By Daniel Wu
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.
An undefeated Oregon juggernaut bound for the national championship runs into a dogged Stanford team and somehow, shockingly, suffers its first defeat of the season, breaking the hearts of Ducks fans and dashing the Pac-12’s postseason hopes.
The incredible upsets that Stanford claimed in 2012 and 2013 feel like a long time ago now. Gone are the days when ranked Stanford and Oregon teams fielded Heisman winners (or deserving Heisman winners) and traded body blows on national television to derail each others’ seasons.
“That rivalry was great, and I believe it’s still here,” said head coach David Shaw on Tuesday. “They’ve won two in a row against us. I believe we won the three previous … it goes back and forth.”
Once again, this year No. 3 Oregon (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) looks like the easy favorite ahead of a showdown on the Farm on Saturday. But at least Stanford (2-2, 1-1 Pac-12) knows it’s done the unthinkable before. Still shorthanded, the Cardinal can seize control of the Pac-12 North and shock the college football world with a win. All they have to do is hold off the best team in the conference.
Can lightning strike thrice for Stanford?
Not unless the team can shore up a lackluster run defense that was thoroughly exposed by No. 20 UCLA. Stanford gave up 204 rushing yards in last week’s loss and just couldn’t get off the field as the Bruins steadily ran the ball. In four games, the Cardinal has allowed a stunning 5.2 yards per carry to opposing teams. That’s a recipe for disaster against the Ducks. Oregon running back CJ Verdell is the centerpiece of a well-schemed offense that put up 269 rushing yards on then-No. 3 Ohio State. And Ducks’ quarterback Anthony Brown is a running threat, too.
“Against good teams and especially good teams that will run the ball consistently, we don’t get guys down, and we make a couple of mistakes,” Shaw said. “We’ve got to get better there.”
Injuries for Stanford are, once again, a major storyline heading into the game. The most recently injury loss to hit the battered Stanford team is starting right guard junior Branson Bragg. Junior running back Austin Jones and sophomore running back Casey Filkins are questionable after missing the home opener against UCLA, as is senior linebacker Ricky Miezan. Sophomore running back EJ Smith and junior cornerback Ethan Bonner remain out.
On Tuesday, Shaw said that he wouldn’t report if Stanford players’ absences were due to the COVID-19 protocol. Last season, when QB Davis Mills ’20 was ruled out mere hours before the season opener at Oregon, Stanford Athletics announced that his absence was due to COVID-19 protocols. Mills’s test was subsequently ruled a false positive, and Stanford completed 2020 without a positive COVID-19 case in-season.
“If somebody does test positive, we’re not going to give him a hard time, and I’m not going to make him feel bad for it,” Shaw said. “This is just the virus — it mutates and spreads. So we’re going to do the best we can, just like everybody else in America.”
Sophomore tight end Ben Yurosek, fifth-year safety Noah Williams and sixth-year QB Isaiah Sanders are likely to return — a welcome boost, especially on offense, where Sanders’s short-yardage package is becoming a staple of the Shaw playbook.
But Stanford’s fortunes will likely hinge on Jones’s availability and the play of the offensive line, where junior guard Jake Hornibrook will move up to replace Bragg. The Tunnel Workers Union will square off against star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, who is returning from injury to headline a stout Oregon defense.
“He’s probably one of the best players in America,” Shaw said of Thibodeaux. “It takes a big effort to handle a guy like that.”
If the Cardinal run game stalls, sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee has the playmakers to keep up with the Ducks. McKee started slow against UCLA, but he ignited Stanford’s offense in the second half with 52- and 56-yard passing touchdowns. The matchup between McKee, who’s yet to throw a pick, and an Oregon secondary which has already grabbed nine this season could be decisive in a shootout.
The Cardinal will take the field in throwback uniforms on Saturday to honor the 51st anniversary of Jim Plunkett’s Heisman Trophy–winning season. History should be on Stanford’s minds as they look to topple another Oregon playoff run.
“I like some of the places we’re trending,” Shaw said. “Tanner has continued to grow. Our combination of receivers, tight ends and, when we’re healthy, running backs, I’ll put up against anybody in America.”
The Ducks, more than almost any other team in the country, will put that statement to the test. Stanford kicks off against Oregon at 12:30 p.m. PT. The game will be broadcast on ABC.
Per the new attendance policies of Stanford Athletics, spectators at Stanford Stadium will be required to present either proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test result within 72 hours of the game.