After Stanford topped Oregon the past two years en route to Pac-12 title, the Ducks got their revenge Saturday to put themselves in the driver's seat for a College Football Playoff berth.
Here are three thoughts on the game:
1. The Ducks finally drove past the Cardinal roadblock
After two consecutive years of losing to Stanford and watching the Cardinal go on to win the Pac-12, the Ducks will head into the home stretch in control in the Pac-12 North.
Unlike last year, when Stanford’s defense swarmed a hobbled Marcus Mariota, the healthy Oregon quarterback sliced through the Cardinal. And while the Ducks’ defense allowed an unhealthy 5.94 yards per play in the first half, Oregon held Stanford to field goals on its first two possessions and made a fourth-down stand in the second quarter to keep the Cardinal in control.
Oregon now leads the North by two games over its closest opponent, and the Ducks remain undefeated in the division. With division games against only Colorado and Oregon State remaining, Oregon is in great shape to represent the North in the Pac-12 title game. But if the Ducks hope to make the playoff, they’ll also need to win next week at Utah.
2. A healthy Mariota might be the best player in the country
Florida State’s Jameis Winston and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott have better lines and better receiving corps. Mariota makes a lot of his magic on his own, escaping pressure to keep passing plays alive and using his speed to race around the corner and make first downs.
Mariota put on a clinic during Saturday’s first half. The Ducks scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, all on 75-yard drives. On those three possessions, Mariota completed 8 of 14 passes for 76 yards and a touchdown and ran four times for 58 yards and a touchdown.
What Mariota has now that he hasn’t had in the past is a fast, bruising running back who can blow through open holes and move the pile. That player is 229-pound freshman tailback Royce Freeman, who forces defenses to stay tightly bunched and allows the rest of Oregon’s skill players to operate with some space around them on the perimeter. Freeman carried 19 times for 98 yards Saturday.
3. Stanford isn’t Stanford anymore on offense
Never was this more apparent than on a fourth-and-two play from the Oregon 24-yard line. Cardinal coaches lined up quarterback Kevin Hogan in the shotgun when in past years they would have sent on the heaviest package available to maul its way across the line to gain. This time, a drive died with an incomplete pass intended for Ty Montgomery.
The Cardinal don’t have an offensive line capable of imposing its will on elite opponents anymore, nor do they have running backs physical enough to wear down defenses. It’s telling that Stanford’s biggest offensive successes came in the second quarter when the Cardinal went no-huddle. Unfortunately, playing as Oregon Lite is no way to beat the Ducks. Stanford spent years establishing an offensive identity, but it simply lacks the players at the moment to execute that rampaging-herd-of-elephants offense properly.