Surging Stanford can clinch the Pac-12 North title and remain in contention for a spot in the College Football Playoff with a home victory Saturday over Oregon.
Some insiders, including Vegas oddsmakers who’ve installed the Cardinal as seven-point favorites, think the task will be simple. That could be a mistake in judgment.
Not only do the perennial-power Ducks remain dangerous in a down season, they have an athletic load in quarterback Vernon Adams. The Cardinal rank second in the conference in scoring defense but will have their hands full with Adams, whose ability to extend plays with his mobility is a major part of the Ducks offense. Adams has thrown for 887 yards and 10 touchdowns in three games since returning from a broken right index finger and is looking like the performer the Ducks had anticipated before his untimely injury.
The Ducks (6-3, 4-2 Pac-12 ) will no doubt need him in top form when they visit the Cradinal (8-1, 7-0), who are ranked No. 7 in the latest CFP standings.
Stanford sits atop the North standings but Oregon could still defend its division title with victories over the Cardinal and in the final two games of the season, combined with a Stanford loss to Cal in the Big Game. It seems unlikely, but it’s still possible.
“We don’t want to be just completely thinking about the Pac-12 North, but it’s in our minds, definitely,” Adams said. “Hopefully, we just get this win and things happen. We’ve got to win one game at a time and go from there.”
Adams transferred to Oregon for his senior season, looking to pick up where Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota left off.
It wasn’t to be. Adams broke his right index finger in the season opener against his former team, Eastern Washington. He struggled with the injury for a time before he retreated to the sidelines for games against Colorado and Washington State.
He returned three weekends ago at Washington, where the Ducks won 26-20 to kick off what is now a three-game winning streak.
Adams threw for 315 yards and four touchdowns in Oregon’s 61-55 triple-overtime thriller against Arizona State, and then had 300 yards passing and another four touchdowns last weekend in a 44-28 win over California. His highlight reel from the latter game also includes a dramatic keeper that Adams capped by somersaulting over a defender and into the end zone.
Overall, Adams has thrown for 1,468 yards and 14 touchdowns with five interceptions in six games this season. He’s also rushed for 145 yards and two more scores.
The Ducks gained a school-record 777 yards last week against Cal, including 477 on the ground. Receiver Darren Carrington has 344 yards receiving the past three games. Adams is the catalyst.
“He was pretty much a national story before he got to Oregon,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “He is an exciting player with a strong arm. He’s a dangerous football player. He is back to doing those things that caught everyone’s eye.”
At least for right now, Adams is most concerned about fixing those interceptions. Both of his picks against Cal came in the end zone.
“I’ve got to clean that up if we want to be a better team,” he said. “I’ve definitely got to clean that up.”
Adams was helped against Cal by his offensive linemen, as well as the Ducks’ running game, led by Royce Freeman with 180. It was Freeman’s fifth straight 100-yard game and seventh in the past nine games. He leads the nation with 44 runs of 10 or more yards.
Of course, Stanford as its own game breaker in Heisman Trophy candidate Christian McCaffrey. Perhaps the most versatile player in the country, McCaffrey leads the nation with 2,174 all-purpose yards. He has rushed for 1,207 yards, caught 28 passes for 325 more and has gained 887 as a punt and kickoff returner. He has scored eight touchdowns and threw for another last week at Colorado.
The duel should be breathtaking.
“Oregon’s always been known for having a ton of playmakers, so for us to get that rolling in the past couple of weeks feels great,” said Ducks receiver Bralon Addison, who pulled down a pair of touchdown passes from Adams in the Cal victory. “We’re going to continue to get better.”
That’s going to be a challenge against Stanford, allowing opponents just under 339 yards per game and only 20 total touchdowns. Oregon may have one advantage if Adams can keep his upward trend going: Stanford’s pass defense is ranked 10th in the league, allowing 213 yards a game.
The Ducks are underdogs Saturday, but the series with Stanford is marked by a couple of recent upsets. In 2012, Oregon was ranked No. 1 when Stanford and then-freshman quarterback Kevin Hogan visited Eugene and pulled off a 17-14 overtime victory. The Cardinal went on to win the Pac-12 championship game before beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
Stanford played spoiler again the next year, beating the then-No. 2 Ducks 26-20. The Ducks went on to lose to Arizona down the stretch and wrapped up the season in the Alamo Bowl.
The winner of this matchup has won the Pac-12 the past five seasons.