It's real simple. Beat Stanford, and Oregon is a legitimate playoff candidate. Don't, and they're not. Beat a Stanford team that currently owns Oregon; Conquer a foe that has it's same cinder block defense and a new revamped offense. Prove, FINALLY, that they can get past their toughest nemesis.
Yes, Stanford has a new offense. They don't have quite the behemoth running back that they've had in the past, or the overwhelming offensive line to clear his path. Their line is still plenty good. But now they're better for pass protection, which is what QB Kevin Hogan is doing these days.
What's more, they're spreading their offense more. And they've even run a couple of plays in succession without huddling. Cardinal coach David Shaw ain't no fool. After three losses, he changed his offense to work better for his personnel. Here's how SI put it in their story, STANFORD TRYING TO UPEND OREGON IN A NEW WAY. . . . .
The Cardinal passed more to offset a young offensive line that has struggled to block in the run game. They ran more to the outside than between the tackles because the running backs are faster and shiftier than the physical bulldozers on past teams. And they opted for a no-huddle offense, at times, to speed up the tempo for quarterback Kevin Hogan - who seems to thrive in a quicker pace.
Stanford also created more touches for top playmaker Ty Montgomery, promising freshman Christian McCaffrey and deep-ball threat Michael Rector. And it spread the ball around more to utilize all of the team's threats, including wide receivers Devon Cajuste and Jordan Pratt and a trio of blossoming tight ends.
What players found is the offense actually got simpler, allowing them to think quicker and play faster.
''We recognized that something needed to change,'' Hogan said, ''and I think it changed for the better.''
The quick-strike approach is still in its infancy, though, and the sample size is limited. What worked against an overmatched Oregon State team might not work against an Oregon team that can score as fast as anybody.
Shaw got Stanford's new offense humming at a terrible time for Oregon State. Stanford crushed the Beavs 38-14 last week. But that thrashing also gave Oregon some valuable game film. So what will it be like when Stanford comes to Autzen playing a more Oregon style of offense?
The perfect guy to ask is Nick Aliotti. You will recall he retired last year and is currently a commentator for the Pac-12 Network. Or to put it another way, he traded in his whistle for the right to speak his damn mind and say whatever the hell he wants. ("USC is soft!" "OSU's offense has become predictable.")
Here, in John Canzano's column, Aliotti answered a few questions about Stanford bringing a read-option to Oregon.
On why teams still struggle against the read option:
"Sometimes it's one-on-one battles, but often times it's people just don't know how they're going to defend that play. (At Oregon) we had a standard way going in so that there was no mistake on who had the quarterback and who had the dive... we always had a rule. We see it every day (in practice). If Stanford runs that against Oregon, that should not be a problem. Stanford's typically been a line-up, smash-mouth, play-action pass, but I'm not just seeing that at all."Why has David Shaw adjusted on offense?
"I think they don't like their back not being a (Tyler) Gaffney, a (Toby) Gerhart, a Stepfan Taylor... they don't have that guy. The most carries any back has had in a game for Stanford is 14 --- unheard of. And I'm not sure they're in love with their offensive line even though they're all five-star Generals. They're not playing like five-star Generals.
"I don't think they like their running backs... they don't have THAT guy and their O-line has been very average. I think David Shaw doesn't want to do what he's doing now.... they're the same as everyone else, but without the up-tempo offense, so in my opinion they become easier to defend."
Stanford had been able to handle Oregon lately because their offense was both very good and very different from what the Ducks were used to facing. Their defense was also a huge factor in limiting Oregon's scoring.
Hopefully the difference this year for Oregon is an offensive line almost back to full strength, a key player back for the defensive line, Stanford attempting to play a style that Oregon is used to, and most importantly, a healthy and smarter Marcus Mariota.
People may forget it wasn't very long ago that Oregon handled a tough and talented Michigan State team. And after that win, everybody said, "That proves it. Oregon can finally beat Stanford.
Well, here they are. They proved they could win those kind of games. Now they just have to do it. It's that simple.
Game time: Saturday 4:30 Pacific on FOX
Game time: Saturday 4:30 Pacific on FOX