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Oregon Ducks vs. Stanford Cardinal Preview and Prediction

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Starting in November 2009 with a 51-42 contest, the annual Oregon-Stanford game has been the centerpiece of each Pac-12 season.

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The Ducks and Cardinal account for four Heisman finalists over four different seasons, one Heisman winner, two national championship game appearances, four Rose Bowl berths, and the conference championship winner every season since that 2009 encounter.

Stanford’s win that season is also the last time the Cardinal-Ducks winner didn’t produce the Pac-12 champion. This game has been a de facto title bout of sorts each year since 2010, and the stakes are no different when they meet again Saturday in the Bay Area.

“There’s a tremendous amount of respect we have for them, and I believe they have for us,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “Yes, we have different styles offensively, but the mentality’s the same... We both have high aspirations for what we want to accomplish, and we’ve both won a lot of games the last couple years.”

The Cardinal are ranked No. 7 in the latest College Football Playoff poll. While last year’s national runner-up Oregon is currently out of the picture, the Ducks can fight their way back into the conference championship discussion with a win Saturday.

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Oregon at Stanford

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV: FOX
Spread: Stanford -10

Three Things to Watch

1. Royce Freeman vs. The Stanford Run Defense

Oregon put up point totals of 42, 52 and 53 in games against Stanford from 2009 through 2011. The Ducks’ rushing yardage in those contests: 236, 388 and 232 yards.

Former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason devised a scheme prior to the 2012 meeting in Autzen Stadium, which keyed in on the running backs. The Cardinal invited quarterback Marcus Mariota to beat them exclusively, with their focus primarily on limiting ball carrier Kenjon Barner.

It paid off: Barner rushed for just 66 yards on 21 carries. Stanford successfully duplicated the game plan in 2013, holding Ducks to 62 total yards rushing. But last season, Stanford’s first without Mason, the Ducks tallied 267 yards on the ground. Then-freshman Royce Freeman led the way with 98. Freeman has now grown into a super sophomore, leading the Pac-12 in rushing at 1,287 yards with 11 touchdowns.

Royce Freeman’s one of the best backs in the country,” Shaw said. “He’s only going to keep getting better. He’s still young. He’s got a huge, bright future ahead of him.”

Shaw added that the return of quarterback Vernon Adams to full-strength from a finger injury makes defending Oregon all the more challenging, as Adams’ ball-carrying ability diversifies the Duck run game.

With linebacker Blake Martinez setting the pace, this Stanford defense is living up to the standard of recent predecessors. Opponents average just 3.85 yards per carry on the Cardinal.

“They’re really versatile,” Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said. “They mix-and-match some of their down-guys — three-down with two-down and one-down — and successfully integrate that into their base package.”

That flexibility allows Stanford to easily adjust to an offense like Oregon’s, which relies heavily on isolation and mismatches in space. Being able to neutralize such plays while also containing Freeman on power runs is Stanford’s defensive key to victory.

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2. Hogan the Hero

Stanford remains the pace-setter in the Pac-12 North and is still in contention for the College Football Playoff because of the heroics of senior quarterback Kevin Hogan.

Hogan shocked a sputtering Stanford offense to life on Halloween, rushing for 112 yards — most of which came in the second half — and two touchdowns to lead the Cardinal to a 30-28 win at Washington State.

Saturday marks Hogan’s fourth career start against the Ducks.

“He can go at any time as far as we’re concerned,” Helfrich joked. “He’s been fantastic. Two years ago against us, he played one of the best games I’ve ever seen him play.”

Helfrich is referring to 2013, when Hogan completed just 7-of-13 pass attempts, but helped fulfill the Cardinal’s mission of ball control by rushing for 57 yards on eight carries with a touchdown. Much like against Washington State two weeks ago, Hogan’s timely play-making transcended his final stat line.

Oregon must limit Hogan’s running lanes as part of an overall effort to contain the Cardinal on the ground. Northwestern, the only opponent to beat Stanford this season, successfully turned the Stanford offense into an almost pass-exclusive attack.

3. Christian McCaffrey’s Run at the Heisman

Stanford sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey first emerged onto the Heisman scene last month with a record-setting performance against UCLA. The Cardinal’s relative lack of high-profile games in the weeks since, however, has precluded him from jumping into the forefront of the race.

A prime-time kickoff on national, broadcast TV this week could change that. McCaffrey is the nation’s yards-from-scrimmage leader at 1,532, operating as a key cog both in the rushing and passing plan.

He’ll get plenty of opportunities to rack up yardage against an Oregon defense surrendering nearly 490 yards per game — the most in the Pac-12. The key for the Ducks is ensuring McCaffrey’s yards are empty calories. Oregon must keep him out of the end zone with a bend-don’t-break style, sprinkling in some three-and-outs here and there to give the defense an opportunity to rest.

The defense staying on the field too long was Oregon’s Achilles’ heel in previously losses to Stanford, and McCaffrey’s ability to pound away feeds into that strategy.

Final Analysis

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In some ways, this year’s Stanford team may be the best since the beginning of this friendly rivalry with Oregon. No, Hogan isn’t Andrew Luck, and the current defense isn’t performing at the historic level of the 2013 edition.

However, the sum total of the Cardinal’s parts make for a well-balanced team that is still imposing on defense, but has the ability to score in a variety of ways. 

Coincidentally, Oregon’s off to its worst start predating the burgeoning rivalry with Stanford, but the Ducks invading Stanford Stadium aren’t the same that lost 3-of-4 in September and October.

Adams’ return from a finger injury and the wide-receiving corps gaining missing players like Devon Allen have reinvigorated a previously struggling offense. The Ducks have the weapons to score some points on the Cardinal — the question is if the defense can contain Stanford.

McCaffrey brings an explosive element past Cardinal teams lacked. The result is a more dangerous Stanford offense than any since Luck’s departure, when games between these two teams were among the conference’s highest scoring.

This year’s installment won’t be a shootout in the vein of the 2009, 2010 or 2011 contests, all Duck wins. But the Cardinal won’t need to keep it in the teens or low 20s to win.

Prediction: Stanford 38, Oregon 30

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of CFBHuddle.com. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.