The theme of the weekend at Oregon is: Welcome back!
The students have returned to campus, and so has ESPN’s “College GameDay,” which will be broadcasting live from Memorial Quad for three hours beginning at 6 a.m. Saturday.
The raucous atmosphere at Autzen Stadium is also expected to be back on display when No. 20 Oregon hosts No. 7 Stanford at 5 p.m. Saturday on ABC.
So are the Ducks ready to return to prominence?
As first-year coach Mario Cristobal said after finishing off a charitable nonconference slate, it’s time to find out.
Oregon has a chance to declare itself a contender in the Pac-12 and perhaps kickstart Justin Herbert’s Heisman Trophy candidacy at the expense of a North Division nemesis and 2017 Heisman runner-up Bryce Love.
“I like this because, win, lose, it gives us a better grasp of where we are,” junior outside linebacker La’Mar Winston said of opening conference play against the Cardinal. “Let’s see where we’re at, set a baseline for our standard, and go from there.”
The Ducks are 3-0 after beating teams from the Mid-American, Big Sky and Mountain West conferences by an average score of 51.7 to 20.0.
Herbert has thrown at least one touchdown pass in all 18 of his career starts, and Oregon is averaging 42.9 points in those games.
But the 6-foot-6, 240-pound junior missed last year’s 49-7 loss at Stanford due to injury and will face a defense that leads the FBS in points allowed (7.7 per game).
“They’re a good group at every position,” said Herbert, who has 12 touchdowns and four interceptions this season. “They’ve just got a solid defense and they’re really well coached. They fly around and they’re probably one of the best defenses in the country, if not the best.
“They’re a great team and they deserve our best. We’ll give them everything we’ve got.”
Royce Freeman had 73 carries for 457 yards (6.3 per attempt) and two touchdowns in four career starts against Stanford.
Tony Brooks-James and a supporting cast of young running backs will try to penetrate a Cardinal (3-0, 1-0) defense that kept USC out of the end zone and held the preseason South Division favorite to 114 net yards rushing during a 17-3 smothering two weeks ago.
“They’re just known as a hard-nosed, smash-mouth team, and I think it’s exciting for us,” said redshirt freshman running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio, who has four touchdown runs on five attempts. “Oregon is always known as speed and finesse, but I know with the whole Cristobal era coming in and our culture changing we’re going to become that team in the Pac-12.”
The Ducks only averaged 2.7 yards per carry during last week’s uninspired 35-22 win over San Jose State.
Cristobal’s offensive line will have to back up all of the program’s public bragging about the new strength and conditioning program and knock a physical defensive front off the line of scrimmage Saturday.
“We’re kind of rebranding ourselves as more of a physical team with a physical, powerful running game,” right guard Shane Lemieux said. “A lot of teams, they try to trick you and use deception and stuff to try and get around, but I think we know exactly what they’re going to run, they know exactly what we’re going to run. It’s basically who’s going to be more physical at the end of the day. …
“They don’t try to use deception or anything, they’ll just come right at you. So that’s kind of nice.”
Love was bottled up by San Diego State in the opener, rushed for 136 yards and a touchdown against USC and sat out last week’s win over UC Davis with an undisclosed injury.
In the last two meetings with Stanford, the Ducks have been outscored 101-34 and allowed 530 yards rushing and six rushing touchdowns.
Jim Leavitt’s second Oregon defense is currently fifth nationally in yards allowed per carry (1.96) and ninth in rushing yards allowed per game (77.0).
“You need to meet a team like this head on and you’ve got to play your best football,” Cristobal said. “You’ve got to play with great technique and you’ve got to play with toughness. There’s probably not going to be a million snaps this game, so every single snap has that much more value. Our guys are really looking forward to it.”
Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello is completing 61.4 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and three interceptions. His favorite play is throwing jump balls to veteran wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, who already has five touchdown receptions.
The 6-3, 225-pound senior had a combined 10 receptions for 218 yards and three touchdowns against the Ducks in the previous two meetings. Oregon has also had a difficult time covering Stanford’s big tight ends in the red zone over the years.
“I’d say the key is just get hands on him and don’t let him dictate the route,” said cornerback Thomas Graham, who gives up four inches and 34 pounds to Arcega-Whiteside. “You dictate it and get it in the film room to know his releases, know what his tendencies are and what he likes to do and what he doesn’t like to do, what routes he likes to run and what routes he doesn’t like to run.
“He’s a very big vertical threat, and every game I’ve watched he’s caught some type of vertical route on a corner, so my goal is to make sure he doesn’t get that.”
Stanford blocked Oregon’s path to playing for national championships in 2001 and 2012. Both of those games tilted toward the Cardinal after costly mistakes by the Ducks in the kicking game.
Cristobal said starting placekicker Adam Stack is “all systems go” after missing the first three games with leg soreness. The sophomore has never attempted a field goal in a collegiate game, and walk-on Zach Emerson’s only attempt this season was blocked.
Stanford placekicker Jet Toner is 4-for-5 on field goals this season and 21-for-25 (.808) for his career.
Oregon’s Ugo Amadi is seventh nationally in punt returns, averaging 25.3 yards per attempt. Stanford senior Jake Bailey has a knack for pinning teams deep in their own territory, as exhibited by a 63-yard punt that went out of bounds at the San Diego State 1-yard line in the opener.
“It’s a battle within a battle,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “Jake for a couple of years has been one of the best punters in America. That’s a big challenge this week.”
Ultimately, if the Ducks want to be welcomed back to the College Football Playoff discussion they know Herbert will have to lead Cristobal’s program to signature victories over the Pac-12’s best teams.
Starting with Stanford on Saturday.
“Everybody knows Herbert is special. He has always been a special player. I trust that he’s going to showcase that, which he always does,” Winston said. “So I’m excited about it. I don’t want to put any anticipation on it, but everyone knows this is the platform where he’s going to have to show us exactly who he is. He has no problem doing that, so I’m confident in him.”