Oregon – Stanford Preview with Advanced Statistics
Oregon has split the last two games with Stanford with the home team winning each time. Stanford is the only PAC-12 team that Chip Kelly has lost to. Stanford has played spoiler in the past to Oregon, like ruining hot streaks to PAC-10 titles and breaking the 20+ home game win streak for the Ducks. This time the game serves as a de facto PAC-12 championship game as only one of these teams will host the winner of the PAC-12 South for an automatic bid to the Rose Bowl. The South is awful this year and right now UCLA would be representing the southern division. Oregon still has a good shot of making a BCS bowl with a loss, but why would we let dumb voters take away our destiny.
People who don’t really watch these two teams are saying that it is Oregon’s speed against Stanford’s physicality. If at any point someone says Oregon runs a finesse offense, just stop listening to them. Really it’s a matchup of Stanford’s size and power rushing attack against Oregon’s speed. The difference is that Oregon is just as physical as Stanford.
Both of these teams are very similar. They are very hard to prepare for as they run offenses that aren’t seen anywhere else in the conference. Oregon runs the only spread option offense (ASU, WSU, UA run Air Raid attacks) and Stanford is the only team that commonly plays with three tight ends and two running backs on the field at the same time.
When Stanford Has the Ball
Stanford uses a lot of running formations. Rarely will there be a single back set that results in a run. What most people would call a goal line offense Stanford will run at any point on the field. It’s like watching football in the 70’s. Stanford has used their three great tight ends a lot this year, and have found that they create a lot of matchups. They are too fast for normal linebackers to cover them, but too big to be handled by cornerbacks on rush support. Stanford will often shift to a formation based on the defensive personnel. If a defense comes out with a lot of defensive backs, Stanford will run, if the defense comes out with too few defensive backs, Stanford will spread them out and pass.
Injuries have begun to take hold of the Cardinal as Zach Ertz is doubtful and Levine Toilolo is questionable after leaving the Oregon State game. Chris Owusu is also out because of a concussion and honestly a coach needs to step in and sit him for the year. If the tight ends continue to be weakened in terms of depth that will put more pressure on the receivers. Whalen is the only receiver who can get open consistently and without Owusu no one can stretch the defense. The Cardinal is basically like the Patriots, strong on tight ends, weak on deep threats, a great quarterback, and a great coach.
Oregon needs to stop the ground game. This is going to be the biggest game of the season for everybody, but especially the linebackers. If a running back gets past the line of scrimmage against Oregon they are almost guaranteed an eight-yard gain, and that’s because run support has been lacking so far this season. Stanford can turn a two-yard run in to a four-yard run by piling people on and moving the pile. Teams have had success by swarming the football wherever it goes. Also, this year’s Cardinal line is not as experienced last year who did a great job of picking up the zone blitzes Oregon ran last year. They are weak when guarding speed rushers and this is a big opportunity for the defense to sack Luck. The left side of the line specifically has troubles picking up blitzes and stunts, which has forced Luck to throw on the move a lot while moving to his right (Although Luck is better throwing on the run than a lot of quarterbacks are from the pocket).
It may sound crazy to say to a defense to make a quarterback throw more, but Stanford is a running team that uses a lot of trap plays and trey counters and that’s the bread and butter. If Oregon is able to make them one-dimensional then they can really pin their ears back, try to get pressure, and put the fast defensive backs in under coverage with safeties over the top. Oregon’s defense is the key to winning the game.
When Oregon Has The Ball
Last year Stanford’s defensive ends pinched in hard on the run, and that is why Darron Thomas had so many rushes for big gains. Oregon has a huge athleticism advantage this game, maybe even more than last year, and it is going to be fun to see them use it to their advantage. I expect Oregon to use a lot of two back sets, possibly even with two tight ends in the game. Also like last year, there will probably be a lot of wide receiver motions that cross in front of the quarterback to cause Stanford to think and have a slower reaction time.
There are two players that are going to make a huge difference in this game on offense. Josh Huff may have the best matchup of the game as he goes against a slow Stanford secondary. In fact, the whole Stanford defense is slow as seen by Beaver tight ends breaking off from linebackers. Huff is probably one of the best athletes on the field and should be able to get open a lot. The second player with a huge advantage is De’Anthony Thomas. Thomas isn’t necessarily Jeff Demps or Sammy Watkins fast, but he maintains full speed through all of his cuts. Thomas is the third option on the triple option plays Oregon has been running and I predict he will have a kickoff return for a touchdown against a Stanford coverage squad that has struggled.
I’m very interested to see how Stanford rebounds from last year’s performance and how they will try to counter their lack of athleticism. Last year they tried to cheat their defensive end inside to cover LaMichael but in their attempt to cover the quarterback and running back, they actually covered neither. Oregon showed a wrinkle against Washington by running pitch plays that go the opposite direction of the zone read plays. I don’t know how Stanford is going to cover all the space as Oregon will create options inside and work their way to the boundaries and Stanford will have to play the inside options first.
Numbers Never Lie
There has been a lot of discussion recently on how valid stats are like FEI, F/+, and S&P+ are. I will do a larger defense of these stats and their uses later, but you have to take these stats and think about what they are actually measuring and whether they match up with what you are seeing on Saturdays. FEI, which measure drives off their value, tend to favor Stanford. S&P+ stats that measure value of plays tend to favor Oregon.
When Oregon has the ball they rank 20th in FEI but 2nd in S&P+, which affirms our beliefs that Oregon is fairly hit or miss on offense. Drives tend to go for a touchdown or sputter after the first down. Stanford ranks 10th on defense in FEI but 26th in S&P+, which is a great matchup advantage for Oregon as Stanford has trouble on a per play basis. Stanford has benefited from slowing games down and forcing teams to run fewer plays than normal. Oregon needs a lot of plays for the S&P+ to take hold by getting explosion plays, which happen most commonly in the second half.
When Stanford has the ball they rank 28th on offense in FEI and 10th in S&P+. Recently the Cardinal have had some trouble putting great drives together but they have had explosion plays to counter it. FEI is not adjusted for strength of schedule so the 28th ranking is a little troubling as the Cardinal haven’t played a top 40 defense yet. S&P+ does account for strength of schedule, meaning that even though Stanford isn’t playing tough competition they are dominating like a top ten team should. Oregon ranks 9th on defense in FEI, which is surprisingly good but also fits with the bend and don’t break style used this year and red zone turnover while ranking 10th in S&P+, which is just surprisingly high and wonder if my eyes have been deceiving me.
We find the real keys to the game when looking at the offensive rushing and passing S&P+. In rushing S&P+ Oregon ranks third and Stanford ranks 29th and I’m not sure I agree with Stanford’s ranking. In passing Oregon ranks eighth and Stanford ranks 9th which is about right. Stanford’s defense defending the run though is 47th, which is going to get torched against the 3rd best rushing attack. On standard downs Oregon is the second best team in the country and Stanford is 30th best at defending it. Stanford is 18th on offense on standard downs and Oregon is 11th at defending it. A slight advantage there for Oregon.
The biggest separation is on passing downs. Stanford’s offense ranks 65th in having successes on passing downs. This is interpreted to be that Stanford needs to have the ability to run and throw. When teams know that the Tree is going to throw, they are much better at causing Stanford to fail. Oregon is the 17th best defense in these situations. While Oregon is also not impressive in passing situations, they are much better than Stanford at 47th, and Stanford is 26th in defending passing downs.
The F/+ rank takes in to account the value of drives and plays equally while adjusting for strength of schedule. F/+ puts Oregon at number 7 in the country and Stanford at 8. Although the rankings are close Oregon has a score of +26.5 (0 being the baseline) and Stanford with a score of +20. This means that Oregon is much more explosive and dominant than Stanford on a per play basis, so much so that it overrides Stanford’s dominance creating good value drives. Football Outsiders likes Oregon to win by 3, and I think that’s a fair number.