Pac-12: Noter Dame Fighting Irish

Stanford is more than Luck

October, 1, 2010
10/01/10
10:00
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Toby Gerhart is gone. What is Stanford to do? No way it will maintain its power running game without that rampaging bulldozer in the backfield. It's going to have to throw the ball a lot. Good thing the Cardinal have quarterback Andrew Luck. He'll certainly help them transition to passing team.

That, at least, was a major school of thought heading into the 2010 season. Well, that school of thinkers certainly wasn't smart enough to get into Stanford. In fact, it needs to put on a dunce cap and go sit in the corner.

[+] EnlargeStepfan Taylor
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireStanford's offense isn't all Andrew Luck. Stepfan Taylor, above, leads a collection of Cardinal running backs with 265 yards on 59 carries.
Stanford averaged 218 yards rushing per game with Toby Gerhart last year. This year, it's averaging 223 yards. Yes, the passing offense is up, too, from 209 yards per game to 234.

"It's still the same schemes," said Oregon coach Chip Kelly, who's fourth-ranked team will play host to the ninth-ranked Cardinal on Saturday.

No Gerhart, no problem. You want balance? How about 11 touchdown passes from Luck and 11 rushing TDs from eight different players.

The simple fact is the Stanford offense in 2010 -- at least so far -- is better than the one with the best running back in the country last year. Stanford is averaging 457.6 yards and 48 points per game this year vs. 428 yards and 35.5 points last year. While many focus on what skill player are coming back from season to season, the key for Stanford was the return of four offensive linemen from what might have been the Pac-10's best unit last year. The Cardinal also returned perhaps the best fullback in the country in Owen Marecic, who pulls a night shift as a starting inside linebacker, too.

Of course, the competition steps up considerably in Pac-10 play, starting with a visit to soothing, tranquil Autzen Stadium.

"I hear it is crazy loud," said Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor, who has become the lead dog in what started out as a backfield-by-committee.

Taylor had 28 of the Cardinal's 44 rushes at Notre Dame last weekend and he finished with 108 yards. His 59 carries -- for 265 yards -- are more than backups Tyler Gaffney and Usua Amanam have combined (46).

Taylor, a 5-11, 208-pound sophomore, joins a long list of Texans -- Luck and Oregon QB Darron Thomas as well as Ducks running back LaMichael James are all from the Lone Star state -- who will be key figures in Saturday's game, which should establish an early frontrunner for the Rose Bowl.

Luck is the potential Heisman Trophy candidate and the likely first-round pick in the NFL draft whenever he opts to declare. He's Stanford's star, and deservedly so. Last year, though, he played a critical Robin to Gerhart's Batman in the Cardinal's 51-42 upset of Oregon. Gerhart rushed for 223 yards and three TDs, but Luck's 251 yards passing and two touchdowns softened the Ducks up. Luck had completions of 40, 39, 31 and 27 yards, often throwing the ball into the only place where his receivers could get it and Ducks DBs couldn't.

Now Stanford is his team. But it won't be ideal for Luck, no matter how good he is, to be throwing the ball 40 times in Autzen Stadium against an athletic Ducks defense that is third in the nation with nine interceptions.

"Andrew is amazing but we have great players around him as well," Taylor said.

That means the power running game will be key. While the Ducks lead the Pac-10 in scoring defense -- 11 ppg. -- they have shown a vulnerability to the power running game against Tennessee and Arizona State. The Ducks have yielded a middling 122.8 yards rushing per game.

And more than a few folks believe Stanford and coach Jim Harbaugh will run right at that fast but undersized Ducks defense. Not just because it might work, but also because Harbaugh is hardwired to want to turn big games into street fights.

"I equate rough and tough with Jim Harbaugh," Arizona coach Mike Stoops said. "He should be a defensive coach -- his offense plays like defense."

Taylor is known for being a humble guy, but when asked if Stanford is eager to pound at Oregon and physically challenge the Ducks defense, he said, "I think everybody knows what our game is. We play with class and cruelty."

So Stanford believes itself just fine without Gerhart. And it also doesn't believe Luck is going to be the only weapon at Oregon.

There's no rampaging bulldozer in the backfield, but Stanford still believes it's going to win by running right at you. Again and again and again.

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