Pac-12 North rivals clash on The Farm
Every Pac-10/12 championship from 2009-15 went through either Oregon or Stanford. Heading into 2019, the three-year "drought," as it were, appeared in jeopardy. A veteran corps at Oregon invited talk of a return not just to the top of the Pac-12 but also to college football's upper echelon.
The Ducks can still reach the College Football Playoff, but they have to navigate uncharted territory. No team in the system's history has ever rallied from a Week 1 loss to make the field. Oregon opened 2019 with a neutral-site loss to Auburn in a game it dominated for a half but failed to put away despite multiple openings.
The closest any team's come to making the playoff after losing the opener was, coincidentally, Stanford in 2015. The Cardinal's hopes were dashed in a loss at home to — you guessed it — Oregon.
That 2015 Stanford squad was the last of three under coach David Shaw to win the conference. Stanford remained in the hunt in the three seasons since, winning a combined 28 games over that time, but the Cardinal come into Saturday's matchup in unfamiliar territory. A loss to the Ducks would make it three straight after lopsided defeats at USC and UCF. Stanford's never lost more than two in a row under Shaw.
Oregon at Stanford
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Oregon -10.5
When Oregon Has the Ball
Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert defied most expectations with his decision to return to Oregon for his senior season. Widely considered a first-round draft pick had he pursued the NFL in 2019, Herbert has played the best ball of his career in the first three games of his senior season. He's thrown 11 touchdowns without a pick, completed more than 73 percent of his attempts and averaged 8.3 yards per attempt.
A veteran and talented offensive line gives Herbert ample time to operate, and it paved the way for ball carriers Travis Dye, CJ Verdell, Darrian Felix and Sean Dollars to all post significant contributions. Verdell and Dye are the primary options in the run game, accounting for a combined 19.7 carries and 100.4 yards per game, but blowouts over Nevada and Montana allowed Felix and Dollars to show what they have to offer. The reserves are averaging more than 80 yards per game combined.
Oregon can grind behind that line, but Stanford has been most vulnerable to explosive plays this season. The Cardinal rank No. 116 in the nation, allowing nine plays of 30 yards or more to USC and UCF. The Trojans' and Knights' respective quick-strike offenses exploited the lack of depth and experience plaguing Stanford's secondary — a vulnerability Herbert is especially adept at attacking.
When Stanford Has the Ball
The absence of quarterback K.J. Costello loomed large in the second half of a Week 1 win over Northwestern, and again when the Cardinal mustered only three points in a critical stretch with three red-zone opportunities at USC. Had the talented Costello been available Week 2, those trips to the red zone could have produced touchdowns and made for a much different open to Pac-12 play, making this week's matchup much less critical.
Costello is back in the lineup, but Stanford is still without offensive tackle Walker Little. Having both at full strength also doesn't entirely compensate for Stanford's confounding lack of a run game, a problem that began last season when Bryce Love went down with an ankle injury. The Cardinal were a bit better in Week 3 at UCF, averaging 5 yards per carry after going for 3.4 vs. Northwestern and just 3.3 at USC, but the Knights jumping to a big lead early limited Stanford to 23 rushing attempts.
Freshman Austin Jones just might be the person to inject some life into the ground game. He scored a touchdown at UCF and averaged 9.3 yards per carry after rushing just twice in the previous two games combined. Stanford will have to get either Jones or veteran Cameron Scarlett going early to prevent a talented Oregon secondary from shutting down the Stanford passing attack.
With Little out, protecting Costello's blindside also become a major concern. Oregon's freshman tandem of Mase Funa and Kayvon Thibodeaux will be eager to make their mark on this Pac-12 North rivalry.
The final scores of Stanford's two losses suggest that this team is in serious trouble. UCF, which hasn't lost a non-conference game since 2016, delivered an undeniable punch to the jaw, but the Week 2 game at USC isn't entirely reflective of the score. If those red-zone chances become touchdowns instead of field goals, the tenor of Saturday's return home to The Farm is completely different.
Similarly, Oregon should be 3-0 were it not for red-zone misfires. The Ducks had a surefire touchdown pass dropped in the first half against Auburn and then missed the ensuing field goal. A botched exchange near the end zone denied Oregon more points. Such is football, and near-misses aren't weighed any differently in the loss column.
While Stanford is probably better than scores indicate, playing the nation's toughest schedule does it no favors. Oregon catches the Cardinal at a vulnerable time and is well-positioned to extend their misery.
Prediction: Oregon 35, Stanford 21
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.