Possible bids for the Pac-12 title and the BCS championship game are on the line as the No. 2 Oregon Ducks face the No. 6 Stanford Cardinal on Thursday night at Stanford Stadium.
In 2012, Stanford thwarted Oregon's undefeated run with a 17-14 victory, while denying them access to a second national title game in three seasons and a fourth straight conference title. The Cardinal are also in line to repeat as Pac-12 champs for the first time since 1971.
The Ducks were leapfrogged by Florida State in the BCS rankings after the Seminoles handily took down Miami last week. Finishing the season undefeated in a tougher conference than the ACC, especially smashing Stanford’s 19th ranked defense, could be enough for Oregon to regain their status.
The Cardinal are fifth in the BCS rankings, just behind Ohio State. David Shaw's squad beating UCLA, Oregon State, and Oregon in three straight weeks could certainly pad their statistical resume.
A more difficult schedule awaits Stanford, meaning an upset over Oregon is only the beginning of a tough final stretch. The Cardinal meet new-look USC on the road, then end the season with a two-game home stand against Cal and No. 24 Notre Dame. The Ducks will have a considerably easier schedule after Thursday’s pivotal matchup, with two home games against Utah and Oregon State, and a quick road jaunt to Arizona.
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Heisman-hopeful quarterback Marcus Mariotta has led Oregon’s second-ranked offense with 55.6 points and 331.5 rushing yards per game. The electric sophomore boasts a 178.5 passer rating, fifth best in the country, as he tries to lead Oregon back to the No. 2 spot in the BCS rankings.
Also gaining 9.1 yards per carry, Mariotta squares off against a Stanford defense ranked first in the conference against the run, letting up 3.3 yards per carry and five total rushing touchdowns all season. The Cardinal are also tied for second in the Pac-12 with 27.0 sacks this season.
Where the Cardinal have shine on the ground, the Ducks' defense has taken to air very well this season. Defensive backs Terrance Mitchell, Avery Patterson and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu represent eight of Oregon's 13 interceptions, second only to Oregon State’s 15 in the conference.
The secondary could cause a matchup nightmare for quarterback Kevin Hogan and top receiver Ty Montgomery. Hogan’s tossed one interception in five of Stanford’s eight games this season, and Montgomery may have a greater impact as a returner, with two touchdowns and an average return of 32.5 yards.
With both defenses built to stunt each other’s strengths, running backs Tyler Gaffney and Byron Marshall could be the deciding factors.
Stanford senior Gaffney is third in the Pac-12 with 886 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, and has eclipsed the century mark in five out of eight games this season.
Marshall has only seven fewer yards and the same number of touchdowns, but has been a little more efficient with 6.8 yards per attempt.
The conference’s two best pass rushers will also be pitted against each other, and likely vying for the attention of NFL scouts. Cardinal senior linebacker Trent Murphy is tops in the Pac-12 with 9.5 sacks, and Oregon junior defensive end Tony Washington is second with 7.5.
Betting Odds: Oregon favored by 11 points
Over/Under: 61.5 points
Time: 9 p.m. Eastern Time
TV Channel: ESPN
Where To Watch Online: Watch ESPN here.
Prediction: Oregon 30, Stanford 17