Oregon has been among college football's most successful football programs over the last half-decade, but in the past two seasons the Ducks have had competition for Pac-12 supremacy in North Division-rival Stanford. With championship-denying losses in each of their last two meetings, the Ducks must overcome the Cardinal's stingy defense to return to the pinnacle of the conference in 2014.
Oregon will face plenty of hurdles well before its date with Stanford. For a third straight year, the teams play in November, this time at Autzen Stadium. In the two months prior to their Nov. 1 encounter, the Ducks travel to upstart UCLA, which will look to make its mark in a high-profile conference matchup.
The Ducks also host Rose Bowl champion Michigan State, which beat Stanford at its own game in January. The Spartans present Oregon with a game plan similar to that which the Cardinal used the last two seasons.
But while facing a familiar philosophy might be a barometer of how well adjusted Oregon is to Stanford's style, it isn't the same as beating Stanford, which head coach Mark Helfrich explained.
"[A] lot of teams have played us very similar to how they did and there have been different results," he said in his postgame press conference following last November's loss, per GoStanford.com.
So what is it about Stanford specifically that has vexed Oregon?
Former defensive coordinator Derek Mason crafted the perfected counter to the zone-read spread offense. Mason detailed portions of his game plan to Sports Illustrated last summer, and laid out one key in particular that explains the Cardinal's success against Oregon.
"Our goal is to stop the run and defend the pass," Mason said. "You can’t stop everything. But if they can run, that sets up the play-action pass, and they’re rolling at that point."
Oregon is a running team first and Stanford effectively contained the rush in the last two matchups. In 2012, the Ducks went for 198 yards—respectable to be sure, but 75 below the Ducks' season average.
In last year's meeting, the Cardinal took it to another level. Oregon could muster just 62 yards on 24 carries, an average of just 2.6 yards per attempt.
Of course, scheme only goes so far without the players capable of implementing it, and Stanford had them throughout all positions. The Cardinal linebackers in particular made life difficult for the Ducks skill-position players.
With Shayne Skov keying the defense, the Cardinal negated Oregon's speed by overpowering the ball-carriers and denying the Ducks the openings their spread created against virtually every other opponent for much of the last five years.
Stanford is undergoing changes this offseason.
Mason left for the head coaching position at Vanderbilt, leaving his former colleague and outside linebackers coach Lance Anderson in charge of the defense. The Cardinal are also replacing linebackers Skov and Trent Murphy, safety Ed Reynolds and others. In fact, only Arizona State loses more starting defenders among Pac-12 teams.
Conversely, Oregon returns a veteran offense—though some are winless against Stanford in their brief collegiate careers, and 2014 may be their last opportunity to cut down the Trees.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota will leave Oregon as one of the program's all-time great quarterbacks. He could have entered May's NFL draft after two stellar seasons, but opted to return for a third year running the Ducks offense. His departure after the 2014 season seems inevitable, and if that's the case, this November is one last opportunity to erase the bad memories of the previous two.
"You know, it ain't over. It happens. We're going to come back stronger than ever," he said after last season's meeting, per GoStanford.com.
Mariota was hindered by a left knee injury down the stretch of 2013, and Stanford took advantage.
Though solving Stanford's defensive riddle is seemingly the primary obstacle for Oregon—and it is indeed paramount—this divisional matchup should also reveal the strides of the Ducks defense under first-year coordinator and longtime assistant Don Pellum.
During its two-year reign as the Pac-12 champion, spread offensive teams have not been Stanford's weakness. Rather, the Cardinal struggle with stout defenses that limit the run and can create turnovers.
Pellum told GoDucks.com's Rob Moseley upon his hire in January that Oregon has "got to push more weight," (get physically stronger) in order to stop opponents at the point of attack. Stanford has featured one of the Pac-12's biggest and strongest offensive lines over recent years, and with Andrus Peat and Kyle Murphy as anchors, will continue to do so next season despite losing guard David Yankey.
The Ducks' strength training now will be crucial to their performance in the season. Likewise, their performance against Stanford is critical to their championship goals.
Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.