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Stanford vs. Oregon: Cardinal travels to Eugene to take on No. 2 Oregon in battle of Pac-12 heavyweights

Some sports rivalries are hopelessly lopsided.

Tom Brady faltered in the face of the New York Giants in both Super Bowls. Navy has fallen to Notre Dame in 71 out of the 84 football games that they’ve played against each other. The Boston Red Sox lived in the giant, inescapable shadow of the New York Yankees for 86 years. Matt Barkley hasn’t beaten Stanford, period.

Add one more to the list: Stanford couldn’t defeat Oregon when it mattered — not yet, at least.

Sophomore safety Jordan Richards has established himself as the backbone of the Cardinal’s much-improved secondary this season. He’ll need to be at his best Saturday, because when Stanford stacks the box against Oregon’s talented running backs, Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota will look to exploit the Cardinal through the air. (SIMON WARBY/The Stanford Daily)

Firmly ingrained in the minds of Stanford fans is the fact that the Cardinal has lost to the Ducks in eight of their last nine meetings. But it’s the most recent losses and the manner in which those losses happened that have hurt the most.

Two years ago, Stanford jumped out to an early 21-3 lead in Autzen before Oregon stormed back to hand the Cardinal its only misstep of the season. In between screaming his head off and standing dumbfounded on the sideline, coach Jim Harbaugh helplessly watched his offense get victimized by Chip Kelly’s defense in the second half. The sole loss was enough to keep Stanford from the conference title and a Rose Bowl berth.

Then came Andrew Luck’s shot at redemption. Surely the best quarterback in college football was going to lead the team past the pesky Ducks en route to a national championship. Surely LaMichael James could not run rampant on the Cardinal defense for the second straight season. Surely it was supposed to be Stanford’s year.

Only it wasn’t. After throwing his nail-in-the-coffin fourth-quarter interception, Luck slowly trotted off the muddy field, knowing that the national championship trophy would never be in his hands.

***

With just about everything on the line — from conference title implications to Rose Bowl aspirations to Oregon’s national championship hopes — three-touchdown underdog No. 13 Stanford (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12) hopes to knock off No. 2 Oregon (10-0, 7-0) tomorrow night. As if the game didn’t have enough of a David-Goliath feel to it, the Cardinal will have to pull off the upset in Autzen, where the crowd noise can grow so loud that the pellets on the turf start to shake.

“This is a different Oregon team now,” said head coach David Shaw. “These guys are special, and I agree with what most people outside the computers say: This is the best team in the country. And it’s going to take our best game and not their best game to pull this thing off.”

Unstoppable, intimidating and deadly are all words synonymous with Oregon’s offense. The combination of breakneck speed and perfect execution has propelled the Ducks to near the top in almost every offense statistic — first in the nation in points scored (54.8 per game), first in yards per rush (6.1), third in total offense (562.6 yeards per game), third in rushing yards (325.1 per game) and third in number of first downs (28.9 per game).

“We don’t talk about stopping [Oregon]; we talk about slowing them down,” Shaw said. “You can hold them down for a while, but eventually they’re going to crack a couple on you. … Our job is to limit the big plays, limit them to four to five yards at a time, don’t give them the huge pass or the huge run, and then we’ve got to score points on offense.”

“[Oregon does] this thing where they play close for a half and they just take off,” said nose guard Terrence Stephens. “It’s going to take our best game to win.”

Leading Oregon’s vaunted ground game is the speedy Kenjon Barner, whose 1,360 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns have placed him squarely in the Heisman conversation.

Sophomore De’Anthony Thomas, heralded by many as the fastest player in college football, has not seen as many carries as Barner this season, but his all-around explosiveness makes viewers hold their breaths every time he touches the ball.

That being said, the duo of Barner and Thomas will face the best defense it has played against in 2012 tomorrow. Stanford’s dominant front seven leads the country in run defense (58.6 yards per game), sacks (4.3 per game) and tackles for loss (9.1). Boasting one of the nation’s best linebacker corps in terms of talent and depth, the Cardinal allowed its opponent to score over 20 points in only two games this season.

The Cardinal defensive line must consistently penetrate up the middle if it hopes to slow down the Ducks’ fast-paced running game.

“A lot of people will attempt to play side-to-side, and that’s where you’ll get gassed, because [football] is not a horizontal game,” Stephens said. “They want to hit you vertically and score points. It’s important for us to get penetration and disrupt that timing. Defensively that’s what it’ll come down to.”

While Barner shined against USC three weeks ago, it’s star quarterback Marcus Mariota who has recently garnered attention. The redshirt freshman has emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the nation; ranked first in the country in efficiency, Mariota carries a 176.96 quarterback rating and a 70.1 completion percentage.

The young signal caller has been seemingly unflappable all season. Just last weekend, he appeared to have injured his left shoulder in the first quarter but came back in on the next drive and eventually threw six touchdowns in Oregon’s 59-17 blowout victory over Cal.

Shaw agrees with the sentiment of many Oregon fans, stating on Tuesday that “there’s no question” that Mariota is a better quarterback than his predecessor, Darren Thomas.

The Stanford defense understands how important it is to get to Mariota early and often.

“You’ve got to take a shot at the quarterback when given the opportunity,” said outside linebacker Chase Thomas. “Every hit adds up and wears on him by the time the game’s over.”

With Oregon’s reputation as a merciless scoring machine, it’s all the more important for the Cardinal’s offense to put up as many points on the board as it can and protect the ball from a Ducks defense that has been underrated for its ability to create turnovers.

“I always feel pressure to score a lot of points, but especially in this game,” said senior center Sam Schwartzstein. “We do feel [pressure] because if we’re ahead or behind, their offense can score at any moment. But we have the best defense in the nation, so we have to answer every stop with a touchdown.”

Quarterback Kevin Hogan will be making his first start on the road — in Autzen, of all places. Despite throwing two interceptions against a stout Oregon State defense last Saturday, Hogan moved the offense efficiently down the field for at least two quarters and also engineered the game-winning drive.

“[Hogan] has shown absolutely zero nervousness, anxiousness or apprehension,” Shaw said. “I don’t anticipate him taking any different approach.”

While the redshirt freshman will have to play even better against the Ducks, Shaw emphasizes the importance of not trying to do too much.

“You’ve got to be aggressive, but not enough to leave yourself vulnerable,” Shaw said. “The moment the offense thinks it has to do something special and gets out of character, the lead goes from 14 to 28 so fast. You have to know what you’re good at, and stick to what you’re good at.”

There are not many things Stanford can take comfort in going up against Oregon, but the Ducks are precariously thin and battered on defense. Free safety Avery Patterson is reportedly out for the season, while three defensive linemen — Dion Jordan, Isaac Remington and Ricky Heimuli — sat out against Cal. Backup corners Dior Mathis and Troy Hill also did not play against the Bears, and Oregon’s lack of depth might explain why De’Anthony Thomas was taking reps at defensive back in practice this week.

Senior running back Stepfan Taylor looks to capitalize on those injuries. Coming off a brilliant performance against the Beavers, the Doak Walker semifinalist needs 202 more yards to surpass Darrin Nelson as the all-time Stanford rushing leader.

The players don’t need to be told twice what’s at stake tomorrow.

“It’s one of those reasons you came to play college football at a big-time school,” Schwartzstein said. “It’s one of those things you dream about growing up. I think everybody’s got that feeling right now, that it’s going to be of those games they’ll remember forever.”

Stanford hopes to spoil Oregon’s national title hopes this Saturday at Autzen Stadium. Kickoff is slated for 5 p.m. PST, with national television coverage on ABC.

About George Chen

George Chen is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily who writes football, football and more football. Previously he worked at The Daily as the President and Editor in Chief, Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Sports, the football beat reporter and a sports desk editor. George also co-authored The Daily's recent book documenting the rise of Stanford football, "Rags to Roses." He is a senior from Painted Post, NY majoring in Biology. To contact him, please email at gchen15@stanford.edu.