The Pac-12 North title could be decided on Thursday night.
It’s rare to see a Thursday night game with national title implications, but that’s the case this week, as Oregon travels to Stanford for a Pac-12 North showdown. The Ducks rank No. 3 in the latest BCS standings, and a win over the Cardinal could be enough to push Oregon back to No. 2. With Florida State looking more and more impressive, there’s some pressure on the Ducks to win impressively.
However, Stanford certainly isn’t going to go quietly, as the Cardinal is still trying to keep their faint BCS title hopes alive. With one loss, Stanford has no room for error the rest of the way.
Although the national title is the No. 1 goal for both teams, the winner of this game should lock up a spot in the Pac-12 title game.
These two teams met last season, with Stanford winning 17-14 in Eugene. The loss knocked the Ducks out of the national title picture and allowed the Cardinal to play (and win) the Pac-12 Championship in late November.
Stanford owns a 45-30-1 series edge over Oregon. The Ducks and Cardinal have each claimed two out of the last four meetings. However, Oregon has won nine out of the last 11 matchups, including two by a combined score of 105-61 from 2010-11.
Oregon vs. Stanford
Kickoff: 9 ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oregon -10
Three Things to Watch
Controlling the tempo
The Ducks want to play fast, while the Cardinal want to slow things down. Which tempo will win out on Thursday night? In last year’s meeting, Stanford dominated the time of possession (37:05 to 22:55). Controlling the clock isn’t a necessity, but the Cardinal gained at least 30 yards in each of their final three possessions last season. Did Stanford wear down a defense that was depleted by injuries in the trenches? Oregon is in better shape in the injury department this season, and through five conference games is holding opponents to 131.6 yards per game. The Ducks are limiting rushers to just 3.4 yards per carry in Pac-12 action, and opponents have managed just four rushing scores. In order to Stanford to win, it has to establish the run and keep Oregon’s offense off the field. Running back Tyler Gaffney has three consecutive 100-yard efforts and averaged 7.8 yards per carry against the Ducks in 2011. Gaffney isn’t the only capable rusher for Stanford, as Anthony Wilkerson has 207 yards this year, and quarterback Kevin Hogan is a dual-threat option. Shortening the game by establishing the run is a huge key to Stanford’s win chances on Thursday night.
Oregon’s passing attack vs. Stanford’s secondary
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has been nearly flawless in 2013. The sophomore is considered by most to be the frontrunner to win the Heisman Trophy and has thrown for 2,281 yards and 20 touchdowns in eight games. Mariota has fumbled twice this year but has yet to throw an interception. The sophomore’s last interception came 293 attempts ago against Stanford last season. The Cardinal rank ninth in the Pac-12 (conference-only games) against the pass, but this unit has picked off eight passes and will present a challenge for Mariota and his receivers. Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards form one of the nation’s best safety duos, while cornerback Alex Carter is a budding star. The Ducks have six players with at least 11 receptions, with Josh Huff and Bralon Addison each averaging at least 16 yards per catch. And those totals don’t include running back De’Anthony Thomas, who has only six catches due to injury. Mariota is one of the nation’s most efficient passers, but this matchup will be his toughest test of the year. Stanford’s pass rush (27 sacks) will be disruptive, and top-notch secondary won’t allow Addison and Huff to run free.
Stanford’s defensive line
Disrupting Oregon’s offense starts at the line of scrimmage. The Cardinal are allowing only 85.3 rushing yards per game in Pac-12 action this season, but the Ducks’ bring an experienced (and talented) offensive line to the Farm on Thursday night. Stanford’s line depth took a hit with a season-ending arm injury to end Ben Gardner, but this unit should get senior Henry Anderson back in the mix. With Anderson, Josh Mauro and David Parry in the starting lineup, Stanford has more than enough talent to win the battle up front. However, depth is a concern here, and Oregon’s up-tempo attack can take a toll on opposing defenses. The Ducks average 317.2 rushing yards per game, and three running backs – De’Anthony Thomas, Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall – will see time on Thursday night. Will Stanford’s defensive line win the line of scrimmage battle? Or will the Ducks’ rushing attack get on track after running backs Kenjon Barner and Thomas recorded only 109 yards in last year’s matchup?
Key Player: Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
It’s easy to list the quarterback as a key player, but Stanford needs Hogan to be at his best on Saturday night. In last year’s matchup, he threw for 211 yards on 25 completions and ran for 37 yards. The Cardinal doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards, but Hogan has to eliminate any mistakes and needs to make a few plays with his legs. The sophomore didn’t play particularly well against Oregon State (88 yards), and a similar performance could spell trouble for Stanford. Receiver Ty Montgomery is a gamebreaker, but the Cardinal should regain the services of Devon Cajuste, who did not play against Oregon State due to injury. Having Cajuste back in the lineup will only help Hogan in the passing game.
Top-10 matchups (see Florida State-Miami) don’t always live up to the hype. But this showdown between Oregon and Stanford should be a good one. The Ducks have revenge on their mind from last season and have to win to keep pace with Florida State in the national title picture. Stanford’s offense will control the tempo early on, but Mariota makes a couple of key plays in the fourth quarter that propels the Ducks to a huge road victory.
Prediction: Oregon 31, Stanford 24