Battle of strengths will provide the entertainment in matchup of top-20 teams

Oregon's defensive backs will be tested by a big group of Stanford pass catchers


Scouting the run offense: If the Ducks are going to pull off the upset, they’re going to have to run the ball successfully. That doesn’t mean that Oregon needs over 200 yards rushing, the Ducks just have to run the ball enough to keep the Stanford defense from dropping six or seven players into coverage.

Tony Brooks-James, as the lead back, will shoulder a lot of the responsibility at making this happen. He has shown a good understanding of taking the short positive yards given to him instead of trying to always break open the big run. So far, he’s amassed 173 yards on 36 carries with two scores on the year.

But, Brooks-James will be on a short leash as this is a game the Ducks need to win. And sophomore CJ Verdell is more than ready to step in and fill the void.

Verdell leads Oregon with 199 yards on 31 carries for the season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He shows a tremendous amount of patience when running the ball and has a more physical style that’s built for between the tackles.

If the Ducks get within the five, expect power back Cyrus Habibi-Likio to get the ball. On the season, he’s carried five times for 12 yards… but four of them have gone for touchdowns.

Also, quarterback Justin Herbert is a threat in the running game, showing off the ability to pull the ball when defenses collapse and pick up valuable yards.

Stanford counters with a rushing defense that has given up one touchdown on the year. The Cardinal surrender an average of 3.31 yards per carry and 104.67 yards per game. Big, athletic and physical, the Stanford run defense is not to be messed with. But unlike most years, depth is an issue so if Oregon can pick up the pace and pound the ball, big plays are waiting.

Oregon’s strength on offense is throwing the ball but new head coach Mario Cristobal has been adamant in adding a power running game to the offensive repertoire. Cristobal and the offensive line have talked about wanting to wear opponents down in the fourth quarter when the Ducks have the lead. They want to be able to grind out those 6-7-minute drives that end in touchdowns that break opponents’ hearts. If Oregon can impose their will in the trenches and chip away running the ball, the Ducks will find themselves on top in the end.

Scouting the pass offense: Oregon’s passing offense will live and die with the arm of Herbert, its star quarterback searching for his first marquee win.

Herbert shows tremendous poise in the pocket with an arm strength capable of making any throw asked of him. He’s also improved in the mental aspect of the game, often throwing receivers open or putting the ball in places only his guy can come up with.

On the season, he’s thrown for 840 yards and 12 touchdowns. Seven different receivers have caught a touchdown pass, showing off his ability to spread the ball around not lock onto a primary receiver.

Johnny Johnson III has six catches on the season, four of which have gone for scores. He’s produced in the redzone, often outjumping opposing defensive backs and winning the 50-50 balls in the air.

Jaylon Redd has five catches, three for touchdowns. He’s shown the ability to play in the slot and beat safeties or linebackers with his speed and quickness.

Dillon Mitchell is still the best of the group but has really struggled to find his footing this year. He’s electric with the ball in his hands, often making the first and second tacklers miss with tremendous elusive moves. I expect Mitchell to go off against the Cardinal, really asserting himself as the dominant player he’s capable of being.

Brooks-James and Verdell have also shown the ability to catch balls out of the backfield.

Stanford will counter with a big and athletic group of defensive backs who’ve really shown out this year. The Cardinal have given up just one touchdown pass on the season but have four interceptions. The unit is an experienced group as the starters consist of three seniors and a sophomore, all of whom stand 6-foot or taller

Alijah Holder is the best of the group, but he’s rarely been targeted in two games. When targeted, he has defended four passes and just doesn’t let his receiver get the best of him.

The Cardinal will play a lot of man defense with high safeties, so the Ducks will have to show off their athleticism to get open for Herbert. This is the game where everyone finds out just how good or bad Oregon’s pass catchers are after underwhelming thus far.

Scouting the run defense: The best of the Ducks will meet the best of the Cardinal when these two units clash in the trenches.

Oregon’s rush defense is one of the best in the nation, ranking in the top-10 in yards per game (77.0), yards per carry (1.96) and touchdowns (1). Nose tackle Jordon Scott is the anchor, an unmovable object who either swallows up double teams and the “A” gaps, or wins one-on-one battles to make the play.

Defensive end Jalen Jelks and outside linebacker Justin Hollins are the headliners, combining for 36 tackles for loss in the past 16 games. Not only can they win one-on-one battles with tackles, their most important job will be setting the edge and forcing Stanford star running back Bryce Love back to the middle.

Waiting in the middle for Love is preseason all-American Troy Dye at linebacker. Dye has had a quiet start to the season but he’s more than capable of changing a game on his own. With Scott occupying linemen and Jelks and Hollins setting the edge, it will be Dye’s job to contain Love, arguably the best running back in the nation.

Speaking of Love, he’s nearly impossible to stop. He has it all; speed, quickness, strength and elusiveness. Last year, he finished second for the Heisman trophy after racking up 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns. He too has gotten off to a slow start this year but in Stanford’s only true test, Love ran for 136 yards and one score on 22 carries against USC. One thing to watch is that Love missed last week with an undisclosed injury and although he’s been cleared to play, nobody knows at what percentage he’ll be.

The Cardinal offensive line is typically a massive and physical bunch that’s always among the nation’s best. This year, that same line is down a bit but are still dangerous when pressed. Against Oregon’s defensive line, the Cardinal are going to find out a lot about themselves.

This is the most important battle of Saturday’s game as it pits best against best. The winner of this matchup will go a long way into helping its team emerge with the statement victory.

Scouting the pass defense: If Oregon has a weakness anywhere among its team, it comes in defending the pass. Every other unit for the Ducks ranks in the top-third statistically but the passing defense is 77th in the country.

The Ducks show moments of being completely in sync and lockdown, battering receivers at the line and defending passes like a seasoned group. Other times, they show their youthfulness by getting beat on simple moves or committing dumb penalties that aren’t necessary.

Safety Ugochukwu Amadi is the vet of the group, the only senior on the two deep, who’s having a great start to his season. He’s showing off his physical traits by playing up in the box more and making plays behind the line of scrimmage.

Corners Thomas Graham Jr. and Deommodore Lenoir have all the potential but have yet to see it fully translate to the field. Often times, they’ll play deep off a receiver and be nowhere near him when he catches the ball for a 7-8-yard gain. Other times, they’ll be draped all over the receiver, making the play as needed.

The unit is very small in height as backup safety Jevon Holland is the biggest at 6-foot-1.

That could be trouble because Stanford’s top three receivers are 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3, and 6-foot-5.

JJ Arcega-Whiteside is the most talented of the group, leading the way with 13 catches for 324 yards and five touchdowns. Arcega-Whiteside is unstoppable in jump ball situations, but it’s his improved route running and athleticism that’s made him a more complete receiver.

Kaden Smith is the next in line of Stanford’s NFL-ready tight ends. He has 12 catches for 163 yards on the season, providing an extremely valuable target over the middle and outlet for quarterback KJ Costello. Trenton Irwin is the possession receiver. He has 13 catches on the season, but for just 90 yards.

Costello has thrown for 729 yards and seven touchdowns but it’s his three interceptions that are a cause for concern. He tends to make the bad throws, often trusting his arm or receiver too much. He’s best when he just lets the game come to him and takes what the defense gives him, instead of trying to do too much.

If Oregon can contain Love, a lot of pressure will fall on Costello to win the game for Stanford. This could allow the Ducks to be defensive backs aggressive and physical, a style they thrive in.