In recent years, the Oregon vs. Stanford game has been one of the season’s top match-ups as each team has taken turns spoiling the other’s Pac-12 Championship hopes.
This year, The Ducks and The Cardinal find themselves in unfamiliar territory after years of Pac-12 dominance. While the Ducks weren’t given much love by the pre-season rankings this year, Stanford had been predicted to be the Pac-12 Champion. Now, in the final stretch of the season, Oregon (3-6) is facing a must-win situation to keep its bowl game hopes alive, while Stanford (6-3) is fighting for a “decent” bowl game.
Clearly, college football can be very unpredictable.
Today, the teams will meet at Autzen Stadium, which is about the only positive news for Oregon who is closing out a very dismal season. Although the Ducks were able to defeat Stanford last year and Stanford has had its fair share of struggles this season, Oregon will certainly have its hands full, primarily when it comes to a little Cardinal gem, running back, Christian McCaffrey. Remember him? In case you don’t, last season, McCaffrey ran for 153 yards against the Ducks and eventually made his way to New York as a 2015 Heisman Trophy Finalist.
After interviewing McCaffrey in Los Angeles this last Summer, it was easy to see why he was so successful. As I listened to him speak, all I could think was “this guy is the epitome of a champion- driven, talented, humble, intelligent and team-focused.
“I have to watch myself when I talk about Christian because it doesn’t sound like I’m talking about a real person,” Stanford Head Coach, David Shaw, told gridirongirl last Summer.
“You’re talking about someone who is extremely fast, explosive, quick but also very smart, can do whatever we ask him to do. He’s also very emotionally tough and mature and ridiculously competitive. He hates to lose anything.”
I know, this is not at all what Ducks fans want to hear, but I have to give credit where credit is due.
As many of you know, I do try to be as optimistic as possible about Oregon Football and usually find some glimmer of hope for a Ducks win nearly every week. This week though, I’m not quite there. Perhaps I am still grumpy about the election results, or perhaps it’s that (for this week) I’m simply being realistic.
Hear me out.
It is clear Oregon and Stanford are going through some current growing pains. It’s just that at this point, Oregon’s growing pains are much more painful.
First of all, both teams have common losses to in-conference teams, Washington State, Washington and Colorado. What Stanford has over Oregon however (besides a better record), is that their defense has held the teams they’ve beaten to 15 points or less. Meanwhile, Oregon’s defense remains at the bottom of the FBS, allowing an average 37 points per game.
Second of all and Perhaps the most important factor at play right now is mentality, particularly in the run game. Prior to the season, Stanford’s McCaffrey and Oregon running back, Royce Freeman, were expected to be top competitors for the Heisman Trophy. Instead, both have faced adversity (and some injuries) as their teams have struggled at different times. The difference between them is in how they’ve bounced back.
After returning from injury in October, Royce Freeman had a solid 138 yard game against Washington State. Since then however, he has averaged just 34 yards over four games. I won’t begin to presume why Freeman’s production has taken a drastic turn but something is clearly going on, whether it be injury, attitude, defenses honing in on him, or a combination of all three. The bottom line is, he simply isn’t the same back we’ve watched in recent years.
Meanwhile, Christian McCaffrey started out the season with a bang, rushing for a total 436 yards in the first three games before hitting a mid-season rough pass, missing the Notre Dame game and being shut down by Washington and Washington State. Over the last three games against Colorado, Arizona and Oregon State, McCaffrey has regained his footing, rushing for an average 153 yards per game.
Sure, there are always multiple factors at play and it’s hard to directly compare players from different teams. That being said, these are two teams that have relied heavily on their running back workhorses and quite frankly, only one of them seems to be stepping on the gas.
This could quite possibly be a game where things could go either way. Again, each team has seen some growing pains this year. As I look at these two teams however, I do believe mentality will be the number one X factor. Stanford is a tough, talented and well-coached team. Perhaps more than any other time this season, the Ducks’ defense, a la Troy Dye, absolutely have to come out fired up if they even have a remote chance of shutting down a McCaffrey-led Cardinal team. He is one of, if not the best athlete and competitor they will see all season and it may just take a flawless game to contain him.
Here’s hoping Oregon has done its homework this week and at least found a reason to come out swinging.