entering 2012. It was vintage USC, reminiscent of the routs the old, juggernaut Trojans used to administer on their cross-town rivals in the hey day of the Pete Carroll era -– and, as it turns out, a total mirage. One year later, SC is clinging to the bottom of the polls as arguably the most disappointing preseason favorite of the modern era, while UCLA has stunned just about everyone by climbing to the top of the division standings under first-year coach Jim Mora. When the Bruins limped into the Pac-12 Championship Game after last year's debacle, it was a mockery facilitated by NCAA sanctions against USC. If they make it back on Saturday, it will complete the best turnaround story in college football.

The face of the Bruins' resurgence is their redshirt freshman quarterback, Brett Hundley, who is neck-and-neck with his senior counterpart, Matt Barkley, in pass efficiency terms, and is outpacing Barkley in total yards. And while Hundley doesn't have an all-purpose dynamo on the order of USC's other headliner, Marqise Lee, he does have one of the steadiest backs in the country in senior workhorse Johnathan Franklin, who's been reliable for 22 touches and 150 yards per game. USC's issues against the run are well-documented: the three teams that have beaten the Trojans this year –- Stanford, Arizona and Oregon –- have all churned out at least 200 yards on the ground on upwards of five yards per carry. The more success for Franklin between the tackles, the more room for Hundley downfield, and the fewer opportunities for Barkley and Lee.

Ohio State (+2.5) at Wisconsin (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN2)

OVERALL When Ohio State
Has the Ball ...
When Wisconsin
Has the Ball ...
Category Ohio State
(10-0)
Wisconsin
(7-3)
Ohio State
Off
Wisconsin
Def
Ohio State
Def
Wisconsin
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 15 21
2012 FEI Rk 12 16
2012 S&P+ Rk 16 24 9 19 29 29
2012 FPA 62 16
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 9 11 27 33
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 20 27 33 28
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 7 14 38 31
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
68.7% Run
(18)
73.1% Run
(6)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 29 57 16 4
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
48.3% Run
(8)
42% Run
(19)

Under normal conditions, Badgers-Buckeyes would carry huge stakes for the fate of the Big Ten's "Leaders" Division, and for Ohio State's national ambitions as one of only four FBS teams left boasting a perfect record. As it is, the looming postseason ban against the Buckeyes has rendered their 10-0 start irrelevant in the BCS conversation and the Big Ten standings, where Wisconsin has already clinched a spot in the B1G Championship Game despite residing two games back of Ohio State. Impressive as the Badgers were last week in the course of rolling up 564 yards rushing on hapless Indiana -– a new school record, and the best single-game total on the ground by any FBS offense this season –- their best win to date remains a harrowing 16-14 escape against Utah State that came down to a missed Aggie field goal in the final seconds. Wisconsin's only other win over an opponent currently sporting a winning record was its 38-13 thumping of Minnesota a couple weeks back, and 6-4 record notwithstanding, Minnesota remains Minnesota.

On the other hand: Ohio State has had its share of close calls on the road, eking out a one-point win at Michigan State in September and a mere three-point win at Indiana two weeks later. In their last road trip, though, the Buckeyes convincingly dispatched Penn State in the "Ineligi-Bowl," and are coming into Madison with no major injuries partially due to a much-needed bye week. Wisconsin has shaped up since a rocky September, but whatever name winds up on the trophy in December, Ohio State has been the class of this conference from the start.

Ole Miss (+19) at No. 7 LSU (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

OVERALL When Ole Miss
Has the Ball ...
When LSU
Has the Ball ...
Category Ole Miss
(5-5)
LSU
(8-2)
Ole Miss
Off
LSU
Def
Ole Miss
Def
LSU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 59 9
2012 FEI Rk 65 10
2012 S&P+ Rk 36 8 30 5 39 24
2012 FPA 108 10
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 38 12 35 14
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 24 6 51 38
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 44 13 39 20
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
61.4% Run
(45)
69.6% Run
(15)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 28 4 35 20
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
30.2% Run
(79)
28.6% Run
(90)

No moment of the entire 2011 season was more humiliating than watching top-ranked LSU, leading last-place Ole Miss 52-3 with a little more than five minutes to play in the fourth quarter, instruct its backups to take a knee on four consecutive plays inside the Ole Miss 10-yard line rather than tack on another touchdown against such a hapless, overmatched opponent. That sequence alone is evidence of how far the Rebels have come under first-year coach Hugh Freeze, merely by avoiding such indignities.

While LSU is beginning to hit its stride offensively down the stretch with a possible BCS bowl in sight, it hasn't exactly left scorched earth in its wake: last week's 37-17 win over Mississippi State is the only one of the Tigers' first six SEC games decided by more than one score in either direction. Ole Miss fans certainly don't expect to win in Baton Rouge, but depending on the circumstances, a blowout on the order of the 19-point margin Vegas predicts might mark the first real disappointment of Freeze's tenure.

No. 23 Texas Tech (+10) at No. 24 Oklahoma State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, FSN)

OVERALL When Texas Tech
Has the Ball ...
When Oklahoma State
Has the Ball ...
Category Tech
(7-3)
OSU
(6-3)
Tech
Off
OSU
Def
Tech
Def
OSU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 35 13
2012 FEI Rk 35 25
2012 S&P+ Rk 29 25 20 28 41 26
2012 FPA 81 95
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 49 13 50 17
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 17 32 48 32
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 28 34 25 15
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
41.5% Run
(121)
54.2% Run
(92)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 10 31 32 33
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
29.6% Run
(83)
37.1% Run
(36)

Anyone who'd predicted in August that Texas Tech would be leading the Big 12 in total defense in mid-November would have been laughed out of the room, and deservedly so: the Red Raiders were arguably the worst defense in the nation over the second half of 2011, and responded by welcoming their fourth new defensive coordinator in as many years. From that perspective, Art Kaufman has been something of a miracle worker. Still, we're beginning to see a few cracks in the facade: over the last four games, TCU, Kansas State, Texas, and Kansas have all put up well over 400 yards on the Raiders, and come within a couple of overtime sessions of dealing them four consecutive defeats. Last week, the ostensibly out-manned Jayhawks churned out 390 yards rushing in a double-OT heartbreaker in Lubbock, inevitably conjuring up flashbacks of last year's collapse.

That's not a very reassuring trajectory ahead of a road trip to face the conference's highest-scoring offense, especially when said attack insists on as much balance as Oklahoma State. Injuries have ravaged the OSU depth chart at quarterback and wide receiver, but that hasn't stopped the Cowboys from ranking among the top four nationally (again) in passing offense, total offense and scoring offense, or from hanging 55 points on West Virginia last week in junior Clint Chelf's first career start at quarterback. It also hasn't stopped tailback Joseph Randle from giving OSU a 1,000-yard rusher for the sixth consecutive season. If there was a week for Kaufman's admirable rebuilding job to finally give way to the weekly assault of Big 12 offenses, this is it.

No. 12 Oklahoma (-11) at West Virginia (Saturday, 7:00 p.m. ET, Fox)

OVERALL When Oklahoma
Has the Ball ...
When West Virginia
Has the Ball ...
Category Oklahoma
(7-2)
WVU
(5-4)
Oklahoma
Off
WVU
Def
Oklahoma
Def
WVU
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 5 67
2012 FEI Rk 5 72
2012 S&P+ Rk 6 34 19 72 4 14
2012 FPA 55 83
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 27 42 31 36
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 19 91 1 12
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 23 53 4 13
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
53% Run
(99)
44.7% Run
(118)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 6 82 22 23
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
22.5% Run
(118)
25% Run
(105)

If you're still keeping track at home, West Virginia's 55-34 flop at Oklahoma State makes four consecutive losses since the Mountaineers climbed into the top five of the polls in early October, when every possible goal –- Big 12 title, BCS bowl, Heisman Trophy –- appeared squarely in their sights. That was back when we assumed the offense would go on outscoring everyone on a weekly basis, as if that was possible. Through six conference games, WVU has yielded an astonishing 41 touchdowns and 306 total points, or 51 points per game. Even Oregon's offense couldn't be expected to keep up that kind of pace, and unlike West Virginia's, Oregon's offense didn't retreat into a nearly month-long funk at the same time.

On the bright side (if there is one), the offense did show some renewed signs of life at Oklahoma State, where short-lived Heisman frontrunner Geno Smith went over 300 yards passing for the first time since the 656-yard, eight-touchdown bomb he dropped on Baylor on September 29, which still accounts for a full 20 percent of Smith's total yards for the season and more than 25 percent of his touchdown passes. Unfortunately for Smith, Oklahoma's secondary is not Baylor's, and West Virginia's secondary is allowing more passing yards than any other defense in the country.

No. 1 Kansas State (-13) at Baylor (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)

OVERALL When Kansas State
Has the Ball ...
When Baylor
Has the Ball ...
Category KSU
(10-0)
Baylor
(4-5)
KSU
Off
Baylor
Def
KSU
Def
Baylor
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 2 61
2012 FEI Rk 1 53
2012 S&P+ Rk 15 43 8 99 30 12
2012 FPA 1 49
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 8 90 46 10
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 7 104 26 15
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 9 84 32 6
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
71.9% Run
(8)
55.6% Run
(86)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 7 108 28 11
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
42.3% Run
(18)
29.8% Run
(81)

Whatever doubts existed before last weekend about Kansas State's place in the BCS pecking order, they were rendered instantly irrelevant by Texas A&M's earth-shaking upset at Alabama: With the Crimson Tide out of the picture, the only remaining hurdle between the Wildcats and the BCS Championship Game is their ability to close out a perfect season with wins over Baylor and Texas.

If the Bears are a threat to that end on Saturday, it's only to the extent that they're able to sustain the relentless pace that has produced the most prolific offense in the most offensively-driven league in the nation, against the one team in the Big 12 that excels at playing the tortoise. Although K-State is by far the slowest offense in the conference, it's also the most efficient, propelled by a consistent ground game and the best turnover margin in the nation. And the next offense Baylor holds in check will be the first.

No. 13 Stanford (+20.5) at No. 2 Oregon (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ABC)

OVERALL When Stanford
Has the Ball ...
When Oregon
Has the Ball ...
Category Stanford
(8-2)
Oregon
(10-0)
Stanford
Off
Oregon
Def
Stanford
Def
Oregon
Off
2012 F/+ Rk 12 3
2012 FEI Rk 13 3
2012 S&P+ Rk 23 2 51 15 9 1
2012 FPA 5 18
2012 Rushing S&P+ Rk 63 41 8 3
2012 Passing S&P+ Rk 40 7 11 1
2012 Std. Downs S&P+ Rk 67 42 7 4
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
61.4% Run
(44)
66.4% Run
(26)
2012 Pass. Downs S&P+ Rk 36 8 25 25
Run-Pass Ratio
(Std. Downs)
35.7% Run
(44)
54.8% Run
(5)

Oregon tends to be pretty tight-lipped across the board, especially where injuries are concerned, so we don't have an official body count on the plague of injuries that has ravaged the Ducks defense. But the casualty list by halftime of last weekend's win at Cal included at least nine regulars, including the entire starting defensive line: regulars Issac Remington, Wade Keliikipi, Ricky Heimuli, and Dion Jordan all sat out with assorted ailments, and the last man standing, Taylor Hart, left the game in the first quarter with an apparent ankle injury. The front four was so decimated that it was forced to turn to three true freshmen: Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and Alex Balducci, and newly converted tight end Koa Ka'ini, who spent the first two months of the season on offense.

The assumption this week is that most of the walking wounded will be back in the lineup Saturday with division, conference, and national championships on the line. In either case, the glaring question is whether the Cardinal can do enough on offense to take advantage of the attrition. Although redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan connected on three touchdown passes last week in his first career start, an essential 27-23 win over Oregon State, he was also picked off twice, and the offense stalled for most of the last three quarters after a pair of quick scores in the first. If not for a late Oregon State fumble that set up a short field for the winning touchdown, the fate of the Pac-12 North would hinge on Ducks-Beavers next week, not Ducks-Cardinal.

At any rate, aside from an obligatory blowout at Colorado a couple weeks back, Stanford's best offensive effort on the road came in a 21-3 win at Cal, in which all 21 points came in the first half, and the last seven were set up by a turnover deep in Cal territory. The defense can play its brains out Saturday, and that still won't be enough against the highest-scoring offense in the country.

Picks

The Picks
(* - "Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week")
Visitor Spread Home Matt F/+
Northwestern +7 Michigan St. NW'ern Mich. St.
Rutgers +6.5 Cincinnati Rutgers Cincinnati
USC -3.5 UCLA USC USC
Duke +13.5 Georgia Tech Ga. Tech Ga. Tech
Ohio State +2.5 Wisconsin Ohio St. Ohio St.
Ole Miss +19 LSU Ole Miss LSU
Texas Tech +10 Oklahoma St. Okla. St. Okla. St.
Utah State -3 La. Tech La. Tech* Utah St.
Oklahoma -11 W. Virginia Oklahoma Oklahoma
Kansas St. -13 Baylor Kansas St. Kansas St.*
Stanford +20.5 Oregon Stanford Stanford
Season-long Results
("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
Last Week
Season Total
F/+: 6-3-1 (1-0) 66-43-1 (6-4)
Matt: 3-6-1 (1-0) 43-66-1 (4-6)

Posted by: Matt Hinton on 16 Nov 2012

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