Stanford football heads to Eugene, still optimistic with Ducks on the docket

Sept. 28, 2022, 7:46 p.m.

Week in and week out, the story behind Stanford football (1-2, 0-2 Pac-12) seems to be the same. And week in and week out, the odds seem to keep falling further out of the Cardinal’s favor.

After a confidence-boosting 41-10 win over Colgate (1-3, 0-1 Patriot League), it seemed like Stanford had history on its side with the potential to upset then-No. 10 USC (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12). Then reality hit. A 41-28 loss brought to light issues that lingering issues had carried over from the previous season, which the Cardinal concluded with a seven-game skid. But, a glimpse of hope emerged from that game with flashes of promise from the offense. With a bye week’s worth of preparation, an optimistic outlook seemed reasonable against a newly-ranked Huskies team. But once again Stanford’s on-field struggles, particularly at the line of scrimmage, brought hopes back down to Earth. 

The Cardinal have let up 81 points over the last two games. They hold an FBS-worst -10 turnover differential. The injury bug has once again hit the program, and with a full winter and summer schedule behind them, they don’t have anything to attribute it to.

“I feel like we aren’t where we wanna be right now, if I’m just being honest,” said fifth year safety Kendall Williamson about the secondary, who has conceded 325 passing yards per game during Pac-12 play. “Each of us as individuals and a collective would love to be playing better as a whole.“

The Ducks will be the third consecutive ranked opponent for Stanford. And across the board, their personnel present mismatches. 

The Cardinal’s offensive line, which gave up eight sacks against No. 15 Washington, is down three of their five starting linemen and will have to deal with the talents of linebackers Justin Flowe and Noah Sewell. Oregon allowed just 53 rushing yards in their conference-opener, and Stanford will be without starting running back junior E.J. Smith, who is now out for the year. And the Cardinal wide receiving core, whose size allows them to lean heavily on goal line fades and jump balls, will face its toughest challenge yet.

“Every single defense we play is gonna be fast, physical, have great athletes, play with great effort. Oregon fits all those categories,” said fifth year wide receiver Michael Wilson. “As far as the secondary, I think this is probably the longest secondary we’ll face in terms of length.”

But if there’s one matchup that warrants reason to retain optimism, it’s Oregon. Especially with last year’s win over the then-No. 3 Ducks serving as the latest of upsets in a rich Stanford-Oregon history, the Cardinal find themselves in a position to turn their season around and earn their first FBS win in 364 days when they defeated none other than Oregon.

“We always play Oregon tight,” Wilson said. No matter who’s up, who’s down, whether we’re a better team going in or they’re a higher-ranked team going in, it’s always gonna be a tough matchup. And both teams gotta scrap to win the game.”

For Stanford, the game plan remains simple: win the turnover battle. It has proven to be the difference between keeping things close and being blown out. This was most evident in the first half against USC, when two turnovers on the Trojans’ two-yard line turned what could have been a one-possession game at halftime into a 35-14 deficit. 

“Turnovers make an influence on the outcome of the game, as do big plays,” said head coach David Shaw. “And more often than not, we’ve been on the positive side of those against Oregon. It’s up to us to force that trend to continue.”

The Cardinal are one loss away from their FBS-skid reaching the double-digit mark, something that Shaw has never come near before in his coaching career. On the road and under the lights, Stanford’s outcome this weekend could prove pivotal for not only the remainder of the season and the team’s bowl aspirations, but for the makeup of the program and its leadership. In the meantime, however, Shaw has made it clear the team is only focused on one game at a time — and there’s a whole lot of season that remains.

“We’re one quarter way into the season, there’s a lot of football left to be played,” he said. “And our best football is still in front of us. We have not seen it yet. We haven’t shown it yet. And that’s our desire. That’s our charge, is to get the most out of this football team and play our best.”

Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. in Eugene, Ore. at Autzen Stadium.

Zach Zafran was the Vol. 262 managing editor for the sports section. Now a senior staff writer, he has previous experience reporting and writing with SFGATE. You can find Zach around campus wearing swim trunks no matter the weather. Follow him on Twitter at @ZachZafran and contact him at sports 'at'

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