New Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal brings a fresh approach when the Ducks host Stanford
Every Pac-12 Conference championship from 2009-15 went to either Oregon or Stanford. With the Cardinal's appearance in last year's Pac-12 Championship Game, either Stanford or Oregon has represented the North division in every title round but one since its inception in 2011.
Precedent then suggests that Saturday's showdown at Autzen Stadium comes with heavy implications. And, if history weren't enough, both teams sport unblemished records, Top 25 rankings — Oregon at No. 20, Stanford at No. 7 — and ESPN's College Gameday will be in town to showcase the matchup.
It feels just like old times between Oregon and Stanford, but the 2018 installment of their burgeoning rivalry adds a new wrinkle with Mario Cristobal.
"A guy who's been around a lot of football, around a lot of really good football coaches," is one way Stanford head coach David Shaw describes Cristobal. Cristobal is Oregon's fourth head coach in Shaw's tenure at Stanford, and that background with other great coaches inserts an intriguing dynamic differentiating this Ducks team from past versions.
This season marks the first with Cristobal on the sideline as Ducks head coach, who spent last season as Oregon's offensive coordinator after a four-year stint as an assistant on the staff of Nick Saban at Alabama.
Alabama's claimed five national championships since 2009, the same year in which Oregon and Stanford became the flag-bearers for the current Pac-12. Saban's teams in Tuscaloosa are renowned for their physically imposing style, particularly on the lines. This year's Ducks feature a deep rotation on the offensive front, with playmakers across like Jalen Jelks and Jordon Scott on the defensive line.
If the Crimson Tide have had a spiritual counterpart out West in the past decade, it's Shaw's Cardinal. Stanford's been something of an outlier, employing a huddle-up offense with a power run game, NFL-caliber linemen paving holes, and imposing its will on defense.
"A lot of discipline, massive guys, and they take a lot of pride in that," Cristobal said of Stanford. "Yeah, there's a lot of overlap to some of the stuff at my last stop, and certainly some of the things that we're implementing over here now."
Cristobal cited "a good amount of similarity," stemming not just from style but background. For example, Ducks defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt coached linebackers for the NFL's San Francisco 49ers from 2011-14 on the staff of Jim Harbaugh; Stanford's head coach before Shaw, and a colleague of Shaw at both Stanford and the University of San Diego.
Cristobal also came to Oregon on the staff of current Florida State head coach Willie Taggart, who was part of the regime responsible for transforming Stanford from basement-dwellers into perennial contenders.
The connections and some shared philosophies shake up the series in a manner that deviates from past seasons. What made the Oregon-Stanford series of this decade so compelling was the stylistic clash evident in almost every way, right down to the classic uniform the Cardinal wear juxtaposed with the ever-changing fashion trends donned by the Ducks.
How they look on the outside functioned as an avatar for the difference in on-field approach.
When then-Ducks head coach Mike Bellotti hired Chip Kelly out of New Hampshire in 2007, a move designed to give Oregon a schematic counter to USC's physical dominance of the former Pac-10, it forever changed the landscape both in the Pac and across college football. As other programs in the conference sought to emulate the Ducks' hyper-speed offensive style, Stanford's commitment to overwhelming physicality gave it a unique advantage that tripped up some of the most talented Oregon teams of the decade.
Perhaps the best of all those Oregon squads — the national runner-up bunch in 2014 — reached an apex from which the Ducks fell. The 2015 team had its moments, including scoring Oregon's last win over Stanford that effectively denied the Cardinal a College Football Playoff berth. But a 4-8 finish in 2016 and a midseason drought with quarterback Justin Herbert sidelined demonstrated that the program needed some revamping to return to the national conversation.
Losses of 52-27 and 49-7 to Stanford in the last two meetings underscore the dip in significance this series had endured.
Memories of what made the annual Oregon-Stanford matchup so significant are still fresh, however, and vestiges of the Ducks' place in the Pac-12 pecking order remain. Shaw said that while Cristobal's approach has introduced some new wrinkles on game day, the first-year Oregon coach's flexibility in the context of the Ducks' recent past stand out.
"What I appreciate about what he’s done is to be able to say, 'Hey there are things they’ve been doing here that work. Let’s keep doing those,'" Shaw said. "Now, you want to sprinkle in some of the things you want to see in all three phases."
In preparing for the Ducks, Shaw's found that what's new is old again.
"The problem I’m having is they look a lot like the really good teams we played up there," he said.
The Extra Myles
With his 143-yard effort at Utah in Week 3, Washington running back Myles Gaskin passed Ka'Deem Carey and Stepfan Taylor on the Pac-12's all-time rushing leader list. Gaskin, who already broke the program career mark, sits seventh in conference history with 4,326 yards. He will likely pass LaMichael James for third all-time by season's end — he needs just 756 — and bypassing Royce Freeman's 5,621 for second isn't out of the question.
"He's been one of our best players for four years. We learned that quickly about him as a freshman," said Washington coach Chris Petersen. "He just played at such a high level, even when he was younger."
Gaskin earned the role of feature back almost immediately as a freshman in 2015, and has manned it for three full seasons and change. Statistically, it's difficult to deem any one area in which Gaskin's improved; his season totals have been 1,302, 1,373, and 1,380.
However, Petersen said he's become stronger and shown improved patience as Gaskin has been in the program longer. His presence gives Washington something it can always lean on to deliver, as evidenced against a stout defense last week.
"If the guys up front can just get the play started, and keep guys covered, Myles is always going to get positive yards," Petersen said.
Jonathan Smith was offensive coordinator at Washington in 2015 when Myles Gaskin burst onto the scene. In his first season as head coach at Oregon State, Smith is overseeing a similar immediate success story with running back Jermar Jefferson.
The freshman Jefferson ranks seventh in the nation in rushing yards per game (130.3) and his six scores on the ground are tied for second among all FBS players.
"It was in fall camp in August," Smith said of the first signs Jefferson might be ready to make an instant impact for the Beavers' revamped offense. "We got into some live scrimmages, and even just some of the team reps, and he had some flashes. And you never totally know — games are different — but even in camp, I remember in the second or third week thinking, 'Dude, we've got to play this guy.'"
Smith and his staff made the right choice giving the freshman opportunities. As the Beavers begin Pac-12 play Saturday hosting Arizona, the challenge now is keeping defenses that have some game film on Jefferson honest.
"There are some really good coaches we're going to be playing here on the schedule, and they're going to be finding holes and way to attack and taking things away, so we have to be progressive in how we do things," Smith said.
In a word, the Pac-12 South's Week 3 was ugly. The division went 2-4 last Saturday, with wins for Arizona and Colorado coming against FCS competition. Meanwhile, UCLA was blasted at home by Fresno State; Arizona State's stay in the Top 25 was abbreviated with the Sun Devils' rally effort at San Diego State falling short; USC sputtered after building a 14-3 lead at Texas and gave up 34 answered; and Utah's 21-7 defeat against Washington put the Utes in a 0-1 Pac-12 hole, where it joins USC.
Colorado now sits as the lone Pac-12 South team with an unblemished record. The division looks no less wide open than it did before the season, however — perhaps even more so, given the uncertainty in which almost every team is shrouded. Because only USC and Utah have played Pac-12 games, the conference heads into Week 4 with four teams tied for "first" at 0-0.
(Top photo courtesy of @oregonfootball)