GAME NOTES: The top two teams in the Pac-12 Conference get after each other on Thursday night, as the second-ranked Oregon Ducks come calling on the sixth- ranked Stanford Cardinal.
Oregon is a perfect 8-0 under first-year head coach Mark Helfrich, and while the Ducks have whipped every opponent they have faced this season, they were recently pushed down a spot from No. 2 to No. 3 by Florida State in this week's BCS rankings. This bout marks the third of the season for Oregon against a nationally-ranked opponent, the first two resulting in relatively easy wins over No. 16 Washington (45-24) and No. 9 UCLA (42-14).
Stanford brings a 7-1 mark into this clash with its Pac-12 North Division rival, the lone loss coming in a 27-21 verdict at Utah on Oct. 12. The Cardinal have won back-to-back games since, taking out ranked foes UCLA and Oregon State, despite scoring no more than 24 points in either contest. Since 2009, Stanford is 11-1 at home against ranked opponents, and the team has won 13 straight at home and is 34-3 at Stanford Stadium since the end of the 2007 season. The Cardinal have won 30 of their last 31 games played in the state of California, the one loss coming against Oregon in 2011.
Oregon trails in the all-time series with Stanford, 45-30-1, but the Ducks have won nine of the last 11 meetings, including four of the last five on the Cardinal's home field.
Stanford dealt Oregon its only loss last season, 17-14 in overtime, in Eugene.
With Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota running the show, the Oregon offense averages a staggering 55.6 points and 632.1 yards per game, both of which rank the team second in the country behind Baylor. Mariota, only a sophomore, leads the Pac-12 and ranks fifth nationally with a QB rating of 178.5, as he has completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,281 yards and 20 TDs. As remarkable is the fact that he has yet to throw an interception this season, and he has tossed only six picks in 561 career pass attempts.
Additionally, Byron Marshall has had a stellar campaign as he currently ranks fourth in the conference in rushing with 879 yards, and he is tied for the league-lead with 12 TDs. Mariota is also a threat when he pulls the ball down, picking up 511 yards and scoring nine TDs, while Thomas Tyner and De'Anthony Thomas have produced 806 yards and 15 scores between them.
Mariota spreads the ball around, as evidenced by the fact that six guys have double-digit catches on the season. John Huff and Bralon Addison have 38 grabs, and the duo has combined for 1,312 yards and 13 TDs.
Defensively, the Ducks have also performed exceptionally well in yielding a league-best 16.9 ppg. Foes are averaging 130.9 ypg on the ground and 228.4 ypg through the air, and Oregon ranks atop the conference in pass efficiency defense (101.8), while ranking second in both interceptions (13) and third- down conversion defense (.331).
Derrick Malone is UO's leading tackler with 69, while Tony Washington has 7.5 sacks, and Terrance Mitchell four picks. Thanks mainly to Mariota's efficiency, the Ducks lead the Pac-12 and rank in the top-five nationally in turnover margin (+13).
In the recent win over UCLA, Marshall ran for 133 yards and three TDs, Mariota threw for 230 yards and a score, and Thomas returned to action after missing three games to score on a short run in the first quarter. Overall, the Ducks amassed 555 yards of total offense, and scored three TDs in the final quarter to break the game wide open.
The Bruins scored the first points on the day, and added a TD in the second quarter, but were held scoreless after intermission as they tallied only 283 yards, a mere 64 of which were the result of pass plays. Malone paced the UO defense with 10 tackles, seven of which were solo efforts, and Boseko Lokombo was credited with two of the team's three sacks.
While obviously pleased with his club's performance against UCLA, Helfrich knows his guys will need to refocus their energy to tackle the task ahead.
"This is a real complicated formula, do your job great and that's it. And our guys have responded exactly how we thought they would."
He went on to say, "We're going to use this week to get healthier, to get better, to improve and get a bunch of work for our young guys."
Stanford is enjoying another highly successful campaign, although the offense ranks in the bottom half of the Pac-12 in most key statistical categories. The Cardinal generate 389.6 ypg, failing to utilize the pass (193.2 ypg) to maximum effectiveness as both figures rank the squad 11th in the 12-team conference. Tyler Gaffney has been the one saving grace for the unit, as he ranks third in the league with 886 yards while tying for first with 12 rushing TDs.
Kevin Hogan is a 61 percent passer who has thrown for 1,493 yards, 13 TDs and only five interceptions, and Ty Montgomery paces the receiving corps with 39 catches for 619 yards and five scores. Devon Cajuste has 377 yards and four TDs. Stanford has allowed a league-low nine sacks.
Much of the reason for Stanford's good fortune this year can be placed at the feet of its defensive players, as opponents are permitted just 19.4 points and 354.0 yards per game, both of which rank the team third in the conference. The Cardinal have been particularly stingy against the run, yielding a league-best 103.9 ypg and only five TDs. Pressure at the point of attack has been paramount, as the unit has posted 27 sacks, tied for second-most in the Pac-12.
Shayne Skov is Stanford's leading tackler with 63, while A.J. Tarpley is hot on his heels with 61. Trent Murphy has been a man possessed from his linebacker spot, and he has logged 9.5 sacks, while Jordan Richards has three interceptions.
Gaffney was once again the offensive star in Stanford's recent win over Oregon State, as he rushed for 145 yards and three TDs. Hogan completed only 8-of-18 passes for 88 yards, the Cardinal finishing with only 276 total yards.
Despite keeping possession of the ball for 38:33, the Beavers didn't fare much better than Stanford in terms of yardage (288), and they were stymied to the tune of 17 net rushing yards on 24 attempts. Tarpley tallied a game-high 13 tackles, while Murphy made 3.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, the Cardinal being credited with a total of 13 TFL.
Coach David Shaw liked the effort the Cardinal put forth in the win over Oregon State, but knows his club is going to have to be as its absolute best when it tangles with the high-flying Ducks.
"I'm proud of those guys. I'm already done thinking about Oregon State and the effort tonight, but it wasn't good enough to beat Oregon or good enough to be in the game against Oregon," he continued, "We have a bunch of stuff that we need to make sure we do in the next 12 to 14 days to play one of the best teams in the nation."
Stanford will do its best to control the clock by keeping the ball on the ground, but the key to victory will be whether or not the Cardinal defense can limit the big-play potential of the Oregon offense. Playing on the road is never easy, particularly against a very good conference foe, but in this case the Ducks will overcome that obstacle and exact revenge for last year's lone setback.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Oregon 35, Stanford 20