Oregon's running game had better show up Saturday night at Stanford or this game will be over before Cardinal running back Bryce Love reaches the 175-yard mark.
Forget about what happens at quarterback for the Ducks (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12). Braxton Burmeister? Taylor Alie? Both? Doesn't matter at this point. Whatever Oregon gets from that position will be gravy and it's not as if Stanford's quarterbacks do much damage, either.
What matters most for Oregon is that the offensive line doesn't let down the team again like last week during a 33-10 loss at home to No. 8 Washington State (6-0, 3-0) by gaining just 132 yards. The linemen admitted their mistakes. So did their leader, co-offensive coordinator Mario Cristobal. UO coach Willie Taggart made it clear that the players around the quarterback position must play better in order for the Ducks to win and he was mostly talking about the offensive line.
"Just our entire performance was frustrating," Cristobal said.
After a week to lament, the offensive line will have a chance to redeem itself and replicate the 328-yard rushing performance the team put forth two week ago during a 45-24 win over California. When the line is humming, the running back trio of Royce Freeman, Kani Benoit and Tony Brooks-James usually dominates. They are one of the best trios in the nation. But even they can't get loose with no place to run.
Stanford's defense isn't playing as its usual dominant self. The Cardinal rank ninth in the conference in rushing defense (182 yards per game) while Oregon is averaging 239.3, good enough for third right behind Stanford (260.5).
So, there's no excuse for the Ducks not to get the job done in the running game. Not even the reality that the Cardinal could key on the run, as did WSU, knowing that sophomore quarterback Justin Herbert isn't at quarterback to burn it with the passing game.
Stanford hasn't needed strong quarterback play to balance out the run game. The Cardinal is averaging 188.3 passing yards per game with Keller Chryst and K.J. Costello having split the duties. But, they haven't turned the ball over much with just two interceptions thrown, both by Chryst.
The Cardinal relies heavily on Bryce Love who has rushed for 1,240 yards on the season. That's 46 percent of the Cardinal's offense. The scariest part is that the 5-foot-10, 196-pound Love doesn't require much running room in which to operate.
“This kid can find the smallest hole and get through it," Taggart said. "And that’s a challenge for a lot of defenses.”
Oregon, on paper, appears equipped to handle Love. Or, at least not let him run wild. The Ducks rank second in the Pac-12 an 10th in the nation in in rushing defense allowing 93.7 yards per game. However, UO has faced the two worst rushing teams in the conference, WSU (82.7, 125th in the nation) and Cal (96.8, 122nd), and the ninth-ranked rushing team, Arizona State (129.4, 97th). Nebraska (148.5) ranks 79th in the nation and Wyoming sits at 118th (100.4).
Furthermore, none of those teams has a running back like Love. And, none run the style of offense that Stanford does. Nebraska comes close but Stanford's power running game with multiple tight ends and a pounding fullback working in concert with a strong offense line is another animal. For Oregon to be successful against Love, the Ducks cannot blow pursuit angles or expect that someone closer to the ball will make the play.
"Stack the box," UO senior cornerback Arrion Springs said. "Staaaack the box. Everybody just has to be ready to stop the run. Everybody has to contribute. It's not just going to be the front seven."
Said Taggart: "We've got to gang tackle. It's not going to be one guy bringing him down. "He can get stopped for two or three plays and the next thing you know he will break one for 60."
So figure that Love is going to do his thing. The quarterbacks for both teams will be pedestrian, although Oregon's should be helped by the return of sophomore receiver Dillon Mitchell (concussion) and potentially, senior slot receiver Charles Nelson (ankle).
That leaves Oregon's running attack as the only reliable aspect of the team that could lead the Ducks to a win.
That's not a bad situation to be in if the offensive line brings its A-game.
Oregon at No. 23 Stanford
When: 8 p.m., Saturday, Autzen Stadium.
Betting line: Stanford minus 10.5.
Records: Oregon (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12), Stanford (4-2, 3-1).
Last week: Stanford won 23-20 at Utah. Oregon lost 33-10 at home to No. 8 Washington State (6-0, 3-0).
Coaches: Ducks' Willie Taggart (44-47, 4-2 at Oregon); Stanford's David Shaw (68-17).
Fear factor (five-point scale): 5. If Burmeister (or Alie) improves dramatically overnight the Ducks will have a strong chance of pulling off the upset. But only if UO's rushing attack is on point.
Final pick: Stanford 37, Oregon, 27. UO shows improvement on offense but not enough to combat Stanford's rushing attack led by Love.