STANFORD, Calif. — Outside linebacker Trent Murphy is the best player on Stanford’s ferocious defense, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound dervish of destruction. But his greatest impact on the showdown with Oregon tonight could come during the split seconds in which he isn’t causing havoc.
After the ball is snapped and Murphy steps toward the line of scrimmage, he’ll lock eyes with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and they’ll enter a slow-motion world of their own — each trying to guess the other’s intentions.
Will Mariota hand off, or tuck and run? Will Murphy head down the line in pursuit of the tailback, or charge into the pocket? Will Mariota fake the run and look downfield? Will Murphy drop into pass coverage?
“It’s a little chess match,” said Murphy, a candidate for Pac-12 defensive player of the year honors. “I read what he’s going to do, and he reads what I’m going to do. He’s trying to bait me, and there are a couple ways I could influence him.”
The game of the year in the Pac-12 is stocked with subplots.
Stanford must run the ball effectively to take the pressure off its struggling passing game, and the second-ranked Ducks have been vulnerable on ground, yielding 413 combined yards recently to UCLA and Washington.
Special teams could shape the outcome: Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson is recovering from a leg injury, while Oregon’s Alejandro Maldonado has made just 1 of 3 field goals from 30 yards and out.
Will Oregon dynamo De’Anthony Thomas (ankle) be at top speed? How healthy is Devon Cajuste (knee), the Cardinal’s No. 2 receiver?
But the outcome will ultimately hinge on the Cardinal’s ability to contain the high-powered Ducks and make it a fourth-quarter game, to take Oregon “into deep water,” as Stanford likes to say.
The sixth-ranked Cardinal excels in close games, winning 10 of 13 games decided by eight points or less since the start of last season. The Ducks have played one down-to-the-wire affair in that span: The 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford last year.
“We want to get it into the fourth quarter, and then it’s, ‘Hey, let’s go,’?” Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason said.
If the warp-speed Ducks score anything close to their season average of 55.6 points, Stanford cannot win. The Cardinal isn’t built to win shootouts; it’s built to win grinders.
The only way to ensure a low-scoring, moderately paced affair — in short: a replica of last year’s thriller in Eugene — is to get Mariota and Co. off the field.
That is accomplished in three not-so-easy steps:
Stanford has faced no-huddle offenses regularly this season, but none can match the speed with which the Ducks snap the ball and execute their plays.
“First and foremost, it’s about getting lined up,” Cardinal coach David Shaw said. “(The Ducks) are still the fastest. One guy out of position leads to a touchdown.
“If somebody’s not in the right gap and it’s a track meet, you can’t catch them.”
Oregon’s offense is designed to create an endless series of one-on-one matchups pitting their ultra-quick ballcarriers against a single, often helpless defender.
Two years ago, Stanford failed to corral the Ducks in the open field, and the result was a 53-30 loss.
Last year, the Cardinal tackled masterfully and joined LSU as the only teams in the past three seasons to hold the Ducks under 34 points.
“They did a lot of things a lot better than everybody else in terms of executing their defense,” Ducks coach Mark Helfrich said.
“One of the things they do well is tackle. They have big, rangy guys, and they’re excellent tacklers at every level of the defense.”
For Mariota, the Heisman Trophy front-runner who has accounted for 29 touchdowns this season, the moment of decision comes when the snap arrives.
As the tailback darts in front of him, Mariota glances at the defense. His focus varies from play to play. Often, he takes his cue from the outside linebackers and defensive ends, whose goal is to hold the edge.
Whether Mariota keeps the ball and sprints through a seam, hands it to the tailback or drops back to pass all depends on his read.
Often, the initial movement of the defense makes the decision easy. But last year, Murphy and Stanford’s other edge players stepped across the line of scrimmage and, ever so briefly, withheld their intentions.
The result was a disruption in the timing of Oregon’s attack that lasted just long enough — fractions of a second — for the Cardinal defense to identify its pursuit angles.
With proper angles, tackling becomes much easier.
“With Oregon, if you’re wrong, they’re gone for 60 yards,” Murphy said. “But if I slow him down, it slows them down and buys time for everyone else.”