The Stanford Cardinal have had a lot of great second half performances over their FBS-leading winning streak. But it's the second half where they got outplayed and outcoached that Andrew Luck and his team probably remember the most.
Remember that Stanford faced the Oregon Ducks around a year ago and took an early 21-3 lead. The Cardinal only needed to go 56 yards to score 14 points. In fact, Luck only had to lead three actual scoring drives in Eugene, even if they were pretty impressive ones.
Luck showed that he could conduct an offense fairly well in the most hostile of opposing crowds and the most resolute of opposition. Unfortunately, everyone (including Luck) started making error after error. The Cardinal committed an offensive pass interference penalty that killed their first drive of the second half. Chris Owusu was knocked pretty hard and coughed up the football at a critical point in the third quarter. The usually resolute Stanford offensive line started to wear down by the second half as Luck faced more and more pressure as the game wore on. And Luck threw two costly picks, one of them right after Oregon regained the lead--the Ducks went up by 14 and held on for dear life. The errors were few, but they were momentum-shifters of the highest order.
Luck simply has to be better this time around. He'll have ideal conditions in Palo Alto (perhaps a semi-partisan crowd, but hard to tell). He'll have greater command of his offense and a better feel for how to lead his team. Stanford's offense has lost as much as Oregon's defense has from last year's contest, so you have a feeling Luck will have opportunities to exploit in this game.
The Oregon defense has grown stronger as the year's gone on though, and hasn't shown any ill-effects of losing nearly half their corps. They put up their finest effort last week in holding down Keith Price and Chris Polk to minimal production. However, they have yet to face a true pro-style attack with a pro-style quarterback who knows every weakness of this team, and Luck might be the guy to administer the antidote to the Duck green attack.
Luck will almost certainly have to scramble to avoid Oregon pass rushers and use his mobility to make Oregon have to account for his presence on the field. The big question is whether he can handle the loss of playmakers like Zach Ertz and Owusu, which drastically shortens the number of receivers he can rely on for this matchup. Ty Montgomery (slated to replace Owusu) is a talented individual, but he's still a freshman.
Luck does have Coby Fleener and Levine Toilolo to go along with Griff Whalen and Montgomery, so it's not like he'll be bereft of weapons this Saturday. There will be opportunities to exploit if Luck and the Cardinal can execute correctly and take advantage of the Oregon pressure via screens, quick hits, and any counter plays to Luck's conventional way of attacking a front. Plus there's always the ground game, which looks even more potent this season with Stepfan Taylor the feature back. It might even be the best option to try and wear down the Ducks front, as this was the formula to success with Toby Gerhart on the Farm in 2009.
Stanford, like Oregon, has proven they can play pretty lethargic early on before cranking it up. We'll see if Luck can prove to be the second half victor this time around.