Having become the only defensive coordinator to slow down Oregon's dynamic offense in a long, long time, Stanford's Derek Mason was very popular last summer. Coaches from the NFL and throughout college football visited him, hoping to learn how he dealt so successfully with the Ducks' read-option scheme.
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich has his own analysis. As the Ducks' offensive coordinator at the time, he was disappointed in his team's 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford last November for reasons that went beyond strategy.
Asked this week what the Cardinal did so well in 2012, Helfrich said, "They played harder than we did, which for us was very revolutionary. That's what we hang our hat on. From a schematic standpoint, they didn't do anything dramatically different than they'd done in the past."
Helfrich complimented Stanford, not merely criticizing his own team's effort, and credited Mason with tailoring a game plan to every opponent. In any case, last year's meeting creates an intriguing backdrop for Thursday's game at Stanford, especially considering what the Ducks have done against everybody other than Stanford lately.
The Ducks had scored 42-plus points in their previous 13 contests before that game, and they've hit that mark in all eight games this season. Oregon posted 198 yards rushing about two-thirds of its average as Stanford adopted the aggressive scheme of the 1985 Chicago Bears and disrupted the Ducks.
Can the Cardinal do it again? Stanford's defense certainly has re-established itself after a 27-21 loss at Utah, holding UCLA and Oregon State to fewer than 300 total yards in victories of 24-10 and 20-12.
Utah's upset derailed some of the buildup to Thursday's game. Yet there's plenty at stake for Oregon in what stands as the Ducks' biggest remaining challenge at least until the Pac-12 championship game, assuming they're in it. Oregon would move back to No. 2 in the BCS standings and position itself for a national championship opportunity with a win over Stanford.
Stanford's offense will have to do its part because there's seemingly no way Oregon will score only 14 points this time. With quarterback Marcus Mariota's improvement and running back Byron Marshall's emergence, the Ducks are "more efficient than they were a year ago," Stanford coach David Shaw said.
The statistics support that statement. Oregon is averaging 55.6 points and 632.1 yards through eight games, divided almost evenly between running and passing. In a school-produced interview this week, running back De'Anthony Thomas said, "This team, we should score at least 40."
The Cardinal are aware of Thomas' words, although Shaw said wryly, "I'm just glad he only said 40."
Or maybe Thomas meant "14," after what happened last season. What's certain is that either Stanford's defense or Oregon's offense will be validated Thursday.