Stanford faces its nemesis on Nov. 17 when it plays a road game against Oregon, the one team the Cardinal has been unable to handle in recent years.
There's a lot on the line this time, as unbeaten Oregon, ranked No. 1 in the polls and No. 2 in the BCS standings, can clinch a berth in the Pac-12 title game with a victory, while Stanford (8-2, 6-1) can assure itself a spot in the conference title game with a win against the Ducks and a victory in its finale against UCLA.
But the challenge is significant for Stanford. The Ducks' speed and fast-paced offense have made a lot opposing defenses look slow, but it has been particularly evident against the Cardinal. Speed is the one weakness of Stanford's otherwise outstanding defense, and the Ducks have been able to exploit that weakness like no other team.
Stanford lost only two regular-season games the previous two seasons, and both were to Oregon. Stanford was very much in the game in the first half of both contests, but the Ducks' speed took its toll in the second half of both games, which Oregon won by similar scores -- 52-31 in 2010, the last time the teams met in Eugene, and 53-30 last year at Stanford.
The Ducks are every bit as potent and fast on offense this season, leading the nation in scoring and ranking third in the country in rushing offense.
The Cardinal leads the nation in rushing defense, and Stanford's front seven is as good as any in the country. But do the Cardinal defenders have the athleticism to contain the Ducks' offensive speed? And can they deal with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who is coming off the best game of his career in the 59-17 victory over Cal on Nov. 10.
The only team Stanford has faced this season that has an offensive style and personnel similar to Oregon's is Arizona, and the Wildcats rolled up 48 points and 617 yards on the Cardinal. That was the only game in which the Stanford defense looked overmatched, and the Wildcats use the same type of spread option attack the Ducks do.
Furthermore, the Cardinal no longer has Andrew Luck leading its offense as it did the previous two years.
However, Stanford does have redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan, who will make his second career start against the Ducks. He has injected life into an offense that had done little under Josh Nunes. Suddenly, the Cardinal is moving the ball up and down the field and scoring points because it has a quarterback who can complete passes, create plays with his legs and generally energize the attack.
Plus, Oregon's defense is banged up, particularly along the defensive line, with a number of reserves forced to play prominent roles. There should be opportunities for Stanford to move the ball, especially on the ground, as Cal demonstrated in the previous game.
Whether a redshirt freshman making his second college start can perform well at noisy, hostile Autzen Stadium is a big question.
A bigger question is whether Stanford's defense can slow the Ducks' offense.
Rose Bowl possibilities still alive for Cardinal
--Stanford has outscored Oregon 73-59 in the first half of their past three meetings combined, but the Ducks have outscored Stanford 87-34 in the second halves of those games. The best example of Oregon's second-half dominance came the last time the teams met in Eugene in 2010. Stanford led that game 21-3 and still held a 31-24 advantage at halftime. But Oregon outscored Stanford 28-0 in the second half and rolled up 626 yards for the game. In each of the last two games against Oregon, Andrew Luck threw two interceptions that were costly. The Cardinal turned the ball over five times in last year's loss.
--Stanford could still get to the Rose Bowl even if it loses to Oregon. If the Ducks stay unbeaten and go to the national title game, the Rose Bowl would have the option of choosing another Pac-12 team for its game, provided that team is ranked in the top 14 of the BCS standings. Stanford is No. 13 in this BCS standings heading into the Oregon game, and whether it would finish in the top 14 with a third loss (assuming Stanford beats UCLA on Nov. 24) is debatable. The Rose Bowl also could pass on Stanford and take Notre Dame if the Irish are left out of the national title game. The Rose Bowl has been consistent in its loyalty to the Pac-12 and Big Ten, picking teams from those conferences whenever at-large selections were made. But the allure of an unbeaten Notre Dame team may be different.
--Stanford moved up two spots in both the Associated Press and USA Today polls, leaving the Cardinal at No. 14 in the AP and No. 13 in the coaches' poll. The Cardinal is in the AP top 25 for the 43rd straight week, dating back to Sept. 5, 2010.
--Oregon has scored 30 points or more in 23 straight games and 42 points or more in 13 consecutive games, both of which are FBS records.
SERIES HISTORY: Stanford leads 44-30-1 (last meeting, 2011, 53-30 Oregon).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Stanford's offense has improved immeasurably since redshirt freshman Kevin Hogan became the starting quarterback. He has completed 77.4 percent of his passes, and he has run for 113 yards. He adds several dimensions not present with Josh Nunes, most significantly the threat of running the option. Even the Cardinal running game is more effective with Hogan in there. TB Stepfan Taylor is averaging 106.1 yards a game, and the Cardinal probably has the best tight end tandem in the country with Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz. The Cardinal lacks receiving threats on the outside, and it does not have big-play weapons. Hogan's one weakness is that he has not yet shown proficiency throwing the deep ball.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Cardinal defense has been outstanding this season except for the Oct. 13 game against Arizona, which used its spread option offense and athleticism to create space and slice apart the Cardinal. The Cardinal ranks first in the country against the run, although Oregon State had some success running the ball against the Cardinal on Nov. 10. Stanford's front seven is among the best in the country, and its depth and talent at the four linebacker spots is unmatched. Stanford ranks 99th in the country against the pass, partly because teams seldom try to run, but also because cornerback is the Cardinal's biggest weakness. The Cardinal counters much of that with a strong pass rush. Stanford leads the nation in sacks with 42 (although Stanford's statistics have the Cardinal with 43 sacks).
QUOTE TO NOTE: "One thing about Stanford is, they'll be poised. They are kind of machine-like. They're not going to lose their minds or anything. But it's a big, big challenge." -- Oregon State coach Mike Riley, on Stanford and the Cardinal's challenge of playing at Autzen Stadium, considered the toughest football venue on the West Coast.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Stanford at Oregon, Nov. 17 -- Stanford is 8-2 (6-1 in the Pac-12) after a 27-23 victory over Oregon State, and Oregon is 10-0 overall and 7-0 in the conference after its 59-17 victory over Cal. Oregon has won the last two meetings between the teams and nine of the last 10. Both of Stanford's losses this season have come on the road. Oregon has won 29 of its last 30 home games, losing only to USC by three points last year.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Stanford must control the game's tempo and the clock by churning out long drives with a consistent running game and high-percentage passes. If the game turns into a shootout, Stanford is in trouble, because it does not have enough offensive weapons to hang with Oregon. Stanford cannot commit turnovers like it did last season, when it gave the ball away five times, three of which led to Oregon touchdowns. Defensively, Stanford must stop the Oregon running game -- or at least prevent the kind of long runs that hurt the Cardinal last season -- and hope Marcus Mariota does not have a great day. Specifically, Stanford has to prevent De'Anthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner from getting the ball with room to run because Stanford cannot counter their speed in the open field. In general, Stanford has to play its best game, and Oregon has to play less than its best.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
OLBs Chase Thomas/Trent Murphy -- Thomas and Murphy have combined for 24 tackles for losses (including 11 sacks), 11 quarterback hurries, six passes knocked down and four fumble recoveries. Both are capable of making game-changing plays.
S Ed Reynolds -- Reynolds has five interceptions, including three he returned for touchdowns, and he nearly had two more interceptions in the Nov. 10 victory over Oregon State. He is very good at anticipating passes from his center field position.
TEs Levin Toilolo/Zach Ertz -- They have combined for 66 receptions, 1,001 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. At 6-6 for Ertz and 6-8 for Toilolo, they provide big targets, yet have the speed to get downfield.
TB Stepfan Taylor -- Taylor is averaging 106.1 rushing yards a game, and he had 114 against Oregon State's strong run defense on Nov. 10.
QB Kevin Hogan -- He has completed 41-of-53 passes (77.4 percent) for 447 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions (one of which was tipped). He also runs the option well, can roll out to either side and throw accurately, and is innovative.
--TE Zach Ertz was named one of eight semifinalists for the John Mackey Award, which goes to the nation's top tight end.
--TB Stepfan Taylor was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation's top running back.
--DE Henry Anderson was named to the district first-team All-Academic team. He carries a 3.43 grade-point average in political science.
--S Ed Reynolds has five interceptions, tied for fourth in the country. He has returned three for touchdowns, which is a school record and tied with one other player for the most in the country.