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Jaffe: Stanford vs. Oregon: the rundown

In 1997, 13 years ago yesterday, Stanford football outlasted Oregon 58-49 in the most exciting game I had ever seen live. I was only seven at the time, tagging along with my parents at their reunion, but I’d had enough training in football-watching from my family to understand the game. (Dad, the brainwashing worked—I still love Stanford and football.) Both teams traded touchdowns, with Stanford’s Chad Hutchinson and Oregon’s Jason Maas and Akili Smith combining for 10 touchdowns through the air. Young, naïve me believed that I’d often see games with 107 points in which my favorite team came out on top. I miss that version of myself.

Fast forward to last year. I had experienced 12 more years of football, yet nothing had quite matched the explosiveness and emotional swings of that 1997 game. That all changed when No. 7 Oregon came to town. In a game that was more detrimental to my cardiovascular system than a year of the “Super Size Me” diet, Stanford held on 51-42 against one of the most potent offenses in the nation.

It was high-scoring (93 total points and more than 1,000 total yards). It was close (the nine-point margin of victory masked the momentum swings and general feelings of terror any Cardinal fan felt every two or three seconds). It was a major upset (Stanford was unranked and riding a seven-year bowl absence, while Oregon was considered a national title contender). It featured remarkable performances (Toby Gerhart broke the Stanford record for rushing yards in a game with 223). It was the Cardinal’s coming-out party (it brought Stanford national attention, made Stanford bowl-eligible for the first time since 2001 and put Stanford into the national rankings for the first time in years). Quite frankly, it was the best game I’ve ever seen.

Why do I bring up two exciting Stanford-Oregon football games, you ask? Well, if you actually need to ask that question, you must live somewhere devoid of football (and therefore happiness). This Saturday, Stanford and Oregon will face off yet again, but this matchup could be the Cardinal’s most important game since the 2000 Rose Bowl. Oregon is the No. 4 team in the country and one of the fastest and scariest teams in all of college football. Stanford has coasted through four easy victories, propelling the Cardinal to No. 9 in the country, its best mark since 1992.

The game is so important that ESPN moved the game from 8:15 p.m. to 5 p.m. and from its own channel to ABC in order to draw more viewers, particularly on the East Coast. ESPN is also filming College GameDay live from Eugene on Saturday, which is slightly surprising considering Alabama-Florida and Texas-Oklahoma will take place on the same day. So what can we expect from this game?

It’s the Pac-10 game of the year…for now. Most of the media are billing this game as the most important Pac-10 contest of the season. It sure looks like it, as both teams are in the top 10 and both have a legitimate shot at conference and national titles if they win. On the other hand, last year’s “Pac-10 game of the year” was Oregon-USC, but that turned into a blowout and didn’t end up having nearly as much of an impact on the conference as Oregon-Arizona or Oregon-Oregon State. So get excited for this game, but remember there are seven games on the schedule after this one.

Replacements will play a role. Each team in this game returns the majority of its key playmakers from last year. The main exceptions are Toby Gerhart, who left Stanford to make millions in the NFL, and Jeremiah Masoli, who left Oregon to avoid NCAA backlash and to lose to Jacksonville State. Gerhart was the best running back in the nation last year (say what you will about the Heisman, but he did win the Doak Walker Award), and Masoli was expected to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country this year. Their successors will have big shoes to fill, and just how big their feet are (the metaphor can only go so far) will play a big part in determining Saturday’s winner.

Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas has been solid, if unspectacular, while leading the high-powered Oregon offense. He has been at the helm of an offense that leads the nation in scoring, so he is clearly doing well. But it remains to be seen how Thomas will perform if or when he is asked to win the game himself, rather than relying on his stellar skill position players, especially LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner.

Stanford’s running game has handled the loss of Toby Gerhart well so far by using the rarely successful backfield-by-committee. It seems to be working for the Cardinal, though, as Stanford is averaging 223 rushing yards per game, which trails only Oregon in the Pac-10. Still, the Oregon defense will provide quite a test, so the ability of Stepfan Taylor and Co. to step up will be a major factor in Stanford’s success.

The old adages will apply. One of the most widely used clichés in football is that winners run and stop the run. In big games, this does seem to hold true, and both of these teams embody that mantra. The Oregon spread rushing attack could very well be the best in the country, racking up over 320 yards per game despite its best back, James, missing the first game of the season. Stanford has greatly improved at stopping the run, ranked 34th in run defense. This ranking vastly underestimates the performance of the defense, though, because most of those yards came against backups after the games were more or less decided. The Cardinal defense came up big against the best running team it has seen so far, the 15th-ranked Wake Forest rushing offense, but Oregon is a whole different animal.

On the other side of the ball, Stanford’s collection of running backs has adequately kept Andrew Luck from having to shoulder the offensive load alone. Stepfan Taylor, Tyler Gaffney, Jeremy Stewart, Usua Amanam, Anthony Wilkerson, Owen Marecic and Luck have combined to keep defenses off-balance, and Stanford could need any or all of them in order to crack Oregon’s underrated defense. The Cardinal does have the luxury of one of the best offensive lines in the nation, but it will be up against the best defensive front it has seen all year.

Who’s overrated? The statistics of both teams have been Madden-like through the first third of the season, but neither team has faced a legitimate test yet. Stanford’s only road games have been against the then-hapless (and pre-Longhorn-slaying) UCLA Bruins and the perennially overrated Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Neither team or stadium can compare to Oregon and Autzen Stadium, so Stanford could be in for a rude awakening under the lights on Saturday.

On the other hand, Oregon could be ill-prepared for its toughest game of the season. Oregon breezed through its first three games before getting its money’s worth against Arizona State last weekend. The Ducks were outplayed through most of the game and gave up 600 yards of total offense—more than they had given up all season—to a decent Arizona State offense. The saving grace for Oregon’s defense was the ball-handling of Arizona State, because the Sun Devils’ seven turnovers cost them the game. Stanford’s offense, which has only five turnovers total in four games, is unlikely to be so generous with the football, so Oregon might have its hands full with the No. 4 scoring offense in the country.
Most likely, neither of these teams will disappoint, and the game could end up being a classic. The pollsters predict it will be a close game, with the spread favoring Oregon by a touchdown

Who will win? Well, for that you’ll have to wait for our predictions in Friday’s paper and for the game on Saturday night.

Jacob Jaffe isn’t going to tell you anything about who’s injured this week. Start drawing the Harbaugh comparisons at jwjaffe@stanford.edu.