Stanford football has to finish

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The difference between Stanford and Oregon football over the past two seasons has been “a second half,” according to Cardinal linebacker Chase Thomas. The Ducks kept Andrew Luck out of the BCS Championship Game in 2010 and again in 2011. Both times, Chip Kelly’s team poured it on in the second half, winning the last two quarters by a combined score of 59-14.

No. 14 Stanford (8-2) won’t be vying for a national title when it tangles with the No. 1 Ducks (10-0) in Eugene, Ore., this Saturday. But an upset win would put the Cardinal in the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 North Division, keeping the team’s Rose Bowl aspirations alive.

The Cardinal offense isn’t as high-powered as it was last season, when it scored 43.2 points per game with the help of Luck, David DeCastro, Jonathan Martin and Coby Fleener, all drafted by the NFL. But with the nation’s best run-stopping defense, Stanford might be the only team capable of slowing down Oregon’s high-flying attack this season.

To beat the Ducks, Stanford will need to neutralize a rushing attack that is averaging 325.1 yards per outing (third in the nation). Kelly’s roster is loaded with players — Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas, Marcus Mariota — who can pop one at any time. The Oregon coach likes to overwhelm his opponents with speed and deception, and once he identifies a weakness he attacks it relentlessly.

But finding a hole in Stanford’s front seven might be challenging. The Cardinal defense is allowing only 58.6 rushing yards per game this season, and the unit tops the NCAA in sacks (4.3 per game) and tackles for loss (9.1 per game).

Stanford has one of the nation’s deepest linebacker corps with Thomas, Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, A.J. Tarpley, James Vaughters and Jarek Lancaster, so Kelly shouldn’t be able to wear them down with his fast-paced offense quite as easily this year.

The Ducks haven’t faced a defense that ranks in the top 15 in rushing yards allowed, sacks and tackles for loss since they were defeated 40-27 by LSU in the opening game of the 2011 season. The Tigers’ front seven punched the Ducks’ offensive line in the jaw that day, and running back LaMichael James couldn’t find any daylight. The Ducks were held to 95 rushing yards (3.4 per carry) in the game, and James and Barner were bruised and battered by the time they limped off the field.

Stanford can also neutralize the Ducks’ attack by keeping their offense on the sideline. The Cardinal is a power rushing team designed to eat up the clock with long drives. If coach David Shaw’s defense can rest, it might be able to tee off on the Ducks’ offensive line.

The X-factor in this contest is redshirt freshman Mariota, the nation’s most efficient passer, who has a 176.96 quarterback rating. He gives the Ducks a dimension they sorely lacked.

Like all games, this one will be decided on the field. But if Stanford plays its way, it might bridge the gap atop the Pac-12 standings by more than a second half.

Paul Gackle is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at paul.gackle@gmail.com and followed on Twitter @PGackle.

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