By Antonio Gonzalez
STANFORD, CALIF.: The matchup between Oregon and Stanford the past three seasons has been billed as the biggest game of the year on the West Coast, a de facto Pac-12 title game and national semifinal.
What it also has been is a spoiler.
In each of the past three years, the loser was handed its only regular-season defeat and would’ve surely played in the BCS championship game otherwise. The winner went on to claim the Pac-12 title.
The stakes are just as high this season. The stage is even bigger. When No. 2 Oregon (8-0, 5-0) visits sixth-ranked Stanford (7-1, 5-1) in prime time tonight, one team will announce itself as the best in the west and the other will watch its championship dreams wither away again.
Even the so-called smart kids are rearranging their schedules for this one.
“The people that I’ve seen around campus, they’ve all said, ‘I’m not going to class on Thursday at all. I’m getting ready for this tailgate,’ ” Stanford safety Ed Reynolds said. “The campus is excited. They realize what this game means to this campus and this school, and I’m expecting a nice little rowdy crowd.”
The showdown at sold-out Stanford Stadium sets up similarly to the one in Eugene a year ago.
Last season, the Cardinal outlasted the top-ranked Ducks 17-14 in overtime en route to a conference title and the school’s first Rose Bowl victory in 41 years. In the first 10 games before that contest, Oregon looked unstoppable, leading the nation with 54.8 points per game and never scoring fewer than 42 points.
That remains Oregon quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Marcus Mariota’s only loss in 21 starts. He has not thrown an interception since that game, keeping the Quack Attack moving at a breakneck pace under first-year coach Mark Helfrich.
The Ducks are averaging 632.1 yards and 55.6 points per game. Both rank second in the nation behind Baylor.
“When you experience [a loss], it helps you not fear it,” Mariota said. “There’s a lot of times when you go out there and you fear failure and that’s not how you should play football.”
Here are five things to watch when Oregon and Stanford meet tonight:
Stanford coach David Shaw called Mariota the best quarterback in the nation this week — a claim he also made last year — and even compared him to San Francisco 49ers star Colin Kaepernick. Mariota has thrown for 2,281 yards and 20 touchdowns and run for 587 yards and nine touchdowns this season. “You’re designing a quarterback,” Shaw said, “that’s what you want.”
Damaged defensive line
If Stanford wants to duplicate its performance from a year ago, it will have to do it with a reshuffled defensive line. Senior defensive end and co-captain Ben Gardner had season-ending surgery last week after tearing a left chest muscle. The other starting defensive end, Henry Anderson, will return after missing the last six games with a knee injury.
Do-it-all threat De’Anthony Thomas did almost nothing against Stanford last season. He was limited to 74 all-purpose yards and lamented not turning around and blocking a defender who chased down Mariota on a 77-yard run in the first quarter that should’ve been a touchdown. But that hasn’t stopped Thomas from talking a big game this week. “I feel like this team,” Thomas said, “we should at least put up 40.”
Oregon has obliterated every opponent it has faced. The Ducks scored 28 straight points after being tied at halftime against UCLA on Oct. 26 in their toughest test this season. Stanford, on the other hand, thrives on grinding out close games. Just like last year, the Cardinal believe if they can keep the game close in the fourth quarter, Oregon could crumble under pressure. “Take them to deep water,” Reynolds said. “You’re not going to be able to beat this team if you don’t take them into the fourth quarter and play the kind of game you want.”
Of all the surprises in last year’s game, perhaps the biggest was that it was decided by field goals. Stanford’s Jordan Williamson kicked the winning 37-yard field goal in overtime after Oregon’s Alejandro Maldonado missed from 41 yards. Williamson is expected to return after missing the last two games with a leg injury, but redshirt freshman Conrad Ukropina will likely handle kickoffs. Maldonado is 3-for-5 and hasn’t attempted a field goal beyond 38 yards this season.