STANFORD, Calif. — Leave it to the Utes, a program known as a BCS buster before joining the Pac-12, to spoil the perfection party.
If not for Utah’s only conference victory of the season, tonight’s Oregon-Stanford game would have the feel of a national semifinal.
Despite a Cardinal slip-up in Salt Lake City, No. 2 Oregon at No. 6 Stanford is still being billed in the Bay Area as the biggest game in the history of Stanford Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:06 p.m. on ESPN.
The Ducks (8-0, 5-0), back in the No. 3 spot in the latest BCS standings behind Florida State, will be heavy favorites to win the North Division, host the Pac-12 championship and can RSVP “likely to attend” for the national championship game with a victory.
The Cardinal (7-1, 4-1), which is No. 5 in the BCS, even with the 27-21 loss to Utah on the permanent record, can repeat as North Division and Pac-12 champions with a victory. Either Alabama, Florida State or Ohio State would also have to suffer a loss for Stanford to sneak into the title game on Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl.
Win or lose, Mark Helfrich just wants Oregon to play like Oregon tonight.
The Ducks blew an opportunity to play for the elusive crystal ball trophy last November with a 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford at Autzen Stadium.
“They just didn’t get our best shot last year,” Helfrich said. “That’s something that when you look back on the film, especially from an offensive standpoint, we didn’t play very well. Certainly part of that is due to playing a quality opponent, but a lot of the things that we did were opponent-is-irrelevant type of mistakes.”
For example, Marcus Mariota’s last interception in the first half of last year’s meeting. Since the rare miscue, the redshirt sophomore has been on point with his decision making and enters the game with a Pac-12 record 293 passes without an interception.
“I just try my best to make sure we finish with the ball,” Mariota said of the streak. “It’s just really a combination of different efforts. The coaches have harped on us, ‘Take care of the ball, take care of the ball.’ ”
Whatever Helfrich, first-year offensive coordinator Scott Frost and the rest of a veteran staff are emphasizing in the post-Chip Kelly era, it’s working.
Mariota has ascended from Pac-12 freshman of the year to Heisman Trophy front-runner with 2,281 yards passing, 511 yards rushing and 29 total touchdowns (20 passing, nine rushing).
Byron Marshall, a player Oregon imported from San Jose, Calif., has produced five consecutive 100-yard rushing games since Pac-12 play began. Starting running back De’Anthony Thomas plans to play and help the Ducks score “at least 40 points” against Stanford’s defense this time.
“I think it certainly could have been phrased differently, but I don’t think he was even talking about Stanford, I think he was talking about being confident in his teammates more than anything,” Helfrich said of Thomas’ response when asked if the Ducks could be contained to 14 points again. “I’m sure Stanford is not losing too much sleep over that.”
Oregon ranks second nationally in scoring offense (55.6 ppg) and total offense (632.1 ypg). Undefeated Baylor, which hosts Oklahoma in a BCS undercard tonight, is No. 1 in these categories.
Of course, the Ducks were also flying high on Nov. 17, 2012, until Stanford’s unyielding defense held them 40.8 points under their scoring average.
“Obviously, in the back of my mind I’ve been thinking about that game a lot,” Oregon center Hroniss Grasu said. “Because as a competitor, we got outworked. … The offensive line, to make it simple, we just have to out-work them and do whatever it takes. It comes down to who wants it more.”
The Cardinal have lost defensive end Ben Gardner, a standout senior and a co-captain, to a season-ending left pectoral injury, but the team will welcome back senior defensive end Henry Anderson, who missed the previous six games with a knee injury.
Stanford will retire John Elway’s No. 7 during a halftime ceremony. The program’s current quarterback, Kevin Hogan, counters Mariota’s 20-1 record as a starter with a 7-0 record against ranked teams, including the victory in Eugene.
“If he’s 7-0, he must be really good,” Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said. “I think Stanford is a good football team. Period.”
While most Pac-12 teams followed the Ducks’ lead and developed their own spread offenses, Stanford has gone the other direction: lining the quarterback up under center, using two blocking tight ends, actually recruiting fullbacks and unleashing an old-school running, play-action passing scheme on smaller, quicker defenses.
Assembling a scout team for Stanford week in 2013 is as difficult as simulating Oklahoma’s offense in 1983.
“They don’t run the wishbone, but it’s like preparing for the wishbone. We don’t see this kind of an attack,” Aliotti said. “I think we’re built more for spread offenses. Stanford is really smart. While everyone has gone spread, they’ve gone the opposite way.”
Oregon ranks eighth nationally in scoring defense (16.9 ppg). Aliotti notes that his defense held Stanford to that average last year in an overtime game.
“If we hold them to 17 points like we did last year, I think I would be very pleased,” Aliotti said. “The way our offense plays, if we can do that again, I’d take it. I’d sign my name to that right now.”
Special teams is the phase of the game that has Duck fans waking up in a cold sweat when dreaming of this rematch.
The Cardinal is No. 1 nationally in kickoff return (29.4 yards per return). Ty Montgomery returned the opening kickoff for a 99-yard touchdown in Stanford’s 31-28 victory over Washington.
“A lot of teams on special teams you might have one or maybe two schemes at most in each phase,” Helfrich said. “They have a ton of schemes in every phase, and again, they have a ton of experienced guys. Ty Montgomery’s obviously a dynamic guy.”
Alejandro Maldonado would love some redemption after missing a 42-yard field goal wide right in the first quarter and clanging a 41-yard field goal off the upright in overtime in Oregon’s only loss last season. The senior placekicker’s missed a 37-yard field goal against UCLA 12 nights ago.
“I’m not stressing about it,” Maldonado said this week. “It is what it is.”
Oregon is an 11-point favorite in Las Vegas, which is news to Thomas as the Ducks attempt to win their 19th straight true road game dating back to a 51-42 loss at Stanford exactly four years ago.
“I don’t see nothing too special about this game. The only thing special about it is playing on Thursday instead of Saturday,” Thomas said. “It’s a great game for the Ducks to go out and pull an upset on the road.”