By George Chen
Something doesn’t feel right in college football right now.
For the first time in four years, Stanford and Oregon will square off against each other in a game where both teams aren’t ranked in the top 14. For the first time in four years, Stanford-Oregon isn’t the epicenter of the college football world. For the first time in four years, Stanford-Oregon in November doesn’t feel like a de facto national championship semifinal game.
But even though the impending showdown has lost some of its luster, one undeniable fact remains unchanged: The winner on Saturday will secure the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 North race. And not unlike two years ago, unranked Stanford (5-3, 3-2 Pac-12) sneaks into Autzen Stadium hoping to play spoiler to No. 5 Oregon’s (7-1, 4-1) national title hopes.
You might think that seven and a half quarters of complete dominance by Stanford’s defense in its last two games against the high-octane Ducks offense would put head coach David Shaw more at ease. It hasn’t though, not when Oregon can turn a tight game into a 20-point blowout in the blink of an eye (just ask Michigan State), and certainly not when they have a quarterback named Marcus Mariota.
“Two years ago, the first time I saw Mariota, I said, ‘Here’s the combination of Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck,’ ” Shaw said. “You can see him go through his progressions — a lot of spread guys don’t go through their progressions…In the last couple years, he’s been the best player in college football.”
In the offseason, Mariota said there was unfinished business left for him to take care of in his senior campaign. He was referring to winning a Pac-12 title and claiming a national championship berth, which, of course, meant that he had to fix Oregon’s Stanford problem. The statement closely resembled what came out of Matt Barkley’s mouth two years ago — and Cardinal fans certainly have fond memories of keeping that business unfinished.
There’s one problem for Stanford this time around, though: Mariota is much, much better than Barkley. The current leader in the Heisman race, Mariota has completed nearly 70 percent of his passes for 2,283 yards and boasts an unearthly 24-1 touchdown-interception ratio.
“Mariota is one of, if not the most, versatile weapons we’ll play this year or we’ve had played,” said fifth-year senior inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley. “He’s an experienced guy, too. A lot of guys look at his athleticism and kind of downplay everything else as far as his pocket passing and game management, but he’s very well-rounded.”
Containing Mariota is by itself a challenge of Shakespearean proportions, but Stanford’s defense will also have to deal with freshman sensation Royce Freeman, Oregon’s top running back who has averaged 93.5 rushing yards per game and found the endzone 13 times this season. Carrying a 6-foot, 229-pound frame, Freeman isn’t the typical running back that you are used to seeing from Oregon. His 4.58 40-speed may not seem impressive stacked up against past Ducks backs like LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, but his ability to run over defender equips Oregon’s offense with a new kind of weapon.
“When you watch [Freeman] on film, you see him lower his pads and deliver the blow,” Tarpley said. “Those are the types of [running] backs that you respect. You respect playing against them, you like playing against them. It should be a physical matchup.”
On the other side of the ball, it’s hard to gauge which team has the upper hand. The image of running back Tyler Gaffney carrying the ball 45 times and dragging Ducks defenders with him yards after yards last year is still firmly ingrained in the minds of Stanford fans. Whether fair or not, the notion of Oregon’s softness in the trenches dominated last year’s postgame chatter. Much has changed in one year, though. It’s no secret that Stanford’s power running game is not what it used to be, and if the Cardinal wants to see any success on the ground on Saturday, they’ll probably have to draw up some creative runs to the outside.
Oregon’s defense has also been erratic. Against the Spartans back in September, the Ducks defense looked porous for three quarters but then clamped down in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. One matchup between Stanford’s offense and Oregon’s defense that fans on both sides should pay attention to is the third-down battle. Stanford’s offense has been awful on third downs this year, ranked second-to-last in the Pac-12 with a 38.6 percent conversion rate. But not to be outdone, Oregon’s third-down defense is ranked last in the conference by allowing opponents to convert 47 percent of the time. Finding a way to convert manageable third downs will rest on the shoulders of senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, who, as you may remember, played his first career road game at Autzen Stadium two years ago and somehow started the game 12-of-13 passing.
“I wouldn’t say [Oregon’s defense has] changed very much,” Shaw said. “I know there was a lot of talk of a concerted talk to get stronger and more physical as a football team, and I look at them, and they’ve always been long, they’ve always been strong.”
Saturday’s Pac-12 showdown is slated for a 4:30 kickoff time, with national television coverage on FOX.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.