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 Pac-12 Conference showdown with No. 2 Oregon on Thursday in Stanford, Calif., 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,” Murphy said. “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 the 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 suffered from 1-for-3 kicking on field goal tries 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 (8-0 overall, 5-0 Pac-12) and make it a fourth-quarter game.
The sixth-ranked Cardinal (7-1, 5-1) excels in close games, winning 10 of 13 games deciding by eight points or fewer since the start of last season.
But 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.
The only way to ensure a low-scoring, moderately paced affair — in short, a replica of last year’s 17-14 overtime thriller Oregon won in Eugene, Ore. — is to get Mariota and Co. off the field.
Oregon’s offense is designed to create an endless series of 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.
The showdown at sold-out Stanford Stadium will likely determine the Pac-12 North champion and leave the winner a major player in the BCS championship game picture.
STANFORD HONORS ELWAY
Thirty years after John Elway graduated from Stanford, the university will finally retire his celebrated No. 7 jersey at halftime of the game against Oregon. He’ll join Jim Plunkett (No. 16) and Ernie Nevers (No. 1) as the only players whose jerseys have been enshrined by the school.