Stanford — albeit with issues — still poses as a problem for the Ducks

The Cardinal have the nation's best scoring defense, holding opponents to 7.7 points per game

Since that start of the decade, Stanford has been a major thorn in Oregon’s side.

In 2012, with the Ducks ranked No. 2 in the BCS, Stanford came into Autzen and defeated Oregon 17-14 in overtime. The following year, the Cardinal defeated No. 3 Oregon 26-20, a game in which head coach Davis Shaw caused some stir by saying "If you control the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball, you can beat these guys — we're a big, physical football team that plays well together."

Then over the past two years, Stanford has outscored the Ducks 101-34 (including a 49-7 beatdown last season).

The Cardinal will try to continue that trend this weekend when they travel to Eugene to play the Ducks. Like usual with this series, ESPN’s famed College GameDay will be in attendance, almost assuring that the eyes of the nation will be focused on Autzen stadium at 5 p.m. on Saturday.

Stanford will provide a different test for Oregon than its usual ground-and-pound style of offense.

The Cardinal still have the traditional imposing offensive line and phenomenal running back, but the play of quarterback KJ Costello and his pass catchers is what makes this unit among the top in the Pac-12.

Costello does a good job of managing the offense and trusting his receivers to make the play. On the season, he’s thrown for 729 yards and seven touchdowns, completing 54-of-88 passes.

However, he is susceptible to mistakes. Last week against UC Davis, Costello began the game with two interceptions but rebounded nicely with two touchdowns passes to star wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside.

Arcega-Whiteside is a mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses. Standing 6-foot-3, 225-pounds, he’s caught 13 passes for 364 yards and five touchdowns on the seasons. He can either use his big body to outmuscle opposing defenders yet has the speed to make big plays and run away from defenses.

Wide receiver Trent Irwin (6-foot-2, 204) and tight Kaden Smith (6-foot-5, 252) are the other top targets for Costello. Combined, they’re caught 25 passes but have different roles. Irwin is a big possession receiver, amassing only 90 yards on 13 catches. Smith is an explosive tight end who’s caught 12 passes for 163 yards. He provides Costello with a reliable target over the middle, someone who’s a good outlet to pick up positive yards.

The next great running back to don a Stanford jersey might be the best of them all.

Bryce Love is the complete package NFL scouts are looking for. Although slightly undersized, he’s much stronger than he looks, capable of bouncing off tackles and delivering the blow. It’s his elite speed, quickness and mental makeup that’s made him a potential first round pick in the upcoming draft.

After finishing second in the Heisman voting and racking up 2,118 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns last year, Love has gotten off to a slow start this season. He began the year rushing for 29 yards on 18 carries but followed that up with a vintage 19-carry, 136-yard performance against USC.

Part of Love’s struggles has been the blocking of his offensive line. Too many times are the Cardinal allowing penetration or being a half step slow. There’s still a ton of potential among the big boys up front, but their play must improve if they want to beat Oregon.

Defensively, the Cardinal have played well but they’re still looking to find their groove.

Cornerback Alijah Holder and safety Malik Antoine have spearheaded a passing defense that’s among the best in the Pac-12. This unit is long, athletic and has experience. Holder has been a shutdown corner the past two years while Antoine is a ball hawking safety who makes quarterbacks pay if they are inaccurate or put too much air under the ball.

Ideally in the passing game, the defensive backs will play a press man coverage, taking away any quick type of throws and allowing their vaunted pass rush to get to the quarterback. This is what Stanford did to USC two weeks ago and the end result was a 17-3 win for the Cardinal. They held Trojans quarterback JT Daniels to 16-of-34 passing for 215 yards and two interceptions. They also took away Daniels’ favorite target — former high school teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown — limiting him to two catches for 39 yards.

Stanford’s press coverage only works if the edge rushers can get to the quarterback, something the Cardinal have struggled with this year.

Outside linebacker Joey Alfieri and defensive end Jovan Swann are the top pass rushers for the Cardinal, combining for 4.5 sacks on the season. Much like Oregon’s Jalen Jelks and Justin Hollins, Alfieri and Swann must get to Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert and force him into rushed throws. They also must set the edge when the Ducks run the ball, forcing the Oregon ball carriers back to where their teammates are waiting.

This is a matchup that will feature the nation’s eighth best scoring offense in Oregon (51.7) against the nation’s best scoring defense in Stanford (7.7). One of these will have to give…

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