Problem Solving with Stanford-Oregon

If you are an Oregon fan, chances are you woke up happy on Sunday morning.  (Unless you really celebrated on Saturday.) That extra hour of sleep was nice, certainly. The enjoyment of that victory can’t be overstated. But the greatest source of happiness was things returning to normal again. Oregon is on top of the conference, and Stanford stopped pretending it was a football school and returned to being an institution focusing primarily on academics with a few athletic extracurricular options for a few students.

In honor of Stanford’s renewed status as a school that “doesn’t really worry about things like football”, here are some thoughts on Saturday’s game, broken down academically, of course:

Philosophy: Determining the Problem

Jake Fisher points Oregon towards one of its six trips to the end zone.

Kevin Cline

Jake Fisher points Oregon towards one of its six trips to the end zone.

I. The highlight of the 2014 schedule was meant to be the two revenge games from 2013: Arizona and Stanford. Unfortunately for Oregon, its loss to Arizona was the cruelest of outcomes; not only did the Ducks lose the seemingly more certain of its two revenge games on the schedule, but they did so to an opponent they won’t play again until 2017.

While disappointing, it elucidated a fact that should already have been evident: Just because something should or is likely to happen, doesn’t mean it will. Should there be any concern about whether Oregon grasped this point was demonstrated by the defense’s sure tackling against Stanford.

II. To that point, just because something is unlikely to happen, doesn’t mean it won’t. In 2013, Oregon was a 10-point favorite over the Stanford Cardinal. In 2012, the Ducks were an 18.5-point favorite, yet Stanford won both games. The statistical probability that outcome would occur? Less than 2%, somewhere between 1 in 57 and 1 in 60 (depending on the calculation).

Which, depending on the book chosen, is roughly the present odds of Oklahoma State, currently 5-4 and 6th in the Big 12, winning the National Championship.

Tony Washington returns a Kevin Hogan fumble.

Kevin Cline

Tony Washington returns a Kevin Hogan fumble.

III. The occurrence of a statistical unlikelihood having a significant impact on historical events often demands an explanation that people believe can be used to explain the outcome rather than recognizing it as an outlier. This is the basis of Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan Theory.

Black Swan Theory as it applies to Oregon against Stanford (theory in italics, my notes in standard font): “First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations (<2% probability), because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility (one win in the previous ten meetings). Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’ (has determined Pac-12 champion last four seasons). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable (also known as “Oregon’s Stanford Problem).”

IV. This problem was based on the assumption that because all of Oregon’s losses in the two seasons prior to the 2012 Stanford game had come against opponents possessing notably athletic offensive or defensive lines. This was perceived as a weakness of the Ducks rather than as a strength of their opponents, all of whom were either ranked #1 or became ranked #1 within four games of playing the Ducks. The #1 team in the country should theoretically defeat any team in the country, and such ranking seems nearly impossible to achieve without strong line play.

Stanford in recent seasons has also been known for strong line play and defeated Oregon. Therefore, the two must be related.

V . If Oregon had a Stanford problem, it certain solved it on Saturday. How?

Engineering: Finding a Solution to the Problem

(L-R) Royce Freeman, Charles Nelson, Hamani Stevens, Darren Carrington. Many of the new weapons Oregon deployed against Stanford.

Kevin Cline

(L-R) Royce Freeman, Charles Nelson, Hamani Stevens, Darren Carrington. Many of the new weapons Oregon deployed against Stanford.

  • New Weapons: While Oregon’s veteran starters seemed to struggle at times throughout the game (likely attributable to David Shaw using Gus Malzahn’s witch doctor) the players who shined for the Ducks on Saturday were ones with very little history in the series. Oregon’s running backs (excluding slot receiver Byron Marshall) had one single combined carry ever (Thomas Tyner, 2013) as a unit against the Cardinal, yet they ran for 173 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday.
  • By Getting Bigger: David Shaw had said previously that he made adjustments following Oregon’s 53-30 blowout in 2011 to catch up to Oregon’s speed. In the ongoing battle that is this series, it appears Oregon has made adjustments of its own to catch up to Stanford’s size. Oregon got bigger (or older) at every level on offense this year. Look who had yards for the Ducks in this game in 2013 versus 2014. While the Ducks still feature their legendary speed, that speed now comes with size: A backfield of Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, giant receivers in the form Darren Carrington and Dwayne Stanford, and converting running back Byron Marshall into a slot receiver, forcing teams to tackle a starting running back, only with a ten-yard head of steam behind him once he catches the ball.
  • Regression to the Mean: “Kevin [Hogan] has played probably two of the best games of his career against us,” said Mark Helfrich prior to this week’s game. Remember that statistical improbability talk from earlier? Kevin Hogan was its embodiment. How a quarterback whose play can best be described as “yeoman-like” could outplay one who should be working on his third Heisman Trophy* in back-to-back matchups was an outcome too unlikely to be sustained. Kevin Hogan was destined to return to his mediocre form — he just needed enough games in his sample set to prove it. His two turnovers in Saturday’s game served as adequate proof.

(*possible exaggeration)

"Regression to wha...?"

Mark Saltveit

“Regression to wha…?”

Mathematics: Use Numbers to Show How the Problem Was Solved

1: Total number of wins Oregon needs to win the Pac-12 North division.

3: Minimum number of losses every other team in the North has.

4: Number of North teams Oregon owns the tiebreaker with via head-to-head victory. Also the number of losses Oregon State has, its only remaining North opponent.

5: Number of both wins and losses Stanford has in the 2014 calendar year. If an NFL team calls this off-season, David Shaw might want to have that conversation.

23: Number of minutes of possession Oregon needs annually to defeat Stanford.

Oregon Time of Possession vs. Stanford, last six matchups:

2009: 22:17 (L, 51-42)
2010: 26:32 (W, 52-31)
2011: 25:35 (W, 53-30)
2012: 22:55 (L, 17-14)
2013: 17:26 (L, 26-20)
2014: 24:22 (W, 45-16)

30: The magical number of points that would determine a winner entering this game:

That the critical 30th point of the game was scored on the game’s most electric play, Thomas Tyner’s awesome spin move touchdown, made that point all the more emphatic.

Don’t feel bad Stanford, the top three teams on that list all saw their 30 point streaks end this weekend.

34: Number of days until the College Playoff Committee determines its participants.

377: Number of days until Oregon and Stanford meet again.

4,226: Feet above sea level Salt Lake City sits for next week’s matchup against Utah. Best of luck against the Utes.

Top images by Craig Strobeck.

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