The last couple years there has been one game each season that stood in the way of Oregon's national title hopes. In 2011 it was the USC Trojans at home. In 2012 the Stanford Cardinal beat the Ducks in Autzen. Both games were full of opportunities for Oregon to take hold and get a win but for one reason or another. Let's stick with the Stanford game last season.
Oregon's Marcus Mariota had his only game where he appeared mortal against Stanford. His QBR rating was 44.9. For the QBR statistic 50 is average and 100 is perfect. This season Mariota has been in the upper-90's for almost every game.
While Oregon did average 5 yards a carry, they only amassed 198 yards on the day and 77 of those came on Mariota's single run that would've been a touchdown if De'Anthony Thomas had slowed down and threw one block.
The offensive line was very hit or miss. Sometime holes would be opened big enough for a truck to get through but I had also never seen so many opposing jerseys in the backfield before, essentially disrupting Oregon's play and causing either no gain or a loss of yardage.
On the other hand, Stanford did play very well at times. The defensive line took advantage of sloppy double-team blocks by Oregon's offensive line. The defensive line was also rarely pushed back. Linebackers pursued ball carriers aggressively while not losing gap discipline.
Oregon's defense played spectacular last year holding Stanford to 14 points in regulation and forcing three turnovers. In a lot of ways Oregon's defense hasn't been a story in the buildup for the matchup Thursday night because Oregon's defense appears to have gotten better while Stanford's offense appears to have gotten slightly worse and infinitely more boring.
The bright side is that Stanford played near perfect last year and Oregon didn't play well and it took overtime to decide the game. I really expect Oregon to use a lot of passing to the sidelines and downfield in order to keep the Stanford defense honest before rushing and we probably won't see the play calling as stubborn as it was last season.
This game will be determined by the success of Oregon's offense. Will they be able to respond to Stanford pinching the defensive ends and clogging interior rushing attempts? Will the Ducks be able to effectively switch the key player being read on running plays to combat the predictability of where rushing attempts are going? Will Marcus Mariota be able to have a QBR somewhat close to what he's been posting all season?
At this point in the week the game has pretty much already been decided. Players aren't going to get better between now and game time. The strategies are already set and the responses to the opponent's possible strategies are in place. Oregon has shown a great ability to make halftime adjustments in every close game so far this year, so we got that going for us, which is nice.
The Oregon football team has, in a way, been a team from the future. I swear we're going to see an Ancient Aliens episode in 50 years connected to businesses and aliens and the guy with the crazy hair is somehow going to make a connection to Nike and point out the helmets or something were alien technology first. On a more serious note, the Ducks have been one of the first teams to make progressive moves as a program from uniforms to buildings to design. The innovation has been matched on the field by the increasing number of wins and success. The last of the lands left to be conquered is the national title game and beat Stanford is one of the teams in the way.
As stated earlier, the last couple years we've seen the Ducks spinning their tires in making BCS bowl games and not winning national titles. (Although, winning the Rose Bowl was one of the coolest things ever.) The only pitfall has been a regular season loss to a team Oregon was favored over. Mark Helfrich's pregame speech could start with, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends."
In games with so much at stake and with teams very finely tuned to their strategy it all comes down to execution. Can the players execute at a superior level to their opponent? Last year, Oregon self-admittedly didn't have the urgency. After re-watching last year's game some of the plays that killed offensive drives were small miscues such as penalties that created incredibly long third downs, incomplete passes to open receivers, and missing blitzes after simple stunts. I'd like to point out that Stanford didn't do anything crazy, they didn't create a blueprint, they simply had better fundamentals and executed much better.
Oregon's play on Saturday will determine if they can take the next step forward, play for the conference title, and possibly play to win a national title. This progress has to continue because it really is outside of human nature to remain stagnant. Things never stay the same. For the Ducks to improve they have one goal left.
We watch sports because of games like this. It is the constant struggle to achieve excellence. History rarely remembers those that were kinda close are had to say "almost." Things are always changing, for the good or bad. The best passage to describe the inevitability of change can be found in H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come. In response to concerns over the progress of humanity, lead scientist Oswald Cabal states:
...For man no rest and no ending. He must go on-conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time-still he will be beginning... If we're no more than animals-we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more-than all the other animals do-or have done. (He points out at the stars.) It is that-or this? All the universe-or nothingness. Which shall it be?