Last season's Oregon win over Stanford ended a five-year run in which the budding rivalry's victor went on to claim the Pac-12 Conference championship. Despite the loss, however, Stanford made it seven straight seasons with either the Cardinal or Ducks claiming the league title.
That run comes to an end in 2016. Stanford's visit to Autzen Stadium Saturday feels like the end of one era, and beginning of another. The Stanford-Oregon rivalry was only developing into one because of the lofty stakes involved.
Seven league titles, five Heisman Trophy finalists, four Rose Bowl Game trophies, two national championship game appearances and one Heisman winner combined to make this the preeminent game on the West Coast. This season, Stanford's looking just to finish strong and perhaps sneak back into the Top 25, while Oregon's out to salvage its very bowl life.
"We have no margin for error," Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich said bluntly following Oregon's 45-20 loss Week 10 at USC. And he's right. Oregon must win out to maintain its streak of bowl appearances, dating back to the 2005 season.
Stanford at Oregon
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 12 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Stanford -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Who Touts The Ball for Oregon?
Last season in Oregon's 38-36, upset win at Stanford, running back Royce Freeman averaged a robust 6.6 yards per carry. Freeman is once again the Ducks' leading rusher in 2016, but it's by all of two yards.
Youngster Tony Brooks-James stepped up with Freeman battling injury, and he took the field last week at USC as the starter. Brooks-James is ripping off nearly eight yards per carry for 597 on the season; Freeman's averaging 5.5 for 599 on the campaign.
Stanford's defense has remained stout this season, with injury-riddled losses to Washington and Washington State notable exceptions. Helfrich will have to attack the Cardinal defense with a multifaceted look. Freeman and Brooks-James should see a even distribution of touches to keep Stanford honest, and alleviate pressure on freshman quarterback Justin Herbert.
2. Keller Chryst's Big Stage
Keller Chryst took over as starter Week 9 at Arizona and had highs and lows. In Week 10 vs. Oregon State, he was steady, if not unspectacular, going 10-of-17 with no scores but no interceptions.
Against Oregon, Chryst will have an opportunity for his breakthrough. The Duck pass defense comes in ranked No. 120 in the nation, surrendering nearly 300 yards per game.
Last season, Kevin Hogan touched up the Ducks for 304 yards. While Oregon's run defense isn't exactly stingy — USC's Ronald Jones II matched a single-game touchdown high set 11 years ago for the Trojans just last week — the porous passing defense is an opportunity for Chryst to settle into his new role with gusto.
3. Coming Out of the Gate
Oregon's calling card was long its ability to deluge opponents in the first and often second quarters, building overwhelming leads that became like marching through quicksand for the competition. This season's Ducks haven't had much opportunity to do that, given deficiencies on defense and injuries on offense.
However, the Ducks' best hope for upset Saturday lies in their ability to perhaps build an insurmountable lead early.
Stanford slogged its way to a 26-15 win last week over Oregon State, scoring just one touchdown in the first half. While a couple of field goals gave the Cardinal a slight cushion, the Oregon offense is good enough that 13 points by halftime won't be sufficient, should the Ducks get rolling at all on offense.
Establishing the pace early is key. For Stanford, that means shutting down the Oregon offense on its initial few drives — something USC did successfully a week ago. Conversely, Oregon has to dictate a fast pace from the outset, mounting some touchdown drives in the first two quarters to put the onus on an inconsistent Stanford offense.
The stakes for this one are lowered compared to years past, at least on a national scale. However, Stanford has an opportunity to finish the regular season 9-3, and head into a bowl game with a chance at yet another double-digit win campaign. Not bad, given the Cardinal's struggles this fall.
For Oregon, the symbolic meaning of a bowl game remains attainable. More importantly, another few weeks of practice for youngsters like Tony Brooks-James, Justin Herbert and breakout defensive star Troy Dye is a step toward a potentially resurgent 2017.
Indeed, the stakes are high on a local level, including for Mark Helfrich. Defeating David Shaw's bunch for the third time in four seasons sends a message that, despite the backslide, it's only temporary. Oregon needs this win — but Stanford should prove too tough.
Christian McCaffrey is coming off his two best games of the season, with three total touchdowns at Arizona, and a season-high 199 rushing yards against Oregon State. Expect the momentum to carry over against Brady Hoke's defense, which is still desperate for answers.
The Ducks can and will keep it close, but scoring points on the Stanford defense is a tall task.