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Oregon vs Stanford: Three things to watch for in the Thursday night battle on the Farm

The Pac-12 game of the year should come down to a couple of critical factors

Steve Dykes

1. Marcus Mariota vs Stanford D. The Cardinal defense neutralized the Ducks' run game a year ago - they ran for "only" 198 yards, with 77 of them coming on one run - but this year the challenge might all be on Mariota's shoulders. He's become a more dangerous passer this year, throwing 20 touchdowns without a single interception, and he's always been an excellent runner on top of that.

If Stanford's able to make him have a subpar game (like they forced Brett Hundley to do a couple of weeks ago) the Cardinal might be able to force some all-important turnovers and flip the field in their direction. However, if Mariota is able to put on a show (like he has all season), Oregon will probably win the game... and he might end up winning the Heisman.

2. The Stanford offense's style. We've spilled a lot of ink over the Stanford offense for the last several weeks (rightfully so) and many experts are saying that the up-and-down Cardinal O ultimately will be the reason Oregon wins this game. However, with 10 days to prepare and get healthy for this game, I think Stanford's offense will have probably retooled a bit in the lead-up to this matchup.

Stanford's best offensive gameplan is run-first (the Cardinal should run the ball 40-50 times a game), with some short passing to wide receivers and the occasional deep shot. Trick plays also factor into the plan as well. With Devon Cajuste back on the field, Kevin Hogan has all of his favorite targets available again, so I wouldn't be surprised to see the Cardinal break out a plan like they did against UCLA - arguably Stanford's best day stylistically his season.

3. Special teams. Although Stanford's defense won the headlines, special teams was surprisingly a deciding factor a year ago. Oregon passed up a field goal attempt early in the game and then missed a field goal in overtime, whereas Stanford's Jordan Williamson nailed the game-winner just moments later in OT. Will Oregon or Stanford pass up on field goal attempts in this game if they're outside the red zone?

Williamson is struggling with a strained leg muscle, so the Cardinal may eschew a field goal attempt if it's on the edge of his zone. Meanwhile, this game features two of the best return men in the Pac-12, if not the country, in De'Anthony Thomas and Ty Montgomery. If one of those guys is able to flip the field consistently - or if they both are - the complexion of this game could change rapidly.