Oregon and Stanford grew into the premier Pac-10 (and then Pac-12) rivalry commensurate with USC's decline as the 2000s gave way to the 2010s. Marked by classic contests with conference, and sometimes national championship implications, the Ducks and Cardinal defined football out West.
The Pac losing some of its luster at the same time that the significance of the Oregon-Stanford matchup has lessened is no coincidence. The contrasting philosophies of the Ducks in Chip Kelly's hurry-up revolution vs. the Intellectual Violence Jim Harbaugh introduced to The Farm and David Shaw continued gave the Pac-12 identity and intrigue.
Oregon's climb back into the national spotlight over the last few years has not quite reached the heights of the peak Kelly years, while Stanford finds itself amid a slog that began in 2019 — though, more accurately, started with Bryce Love's injuries in 2018.
Still, there's juice left in the Ducks-Cardinal rivalry. Last year's shocker at Stanford that upended Oregon's College Football Playoff aspirations served as a reminder that even if it's a relatively new rivalry, the stakes increase when these teams get together.
Stanford at No. 13 Oregon
When Stanford Has the Ball
Beginning with the 2018 season, running the ball consistently has been a major problem for the Stanford offense. Although production still is nothing approaching the conference-best marks the Cardinal delivered when Bryce Love, Christian McCaffrey, and Toby Gerhart were contending for Heismans, Stanford's rushing attack has been far more effective through three games in 2022 than at any point since the end of the 2017 campaign with just under 160 yards per game.
Passing has been effective, too, with quarterback Tanner McKee ranking No. 31 in FBS with 271.3 yards per game.
So what's with Stanford's continued struggles producing points? The answer is twofold, including red-zone play.
The Cardinal went for 441 total yards in Week 2 against USC and converted 33 first downs, yet scored just 28 points. All four of their touchdowns came from inside the red zone, but the two opportunities that failed were critical. Had Stanford scored touchdowns on the two possessions that instead resulted in turnovers committed inside the 2-yard line, the premature championship parade celebrations some seem to be planning for the Trojans would have derailed early.
Coupled with a third turnover committed just beyond the red zone, the Cardinal let a more-than-winnable Pac-12 opener slip away. While not as damaging, another red-zone trip resulting in a turnover plagued Stanford early last week at Washington.
The second part answering the question looming of the Cardinal offense is turnover margin. Stanford ranks dead-last in FBS with an average minus-3.3 turnover rate per contest. Oregon's defense comes into Saturday's matchup even on the year with four takeaways and four turnovers, but much on the negative side came in a blowout season-opening loss to Georgia.
The Ducks finished plus-one in last week's comeback at Washington State, punctuated by Mase Funa's pick-six to cap the fourth-quarter rally. Funa's interception return answered one by Washington State earlier in the day, deep in the red zone.
When Oregon Has the Ball
Oregon's offense runs hot and cold. The Ducks were decisively cold against the Bulldogs, though plenty of credit for that goes to the defending national champion's defensive prowess.
Last week at Washington State, however, Oregon ran the full spectrum over the course of 60 minutes. A brutal three quarters of offensive football were encapsulated in Bo Nix's red-zone pick-six throw.
After that second-quarter miscue, Nix rebounded to throw three touchdown passes, put up 428 yards in the air, and added another 30 with his legs. His contributions to the run game complement a balanced look that split carries between Bucky Irving and Noah Whittington.
Stanford's defense has struggled in two Pac-12 outings with surrendering early deluges from quarterbacks Caleb Williams and Michael Penix Jr., then trying to rally after keying in. The Cardinal defense needs to find a way to force another slow start from Nix, and then stay on him. Giving up early deficits with the quarterbacks having room to operate has been Stanford's undoing.
As for the Ducks, Nix may be called upon to come out flinging long passes early in an effort to try and attack Stanford's tendency to start slow defensively right out of the gate. If Oregon can build an early lead it can use its ground game in the second half to try and put this one away.
Oregon can look like an also-ran or a team destined for Pac-12 title contention not just week-to-week, but quarter-by-quarter. Fortunately for the Ducks in this week's return to Autzen Stadium, Stanford is plagued with worse consistency issues.
Expect the Ducks to pounce on the Cardinal early and give themselves breathing room if Stanford gains any momentum in the second half.
Prediction: Oregon 38, Stanford 27
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— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @KyleKensing and subscribe to his newsletter, The Press Break.
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