Stanford looks to continue balancing act

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Stanford's offensive big guns were falling back on the old adage this week that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

What they were really trying to say was we're not going to change who we are offensively just to try and match Oregon.

"We’re aware of how prolific their offense is," said Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. "But you don’t want to change your mindset especially when you have been successful and put too much pressure on yourself to do something out of character or force something. You don’t want to put the game out of proportion."

And proportion is the name of the game for Stanford. Proportionate running. Proportionate passing. Proportionate play-action.

"Everybody calls us a running team, but we're a balanced team," said Stanford head coach David Shaw. "We want to be able to do both well. We'll run the ball physically, but at the same time, we have a pretty good quarterback."

And the Cardinal have been almost perfectly balanced this season, running the ball 55 percent of the time for an average of 224.7 yards per game.

"We want to be balanced," Shaw said. "If we went out and said 'OK, because we’re in a big game, we’re going to let Andrew throw 50 times.' That’s not how we’re built. We need to be balanced. We need to be able to run it. His decision-making on game day is what’s going to get us in the right play. That’s what we lean on him for."

But it's when the Cardinal get inside of the opponent's 20-yard line that they are perfect. Not really good. Not great. Perfect.

Stanford is a pristine 52-of-52 in the red zone this season, scoring a touchdown 79 percent of the time (41-of-52). To get to that point, you have to convert third downs -- and the Cardinal are pretty good at that also, ranking fourth nationally with a 53.3 percent third-down conversion ratio.

"It's execution, execution and execution," said offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton. " Our players understand that you win and lose ball games on third down and in the red zone. They really take pride in the fact that when the opportunity presents itself for us to extend a drive on third down or score touchdowns in the red zone, we can't make any mistakes. We have to continue to execute at a high level and really cover our details and do whatever we have to do to score."

Saturday's matchup presents fans with two very conflicting styles of offense. While Stanford has the potential to be explosive (three touchdowns of 50-plus yards), Oregon is explosive (seven touchdowns of 50-plus yards).

Stanford is likely to hold the ball longer and throw together one of its 12-play, 80 yard drives that sucks up seven minutes of clock. Oregon could go that distance in two plays and use up 38 seconds of clock. But that's beyond the control of the offense.

"We have to play our game," Hamilton said. "Our approach is a lot more methodical. We're a run-first team. We want to wear our opponents down and score touchdowns every time we touch the football ... In a perfect world for us, we would like to be able to run the football, control the line of scrimmage, wear our opponents down and ultimately that is going to open up our play-action passes."

Of course, if Stanford holds the ball significantly longer and can't come away with seven points, they could find themselves in a hole.

"For us, time of possession works for us because of the way that we operate," Shaw said. "Against this team, it’s time of possession, plus touchdowns. You can hold the ball for a while and kick field goals and lose by 28 points. You have to be able to control the clock for a certain degree, because that’s how we play, but you have to finish drives in the end zone. They could have a three-play, 78 yard drive. If you’re kicking field goals and they are scoring touchdowns, you don’t have a chance regardless of what the time of possession is."

Stanford has seen this type of speed and athleticism before from a defense -- a couple of weeks ago, in fact -- when they traveled south to Los Angeles to face USC. The Ducks are sixth nationally in sacks, averaging 3.22 per game, while Stanford counters with the nation's best pass-rush offense, allowing just four sacks on the year.

"Oregon is all about speed, and their defense is no different," said Luck. "They get to the quarterback. They bring a lot of different blitzes and when the ball is in the air, they make plays. They are ball hawks. You don't want to get caught on your heels against them. Once you are on your heels, they keep attacking."