Pac-12 pace-setters for much of the past decade meet again with high stakes
Autzen Stadium gained a reputation as one of college football's most intimidating venues at the height of Oregon's prominence this past decade. During that time, the Ducks' greatest competition came from the Stanford Cardinal.
Saturday's renewal of the budding rivalry marks a milestone in Oregon's return to the national spotlight, with the Ducks putting a Top 25 ranking and perfect start on the line against the No. 7 Cardinal in a game that could define No. 20 Oregon as a Pac-12 title contender in Mario Cristobal's first season as head coach.
Stanford at Oregon
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. ET
Spread: Stanford -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Bryce Love's back
Stanford coach David Shaw announced on Tuesday that 2017 Heisman Trophy finalist running back Bryce Love is "great" and "ready to go and fired up" after missing Week 3 against UC Davis.
The nature of Love's injury was never disclosed, though his sitting out last week was a precautionary measure. Stanford didn't need the explosive Love against an overmatched FCS opponent following what Shaw described as an especially physical Week 2 game against USC.
One of last season's most surprising developments was the immediate turnaround of Oregon's rushing defense. After the Ducks fielded one of the nation's worst defenses against the run in 2016, first-year defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt oversaw a dramatic improvement. Yet, despite the Ducks finishing 2017 ranked in the top 25 nationally defending the rush, Love still gashed Oregon for 147 yards on just 17 carries with two touchdowns in a 49-7 Cardinal romp.
Surely that memory's lingered for an excellent Oregon front seven, which includes playmakers Troy Dye at linebacker, Jalen Jelks at defensive end and Jordon Scott on the interior. They are the three pillars of a Ducks defense looking to make a similar jump under Leavitt in Year 2 as Colorado did in its second season under Leavitt. The Buffs finished that campaign as one of the best defenses in the nation.
2. Different paths to Week 4
Stanford kicked off its 2018 season with a pair of revenge games, beating San Diego State and USC by 21 and 14 points, respectively. Both were teams entering the campaign off consecutive double-digit-win campaigns, and while the jury's still out on the 2018 Trojans, San Diego State showed its worth last week beating a Top 25-ranked Arizona State bunch.
While the UC Davis game gave Stanford a tune-up opportunity against FCS competition, opening against a pair of consistently good, consistently physical opponents provided the Cardinal something of a measuring stick. On paper, it doesn't appear as though Oregon's first three opponents offered quite the same barometer of the Ducks' early-season prowess.
Oregon cruised past Bowling Green, coming off a 2-10 finish last year, and FCS opponent Portland State. Mountain West Conference representative San Jose State gave the Ducks a surprisingly close game in Week 3 that, despite an 11-point lead early, Oregon never extended beyond a 23-point margin.
"You get to play a lot of guys, so you get to make a much more thorough evaluation," Cristobal said. "It's certainly helped us out on special teams, where we felt like we needed some improvement."
Saturday's game provides an interesting comparison in how early-season scheduling might impact a team's preparedness for a marquee matchup. While Stanford has been in this spot early on this season, one edge in Oregon's favor is that the Cardinal have not had to go on the road yet. Autzen Stadium is as tough as it gets for a first away game.
3. Justin Herbert's moment in the spotlight
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert has a future in the NFL. Before then, he has an opportunity to be the face of the Ducks' turnaround. He took over as starter midway through the program's dismal 2016, providing the flashes of brilliance that Oregon needed in hoping that its dip was a short one.
Indeed, he led the Ducks back to the postseason in 2017 — and, had he not been injured, he might well have had Oregon right back in the Pac-12 Championship chase.
Now that he's at full strength after missing key games last year, including Stanford, 2018 is Herbert's opportunity to shine. He's up against one of the toughest defenses in the conference if not all of college football this week.
The Cardinal come in having allowed 10, 3 and 10 points in their first three outings. That's good enough for the lowest average yield in college football thus far in 2018. Veteran linebacker Joey Alfieri and emerging defensive lineman Jovan Swann have stepped up to power the typically dangerous Stanford pass rush. Herbert will need to deliver under pressure in what could be fairly deemed the most marquee game of his Oregon career.
From 2009-15, the Pac-12 championship always went through either Oregon or Stanford. While the past two titles eluded the Ducks and Cardinal, both look capable of ending the mini-drought this year.
Gauging where Oregon's at right now is difficult, given that the Ducks have played a lackluster nonconference schedule. Stanford, on the other hand, looked dominant against a solid San Diego State bunch and a USC team not lacking for talent.
Oregon has the talent on both sides of the ball to play with and beat any opponent in the Pac-12. Thus far into 2018, Stanford's looked like more than just any opponent. JJ Arcega-Whiteside has stepped up as a consistent big-play threat and added a new dynamic to the offense, complementing Bryce Love. With an offensive line that David Shaw grades at a "B-to-B-plus" in pass protection, quarterback K.J. Costello looks comfortable. It doesn't hurt that he has a diverse cast of pass-catchers to target.
Oregon must avoid turnovers, and it needs a consistent game from Herbert, who's completing fewer than 60 percent of his attempts through three games. While the Autzen Stadium faithful will make things difficult for Stanford, the Cardinal can respond.
Prediction: Stanford 30, Oregon 24