Stanford hosts Oregon on Thursday night, and most anybody who cares about college football will be watching. Which goes to prove, the world is hopelessly upside down.
Baylor is good, maybe great. Missouri is about to become best in class — in the SEC East, not the Big Eight or Big 12. There’s something called the American Athletic Conference. Duke is again bowl-eligible, before its basketball team has even taken a dribble in anger.
And now Stanford-Oregon, a matchup of top-six teams. It’s not just that both of them got good, although anybody with a long sense for history probably would have taken odds against that. It’s that they did it the way they did it.
David Shaw, the Stanford coach, was a receiver at the school a generation ago, and his junior year in 1993, here’s where Oregon and Stanford finished in the Pac-10 in rushing: ninth and 10th. The Ducks averaged 2.5 yards a carry.
For years — decades — that’s the way it was with these two programs. What success was going to be had, would be had by throwing and catching. It was seen as the only way to keep the gap manageable between them and the power programs like USC.
Stanford’s top player in history might be fullback Ernie Nevers, but he was a Depression-era star, before there was even a Heisman Trophy. Most of the greatest figures at Stanford have been quarterbacks, people like John Brodie and Jim Plunkett and John Elway.
Ditto the Ducks. It was always a place for quarterbacks, from Norm Van Brocklin to Dan Fouts to Chris Miller. It tells you something that Bobby Moore (1969-71), the only one on the Oregon top-10 career rushing list who played before the late 1980s, was first a wide receiver for the Ducks.
Then everything changed. Oregon hadn’t had a team that led the league in rushing offense since 1955 when it finally happened in 2006. It’s occurred every year since, giving the Ducks a string of seven straight such titles, most in league history.
During that time, Shaw arrived at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh. They inherited Toby Gerhart, recruited Stepfan Taylor, and punished defenses with a massive offensive line. Now Taylor and Gerhart are Nos. 1-3 on the school career rushing list.
As a coach’s kid — Shaw’s dad Willie was an assistant at both Stanford and Oregon, as well as a passel of NFL teams — Shaw says he learned early the value of a running game, never mind the reputation of his alma mater.
“In the Midwest, in the land of Bo Schembechler,” he said Tuesday on the Pac-12 teleconference, “my coach in junior high school said, ‘If we could guarantee four yards a carry, we’ll never throw the ball and we’ll go for it on every fourth down.’ “
Then he saw the wisdom of the run as an NFL assistant, so Shaw was a willing mesh for Harbaugh.
As for Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, he says he tinkered with the no-huddle, spread-option in spurts at Boise State (1998-2000) and Arizona State (2001-05) as an assistant. By the time he joined Chip Kelly’s regime at Oregon in 2009 it was a roaring inferno, that in 2013 has gained 331.5 yards a game on the ground, or 6.9 yards a carry.
So what happens Thursday night? Aside from the respective ground games, I see two guys in the spotlight.
Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan has had an understated season. He has only one proven receiver in Ty Montgomery. Hogan has thrown for less than 1,500 yards, and he might have to be a lot better if Oregon commits to stopping the run first, as expected. But Hogan is 7-0 against ranked teams.
Then there’s Helfrich, who just turned 40 a week ago. Before he came to the Ducks, his last two positions were as part of fired staffs at ASU and Colorado.
And he hasn’t lost a game yet. Will he react quickly if Stanford stations its versatile standout linebacker, Trent Murphy, at an unexpected spot? Will his demeanor suggest confidence to a team that might truly be pressed for the first time?
Good-naturedly, Helfrich said Tuesday he second-guessed himself for not running full-scale, throttle-down, spread-option earlier in his career.
“Looking back,” he said, laughing, “I’m an idiot.”
For both schools, running the ball in vastly different ways, better late than never.
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