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Oregon Ducks vs. Stanford Cardinal: 5 Things to Watch

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Oregon vs. Standord: 5 Things to Watch

Kelly L. Cox-USA TODAY Sports

After No. 6 Baylor and No. 10 Oklahoma square off in Waco, Tex., the No. 3 Oregon Ducks and No. 5 Stanford Cardinal will take the field in Game 2 of the arguably best Thursday night of football in history. Think of it as the main event on a spectacular college football heavyweight fight card.

This West Coast showdown features two premiere teams battling for their national title hopes and the lead position in the Pac 12 championship race. As can be expected when two great teams prepare to face off, the flattering pleasantries have been proliferating from Eugene and Palo Alto all week.

Well, unless you're Oregon’s versatile do-it-all playmaker De'Anthony Thomas anyway. In that case, you’re saying this: "we should at least put up 40."

Last year, the Ducks only put up 14 at home against the Cardinal and Thomas did almost nothing to impact the game. He was limited to 74 all-purpose yards, but that obviously hasn't stopped him from talking a big game this week.

Others are taking a more diplomatic approach.

Stanford coach David Shaw sent this little love note to Oregon’s dynamic QB Marcus Mariota: "Every ball is perfect," he said of the Ducks' Heisman candidate. "Every ball's in stride. Then when nobody's open, he just takes off and outruns everybody."

Ducks’ head coach Mark Helfrich had this to say of Shaw’s team: “They’re an outstanding team. They’re a complete team.”

There’s no question both teams are very good and full of talented players. So what will set them apart tonight? What are the keys to victory? Here are five things to keep an eye on tonight, followed by a prediction of which team will win.

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5. Can Stanford’s Defense Repeat Last Year’s Performance?

Kelly L. Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford went to Eugene last year and wrecked Oregon's season with a 17-14 overtime upset. Holding the Ducks to 14 points at home is essentially a shutout. The Cardinal's defense has its work cut out for it again this year. Oregon is averaging 55.6 points and 632 yards per game, both of which are second-best in college football.

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4. Can Marcus Mariota Pad His Heisman Race Lead?

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The Ducks’ QB is torching opposing defenses this season, and has played nearly flawlessly in every game. Mariota has thrown for 2,281 yards and 20 touchdowns, and run for 511 yards and nine scores. Most impressively, he hasn’t thrown an interception this season. Mariota’s last pick came against Stanford last season, and he’s since thrown 293 passes without an interception. A big performance in a road win over the Cardinal will help Mariota extend his lead in the Heisman race.

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3. Can Byron Marshall and Oregon Continue Rushing Success?

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

For Oregon to win, the offense will need to be able to run the ball effectively, something that the Ducks have had no trouble doing so far this season. RB Byron Marshall is just 121 yards away from the 20th 1,000-yard season in Ducks history and enters this game with a streak of five consecutive 100-rushing yard games. Stanford only gives up 103.3 rushing yards per game, which is 10th-best in FBS. The team that wins this battle will have a great shot at winning the game. At this point, Oregon figures to have the edge as Stanford is dealing with injuries and depth issues along the defensive front.

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2. Can Oregon Contain Ty Montgomery?

Robert Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon's secondary isn't the only group responsible for containing Stanford's star junior wide receiver. Montgomery averages 77.4 yards per game and has five receiving touchdowns this season, but Hogan’s favorite target could be even more dangerous on special teams. He's the nation's second-best kick returner, averaging 32.5 yards, and has already returned kickoffs for touchdowns against Utah and Washington. Meanwhile, the Ducks’ kickoff return coverage ranks in the lower half of FBS, allowing 21.6 yards per return.

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1. Will Kevin Hogan be Effective?

Robert Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford’s QB hasn’t exactly been lighting it up this year largely because he hasn’t had to. But what if the Cardinal’s running game falters? Can Hogan pick up the slack against a tenacious Ducks’ defense? Oregon's defense is also on a roll. In the last two games, the Ducks have forced (and recovered) five fumbles and intercepted six passes. Oregon forces 1.5 more turnovers than it commits per game, which is the fourth-best ratio in the nation. Meanwhile, Stanford breaks even at 0.0, tied for 64th-best, in part because of five interceptions by Hogan and the team’s six lost fumbles. Sure, Stanford might slow Oregon’s offense a bit, but the Ducks are likely to score, meaning Hogan and the offense will need to put up some points to win this game.

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Prediction: Oregon 38, Stanford 20

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, Oregon will be just too talented, motivated and prepared to allow a repeat of last year’s 17-14 loss. The Ducks have won 10 of the last 13 meetings and they’ll add to that recent dominance tonight.