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Oregon Ducks vs. Stanford Cardinal: Ducks face must-win in battle for crown

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Oregon heads to The Farm, three wins and two Stanford losses away from a return trip to Santa Clara.

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

If it sounds cliché, and a bit monotonous, to say we throw the record books out when these two team get together, well...you'd be right. Because it's not a rivalry built upon decades of hatred; these team are not bound together by geography, forced to wallow insufferably in a made-up Territorial Cup; they don't even have a stand-alone moment, one in which they are tethered together for.

Instead, Oregon and Stanford clash in a game that is built upon mutual respect and dominance. So, the records very much matter.

"We have a tremendous amount of respect for Oregon and I believe they have the same for us," Stanford coach David Shaw said.

As seasons change, and new faces line the jerseys, one thing has remained constant for the better part of a decade when Oregon and Stanford meet: The North is on the line.

This will mark the fourth-straight season in which one of these two team could represent the North in the Pac-12 championship game. The two seasons prior, when the conference was still locked down at 10 teams, Oregon won the conference title as well. To say they have dominated would be an understatement.

Entering the 2015 season, it was expected that Oregon and Stanford would again battle for the right to play in the Pac-12 championship game. The road there, however, has not gone as planned.

Picked by the media to run away with the North crown, Oregon stumbled early and often, the low-point coming in a double overtime loss to Washington State, which dropped the Ducks to 3-3. They had played a majority of their season without a healthy Vernon Adams at quarterback; their secondary, talented but green, was letting opponents do whatever they wanted; the program, it seemed, was on a downward trajectory.

Stanford, meanwhile, has been doing Stanford-like things. After an embarrassing opening-game loss to upstart Northwestern, the Cardinal have been nearly unstoppable, rattling off eight-straight wins, led by Heisman-candidate Christian McCaffrey, and forever-thorn-in-the-side Kevin Hogan.

Stanford was also expected to take a step back defensively, after an offseason where they lost a boat-load of starters. But, as in years past, they have simply reloaded, and are giving up just a touch more than 20 points per game.

"They have given up a few points situationally, but they are a really, really good defense. Really versatile, they mix and match some of their down guys. ... They always play a ton of coverages very well. They are solid technically and tackle well. It is kind of a rinse, repeat thing. Just different names on the back of the jersey."

Those jerseys have been Oregon's biggest Achilles heel over the past few years, and with a win Saturday, would officially end the Ducks bid for back-to-back conference titles. In order to survive one more week, here's three things Oregon must do to leave The Farm with a win.

1. Contain Hogan -- on the ground. Kevin Hogan, despite his reputation as a gunslinger, has actually given Oregon more problems with his legs over the years. His stats have never been eye-popping, but the timing of his runs -- and the quality of them -- have been backbreakers in the last two Stanford wins. Oregon's struggles on third-and-long have been mind-melding this season, and keeping Hogan contained in the pocket will go a long ways in helping secure an upset. It's expected that McCaffrey will get his yards; he's too talented not to. And if he picks up third downs, then Oregon can live with that. But having Hogan extend drives when the pocket breaks down can have a demoralizing effect on the defense.

Oregon's secondary showed signs of life against California, including a clinching interception for the third straight game. While Stanford won't spread Oregon wide like WSU, ASU or Cal, they will present a whole different set of problems: Blocking. Much like Oregon's offense, the Stanford receivers know how to block, especially when plays break down. If Oregon's secondary can get off blocks, and keep Hogan legs under control, they'll make life a lot easier.

2. Keep 2nd-down manageable. As Oregon was racking up a school-record 777 yards of offense last week, they did so despote facing numerous situations of 2nd-and-3rd and long. Too often, a bail out throw to Bralon Addison or Darren Carrington extended Oregon drives. That won't happen consistently against the Cardinal. While Oregon's run game has been on-point as of late, as in years past, it will be a struggle to gain traction in the running game.

If Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis want to make an impact this season, Saturday would be a great time for them to break out. Keeping in manageable situations -- less than five yards to go on second down -- will help keep Oregon's offense in rhythm, and the tight ends could be dynamic weapons in making that happen. For as big as Stanford is across the board, speed is still lacking, especially in the back seven. Want to open holes and create space for guys like Taj Griffin and Tony Brooks-James? Check down to the tight ends, put Stanford on their heels, and watch the whole offense open up.

3. Take the points early, no matter how they present themselves. We don't need to drudge up bad memories, but we all know what could have been if Oregon had any semblance of a kicking game under Chip Kelly. In 2012, one loss separated Oregon from a sure-fire championship game beatdown of Notre Dame, and that was Stanford. Now, the Ducks possess one of the most consistent kickers in the country, and an opportunity to do right by its ugly history.

Mark Helfrich has been masterful in his decision making when it comes to letting Aiden Schneider kick, and when to go for it. For all of Oregon's troubles in the past, a strong argument could be made that the issues were in-house; Oregon's kickers simply didn't have enough game experience, and when the lights were at their brightest, they weren't prepared. Schneider is 16-17 on the season, full of confidence, and could be a real weapon on Saturday. Oregon's red zone attack has been mediocre at best, and getting points -- any points -- will help stem the tide early, when emotions are at the highest. Oregon doesn't need to score touchdowns every time they have the ball; being smart, knocking in three, and living to play another series will be vital as the game drags on. Luckily, it appears they're finally up to the task.

Prediction

Oregon opened at 8.5 point underdogs, and have since seen that number jump to 10. It's been a quiet week in Eugene, too. Oregon, with three losses on the season, isn't doing much talking. There seems to be a quiet confidence and focus with this team...it's almost as if they know something we don't.

So...

Vernon Adams makes a very Adams-like throw late, making Oregon fans wonder "what if he had been healthy all year?" and Oregon sets up a huge showdown with USC. Stanford, meanwhile, heads into their final conference game against Cal with all on the line.

Oregon escapes 34-31 on, you guessed it...a last-second Schneider field goal.