Stanford in search of key win against Ducks
STANFORD, Calif. — Stanford has been pointing to the brutal four-game November stretch as the defining moment for the season ever since arriving at fall camp.
The Cardinal end the season with arguably their four toughest games, facing No. 7 Oregon, No. 12 Southern California, No. 23 California and No. 19 Notre Dame all in succession.
What no one knew at the start of the season was that the toughest game might come first, when the Cardinal (5-3, 4-2 Pac-10) host the Ducks (7-1, 5-0) today.
"This is a huge opportunity for us if we want to take the next step," running back Toby Gerhart said. "We have a chance to beat the best team in the Pac-10."
Oregon earned that title last week with a 47-20 victory over USC that put the Ducks in control of the Pac-10 race and in contention for a spot in the Bowl Championship Series title game.
Oregon shredded USC for 613 total yards, the second most ever allowed by the Trojans, and gained 391 yards on the ground in a performance that surprised many accustomed to USC dominating the Pac-10.
"Offensively, we certainly don't expect 600 yards, but we don't expect to stall out or have any sort of letdown," quarterback Jeremiah Masoli said. "We've been practicing really hard and it's one of those things where we'll see if our team can handle success."
After beating the Trojans 24-17 two years ago to move into title contention, the Ducks lost three of their final four regular season games — and star quarterback Dennis Dixon to injury — and settled for the Sun Bowl.
The Oregon players believe the lessons they learned in a 19-8 season-opening loss at Boise State will help avoid a similar situation this season.
"None of the games we've won have been perfect by any stretch of the imagination and we all realize that and we all understand that by what happened at the beginning of the season, stumbling out of the blocks, we have to focus on the small problems that we have because they can add up," offensive lineman Mark Asper said.
The Ducks have had few problems of late with one of the country's most dangerous offenses. Freshman running back LaMichael James has replaced suspended star LeGarrette Blount and is the leading rusher in Pac-10 games, averaging 137.6 yards per game.
Ed Dickson is one of the top tight ends in the country, with 30 receptions for 397 yards and four touchdowns and six players have at least 10 catches.
But the key to the offense is Masoli, who threw for 222 yards and a touchdown and ran for 164 yards and a score last week against USC. He has run for 436 yards and eight touchdowns, while also completing 60.6 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and only two interceptions.
"It's tough to stop him," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. "We're going to try and slow him down. He's as good a dual threat quarterback as there is in the country. He executes with tremendous precision in the option game."
Stanford will have to stop the Ducks without one of its top defensive players. Middle linebacker Clinton Snyder will miss the remainder of the season after injuring his left knee in practice on Tuesday.
Snyder is expected to be replaced in the lineup by fullback Owen Marecic, who will play both offense and defense against the Ducks.
The Cardinal need one more win to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2001. But with four ranked opponents on the docket, that will be no easy task.
Since making it to the Seattle Bowl in Tyrone Willingham's last season on The Farm in 2001, Stanford has had five shots at a sixth win and bowl eligibility, losing each time.
Perhaps the most painful came last year in Eugene, when the Cardinal took a 28-27 lead with 2:18 to play. But the Ducks answered with a 74-yard drive capped by Blount's 3-yard run and 2-point conversion that gave Oregon the 35-28 win and its seventh straight win in the series.
Stanford lost to USC and Cal the following two weeks, falling agonizingly short of achieving its goal of a bowl bid.
The Cardinal have four shots this year, but know none of them will be easy.
"We're excited to go against ranked teams," quarterback Andrew Luck said. "This is why you play college football. Of course we want to win all of them but the focus is toward this week's goal, and winning this game."