Last week at AutzenZoo.com we did a fan poll that asked who you thought Oregon’s toughest Pac-12 opponent would be for this upcoming 2011/12 season – the answer was clear. The Stanford Cardinals. The Cardinals were a force during the 2010/11 season, led by head coach Jim Harbaugh and QB Andrew Luck, Stanford went 12 – 1 overall and 8 – 1 in the Pac-10 (2nd in conference). In 2010 the Ducks were able to get past Stanford with a 52 – 31 victory. The score of that game doesn’t quite tell the entire story though. This year the Ducks will face the Cardinals late in the season on November 12th, and the Cardinals get home-field advantage. This is likely to be an extremely pivotal game for both teams. Let’s see what the Ducks are facing with this season’s Stanford team.
Let’s start with who is returning for the Cardinals; Heisman frontrunner Andrew Luck is returning for his senior season. This is huge for Stanford this season. Luck gave up a likely first-round draft pick to stay with the Cardinals for the 2011/12 season. In 2010/11 Luck threw for 3,300 yards and 32 touchdowns, he represents veteran leadership for his team and a terrifying opponent for the rest of the country. He is among 11 returning starters; five on offense and 6 on defense. The six returning defensive starters are a scary group themselves – they were part of a 2010/11 defense that led the Pac-10 in scoring defense with an impressive 17.5 points per game. Left Tackle Jonathan Martin is one of the two veteran starters returning on the Offensive Line this year. Martin, who will be protecting Luck’s blind side, will be an extremely important returning player this season. Strong Safety Delano Howell (senior) will also be back for the Cardinals. Howell finished last season with 60 tackles and 5 interceptions. Running back Stepfan Taylor (junior) returns this season looking to rack up the rushing yards for the Cardinals. As a sophomore last season Taylor became the first Cardinal to break 1,000 yards rushing since Darrin Nelson in 1978. Senior wide receiver Chris Owusu will be back on the field after a missing several games last season due to injury. Owusu could mean some big, breakout plays for the Cardinals. Stanford definitely goes into this upcoming season with a power-packed lineup of returning starters who should cause a lot of concern for the rest of the conference.
Now, what will be different for the Cardinals this season? Head coach Jim Harbaugh left after last season to coach the SF 49ers along with former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. These two men transformed a Stanford team that set a school record, scoring 524 points last year and came up with three shut-outs. Taking their places will be head coach (former offensive coordinator) David Shaw, and co-defensive coordinators Derek Mason and Jason Tarver. This new coaching staff intends to keep the momentum going into this 2011/12 season, but with change comes possible question-marks. The Cardinals will also have to sort out five new starters on defense.
During last year’s Oregon/Stanford match-up turn-overs were a major player in the game. In fact turn-overs were a factor for the last two games between Stanford and Oregon. In 2009 things came out in Stanford’s favor; with the Cardinals winning 51 – 42. In 2010 the Ducks won the turn-over battle. Last year the Cardinals looked strong, but ultimately had problems coming back from first-half turnovers and couldn’t hold onto their lead against the Ducks. This year we could see a shooting match between these two teams; Stanford boasts some powerful running backs and receivers, many who we will likely see 100-yard games. In my opinion this one will come down to the more efficient defense and turnover management. I suspect this will be a huge game for both teams – a meeting of two Pac-12 giants.
Keep on voting – who do you think Oregon’s toughest Pac-12 opponent will be for the 2011/12 season?