Last season, it was the Stanford defense that had an answer for Oregon's ballyhooed spread offense. When the Top 5-ranked rivals meet Thursday in Stanford Stadium, the roles will be reversed.
Mariota was right and wrong. It was just one loss, from which Oregon recovered to rout Oregon State and Kansas State. It was also the last loss this program has suffered.
However, that championship game-denying defeat has loomed for 12 months.
The story's well-established by now: The 14 points Stanford limited Oregon to in last year's overtime Cardinal win was the fewest since the first game of the Chip Kelly era. Stanford did what no other defense could, making first-year Mariota look like a freshman.
The Cardinal frustrated Mariota and the Ducks offense with a methodical approach. They didn't try to chase down Mariota or running backs Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas in the backfield, instead playing parallel to keep them from exploding off the edges.
Stanford's strategy resulted in minimal gains for the Ducks. Aside from Mariota's 77-yard rush in the first quarter, just about every Oregon run was a small pickup.
Stanford also allowed Mariota to complete passes—21 of them. And like the Ducks' carries, they went for minimal gains. Mariota averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt.
Put it this way: If Oregon's offense is playing Xbox, Stanford's defense is reading Tolstoy. Or maybe Orson Scott Card.
Linebacker Shayne Skov drew the parallel of the Cardinal defense as the titular character from the 1985 novel-turned-2013-film Ender's Game:
Oregon preferred a game plan built on instant gratification: One play for big yards and quick points. When that didn't work, the Ducks panicked.
This is a much more patient team, a trait it demonstrated in its Week 9 win over UCLA.
The Bruins linebackers corps is that rare unit on par with Stanford's. UCLA had the speed and athleticism to match Oregon on the outside and, as a result, forced a low-scoring halftime tie.
Head coach Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost adjusted at intermission by using the Bruins' aggression against them.
Oregon's blockers ushered UCLA's defenders into over-pursuit, which running back Byron Marshall exploited, bursting up the middle.
Beating Stanford's defense starts and ends with the maturation of Mariota. In the year since he last saw the Cardinal, Mariota has developed into a more effective passer.
His ability to complete passes of 10-15 yards against the Cardinal is crucial to opening the field for those Marshall and Thomas Tyner carries.
While the 5.6 yards per attempt against Stanford was a low, his season average of 7.97 wasn't much higher. Mariota is averaging 10.1 yards an attempt this season.
He isn't looking to the immediate pass on the perimeter. Mariota has developed chemistry with explosive wide receiver Bralon Addison that gives the Ducks an element to their passing attack missing since Jeff Maehl left the program after the 2010 campaign.
Addison is the big-play threat in the receiving game Oregon was lacking a season ago. It may take patience for Mariota and Oregon to find one of those breakout plays, but it could be the difference-maker the Ducks lacked in last year's loss.
And if it hits, the defining defeat of a year ago will be the defining win of this season.
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