Nov. 15, 2012
STANFORD, Calif. - There are no secrets between the Stanford and Oregon football teams.
For the third consecutive season, their matchup will have conference-title implications. And the team's coaches - Stanford's David Shaw and Oregon's Chip Kelly - know each other well, having coached against each other since arriving as assistants in 2007.
And, as the appearance of ESPN's College GameDay indicates, Saturday's 5 p.m. matchup in Eugene is the biggest game in the country.
Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, said he began preparing in earnest shortly after Saturday's 27-23 victory over Oregon State. He watched film of every Ducks game over the past three years, searching for clues on tendencies and habits in the way they attack different teams and styles of defenses.
Other coaches have picked apart Oregon's schemes, but most of those efforts have gone for naught. The Ducks (10-0) are ranked No. 1 in the country by the AP and are the highest scoring team in the country, averaging 54.8 points.
"The thing is, it's not complicated," Shaw said of the Ducks' offensive scheme. "It's just complicated during the game. The adjustments they make are so subtle that you don't realize it until they've scored three touchdowns on you. You change to try to cover what they're doing, and they make another change.
"They spend a lot of time looking at you. They run simple plays and however you're stopping their simple plays, Chip takes advantage of what you're doing, which is the brilliance of the simplicity."
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Games like these define careers, both in significance and in the memories of those who take part.
"It's one of those reasons you came to play college football at a big-time school," center Sam Schwartzstein said. "It's one of those things you dream about growing up. I think everybody's got that feeling right now, that it's going to be one of those games they're going to remember forever."
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Stanford finished ranked among the Top 10 the past two seasons, including No. 4 in 2010. Even so, the Cardinal's defense has never been better than this season. Stanford leads the nation in three defensive categories: rushing yards allowed (58.6 per game), sacks (4.2 pg), and tackles for loss (9.1 pg).
However, Oregon's offense poses monumental problems, especially with its speed, and has torched the Cardinal defense by scoring more than 100 points combined in their past two matchups.
"We've got to play our style of defense and make sure we are sound and have the edges taken care of," Shaw said. "We have to make sure we keep them contained in an area. They want space and one-on-one opportunities, and we're going to try our best to limit that as much as possible."
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After losing to the Ducks the past two years, can Stanford use revenge as motivation?
"Revenge is a strong word," defensive tackle Terrence Stephens said. "In the game of football, you can't be revengeful because the emotions take you over. You've got to be focused on the task at hand. Revenge is not something you want to go into a game with because you'll find yourself trying to do too much and not your job."
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Stephens is impressed with Oregon and knows the defense faces a tough task.
"They're effective and they do it by speed, efficiency, and disorienting people," Stephens said. "That is what has created the most challenges.
"They play it close for a half, and then they just take off. That's because of the adjustments they make at the half. It's going to take our best game."
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A vital part of Stanford's effectiveness on defense will be its ability to penetrate up the middle.
"It's one of the keys in stopping them, in my honest opinion," Stephens said. "A lot of people will attempt to play side-to-side, and that's where you'll get gassed because it's not a horizontal game. They want to hit you vertically and score points. It's important for us to get penetration and disrupt that timing. Defensively that's what it'll come down to.
"To be a successful defense, you have to stop teams from making big plays and pay for making those big plays. It's going to be a physical game, and that's the way we like it."
Outside linebacker Chase Thomas agrees.
"You've got to take a shot at the quarterback when given the opportunity," Thomas said. "Every hit adds up and wears on him by the time the game's over."
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Because of Oregon's explosiveness, Shaw doesn't expect Stanford to shut down the Ducks, but hopes to limit them enough to allow the Cardinal to outscore them.
"We don't talk about stopping them; we talk about slowing everybody down," Shaw said. "There's no stopping these guys. You can hold them down for a while, but eventually they're going to crack a couple on you. That's part of the game. Our job is to limit the big plays, limit them to 4-5 yards at a time, don't give them the huge pass or the huge run, and then we've got to score points on offense.
"It's no mystery, you can't go in there thinking a touchdown and two field goals is going to be enough. It's not."
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To help the defense better prepare for Oregon's up-tempo attack, Stanford is practicing with two offensive huddles.
While one offensive team is snapping the ball, another is huddling and looking at a play card. As soon as the play is over, the new group immediately sets up for the next play. The defense is forced to scramble to a new formation and quickly communicate before the ball is snapped.
This method of constantly rotating plays is the closest Stanford can come to Oregon's offensive tempo.
"It's still not the same," Shaw said. "But that's as close as we can come."
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Stanford has one defensive advantage this season that it has not had in the past: depth.
Stanford rotates at many positions anyway, but now has the luxury of keeping players fresh by having players alternate entire series. This prevents the Cardinal from being caught out of position by trying to substitute in the short time span between plays. Stanford has the depth to rotate at inside linebacker, outside linebacker, defensive end, defensive tackle, safety and cornerback.
"That's what depth's been able to do for us, so guys don't have to be out there playing tired," Shaw said. "A year ago, I don't think we could have done that."
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Stanford is a big underdog in the eyes of many, but the Cardinal believes it can win, Shaw said.
"It depends on us playing up to our capabilities," Shaw said. "We've done it in spurts, but not for 60 minutes. If we can play at our best level for 60 minutes, we give ourselves a chance to win. And we need to do it this week."
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A year ago, Kevin Hogan was running Oregon's plays as the scout team quarterback. Now, the sophomore is heading into his second game as a starter.
"He has shown absolutely zero nervousness, anxiousness, or apprehension," Shaw said. "I don't anticipate him taking any different approach. I think he'll be ready for the challenge."
Said Hogan, "It'll be fun."
Hogan doesn't show a lot of emotion to the fans, or even the media. But it's there, say teammates.
"Coach Harbaugh used to say, `Don't get emotionally hijacked,' and he's the king of that," Schwartzstein said. "He won't take his helmet off on the sidelines. He is an unbelievably fierce competitor."
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There are ways to prepare for the noise the Cardinal will face at Autzen Stadium, which is known for its loud fans.
Former quarterback Andrew Luck used to drink tea and honey in the week before a game in Eugene to preserve his voice. And at Stanford's practices this week, loudspeakers have figuratively turned music up to 11.
It's not just Hogan who must account for the noise, but so must Schwartzstein, who makes the line calls.
"No talking, all screaming," he said.
"Thankfully, his voice carries," Shaw said.
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Before the season, Kelly was a candidate for an NFL head coaching position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Shaw, who spent nine years on NFL staffs, thinks Kelly's offense would translate well at the next level.
"I've become a believer," Shaw said. "It's a very sound system. It's not a hokey college system. They run inside zone, they run outside zone, they run traps, there's quarterback reads, there's play-action passes. It has the components of every good NFL offense. It just looks a little different. I don't see a hindrance in him making that jump."
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Speculation that a great college team could beat a poor NFL team is unfounded, Shaw said.
"Never," he said. "I tell our guys all the time, if you want to play in the NFL, go to an NFL game and try to find a way to get as close as you can and just look at the guys out there. It is a league of freaks. They're the best in the world at what they do.
"Every NFL roster is an all-star team. There are no 19-year-old kids out there. These are grown men that shave, that have families. It's life or death to those guys every day. It's not college. Those are such different spheres that they can't ever interact."
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If Stanford falls behind, the worst thing it can do is abandon its game plan.
"You've got to be aggressive, but not enough to leave yourself vulnerable," Shaw said. "The moment the offense thinks it has to do something special and gets out of character, the lead goes from 14 to 28 so fast. You have to know what you're good at, and stick to what you're good at.
"You have to take calculated chances, and you have to understand the positive and negatives of that. But you can't all of a sudden become a gunslinger and say, all of a sudden, we have to abandon everything and start chucking the ball deep. That's not a sound way to go."
Through his film study, Shaw has discovered that Oregon's most successful opponents remained patient.
"You have to play your style, whatever it is, and make calculated risks," Shaw said. "And then try to win it at the end."
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Schwartzstein, the fifth-year senior and former Luck roommate, has impressed his coaches with his decision making.
"His ability to decipher things at the line of scrimmage and make sure everyone's on the same page is phenomenal," Shaw said. "He sees as well as any center I've been around, in terms of communicating with the quarterback."
Schwartzstein, a team captain, comes to the line of scrimmage prepared. At meetings, he comes in with a notebook, as well as questions and ideas.
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In what is expected to a high-scoring contest, Stanford is prepared to score - a lot.
"I always feel pressure to score a lot of points, but in this game, yeah," Schwartzstein said. "We do feel it, because we know that if we're ahead or behind, their offense can score at any moment.
"But we have the best defense in the nation. We have to answer every stop with a touchdown."
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Stepfan Taylor's 40-yard, tackle-breaking, stiff-arming catch-and-run for a touchdown against Oregon State last week got its share of attention in the Cardinal film room.
"It was a pretty unbelievable play," Schwartzstein said. "We watched it a few times in our meeting room and, it was like, `Hey guys, if we do our jobs even a little bit, this guy can do unbelievable things.'"
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It may not say it on the schedule, but Thomas undoubtedly speaks for players on both teams when he says, "We know this is our Pac-12 Championship game."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics