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The ingredients behind Oregon's Stanford problem

Three years ago, after Oregon had run circles around Stanford en route to a 53-30 victory, a dejected Andrew Luck uttered the famous phase.

"We have an Oregon problem," he said.

That night marked the low point in the extraordinary resurgence of the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era.

But a new Stanford defense was born in the aftermath of Oregon's dominance, and the tables soon turned in shocking fashion. Just one season later, the unit had gone from Oregon's punching bag to the Ducks' kryptonite.

Suddenly, two straight Cardinal wins later, Oregon had a Stanford problem.

The Cardinal won the annual matchup 17-14 in overtime in 2012. They then opened up a 26-0 fourth-quarter lead in 2013 before withstanding a furious Ducks rally to win 26-20. So Mark Helfrich faces the challenge of reversing Oregon's fortunes against Stanford.

Here are the primary ingredients of the Cardinal's success against the Ducks over the past two seasons, along with a look at how these key puzzle pieces might apply to this 2014 renewal of hostilities.

Defense: Dominant play from the line

Oregon has averaged over 45 points per game each of the past two seasons, but Stanford has held the Ducks to an average of 17 points per game in the two meetings in that span. The formula for the Cardinal's defensive success has actually been relatively simple: It's been been rooted in commanding play along the defensive front.

In 2012 at Autzen Stadium, Stanford enjoyed exemplary performances from nose tackle Terrence Stephens and fellow defensive lineman Henry Anderson, whose positional versatility allowed him to shuffle between spots on the line and keep the Cardinal's big boys fresh. They, in turn, blasted the line of scrimmage, and that hit Oregon's explosive offense where it hurt. Stanford was able to limit the Ducks' running game and pressure Marcus Mariota without blitzing, and that allowed the second and third levels of the Cardinal defense to stay honest against the pass. The result: Stanford won despite losing the turnover battle 3-1.

In 2013, the Cardinal hoped to follow a similar formula, but their defensive line came in decimated by injury. Anderson and nose tackle David Parry both played at less than 100 percent, while Ben Gardner was already out for the season. Stanford responded by applying an effective Band-Aid: It worked to funnel all the Ducks' offense to the middle of the field. This put a massive added burden on inside linebackers Shayne Skov and A.J. Tarpley to make plays, and they gobbled up their chances. Skov registered the game's signature play when he stripped De'Anthony Thomas at the 1-yard line to keep Oregon off the board and shift momentum to the Cardinal sideline.

So how does this all apply to 2014? Well, Stanford's defensive line again looks to be wounded this time around. Aziz Shittu will miss the game, and Parry -- the unit's centerpiece -- is questionable with a leg injury. If Parry doesn't play, it will be a challenge for Stanford to execute its past formula. Oregon may enjoy more daylight in the running game against the Cardinal reserves, a unit that includes 255-pound true freshman Harrison Phillips. That's potential mealtime for bruiser Royce Freeman, and his success can open things up for Mariota's arm.

Offense: Drive-sustaining success

In 2012, Stanford somehow beat Oregon on the road despite going scoreless on 10 straight possessions of its own. The injured 2013 Stanford defense needed a little more help from its offense and got that through a mauling ground performance. The Cardinal rushed 66 times and threw the ball only 13 times. Tyler Gaffney racked up a school-record 45 rushes, and that helped Stanford finish 14-for-21 on third down and control the clock for nearly 43 minutes of game time.

The Cardinal don't have a big power back like Gaffney anymore, and that deficiency is good news for an Oregon defense that used the offseason to get stronger in an attempt to avoid repeating its 2013 fate. Stanford will have to sustain drives in different ways this time around, and its radical new offensive approach last week will be put to the test.

Defense: Speed and discipline on the back end

Before 2012, Stanford didn't have the athleticism to catch Oregon if it made a mistake near the line of scrimmage. That's why points for the Ducks would always burst through the floodgates after strong Cardinal defensive starts. Since 2012, though, Stanford has developed elite athleticism throughout its linebacker corps and secondary. This was readily apparent when reserve safety Devon Carrington ran down Mariota on a diagonal to save a touchdown two years ago.

Elite meets elite: 2014 marks the first time in the Stanford-Oregon rivalry that the nation's most efficient defense (Stanford is allowing an FBS-best 3.7 yards per play) meets the nation's most efficient quarterback (Mariota's 192.1 rating is the best in college football). Mariota should certainly be champing at the bit after reports claimed a knee injury slowed him down at Stanford last season.

Special-teams success

In 2012, overtime came down to field goals: Alejandro Maldonado's try clanged off the upright, while Jordan Williamson overcame struggles to nail the game winner. That came after Stanford punter Daniel Zychlinski enjoyed the game of his career, repeatedly reversing field position for his team's defense. When it comes to Stanford-Oregon, don't discount the importance of special-teams plays. After all, they made a significant difference in the Cardinal's favor in 2012, and they kept Oregon in the game in 2013 (blocked field goal returned for a touchdown).