STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — No. 3 Oregon has thrived early this season by capitalizing on quarterback mistakes. Stanford QB Tanner McKee has done an impressive job avoiding them in his first year as a starter.
When the Ducks travel to take on the Cardinal on Saturday, which of those trends continues could help determine the winner.
Oregon (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) overcame some shaky moments in the conference opener last week before beating Arizona 41-19 thanks in large part to five interceptions, including one returned for a TD by Bennett Williams.
Coach Mario Cristobal knows it will be hard to count on that many takeaways this week against McKee and the Cardinal (2-2, 1-1).
“The quarterback is as good of a quarterback as we’ve seen, not only this year, in years past,” Cristobal said. “He is a guy who has complete control of the offense. He is quick and efficient with his reads. Tremendous arm; accurate. He can run. He can hurt you with designed plays and pulls and he can hurt you by taking off and scrambling. He is a game-changer.”
He also has avoided big errors since taking over as the starter for a Week 2 win at Southern California. McKee is one of five QBs with at least 100 passes who has not thrown an interception so far this season.
That decision-making shows up on film, according to Ducks defensive back Verone McKinley III, who has four interceptions on the season and is the first Oregon player in nine years with picks in three straight games.
“He’s really mature in the pocket, very poised,” McKinley said. “I think he does a great job of making good decisions and not really turning the ball over as much and he runs their offense really efficiently, so I think you know, trying to confuse him would definitely be key.”
These schools combined for seven straight conference titles during a span from 2009-15, with Oregon winning four and Stanford three. Both teams slipped a bit after that run but Oregon bounced back under Cristobal and has won the past two Pac-12 championships.
Stanford has beaten a ranked Oregon team four times since 2009, the most losses to any opponent in that span for the Ducks when they were ranked. Two of those wins came when Oregon was ranked in the top three.
“That rivalry was great and I believe it's still here,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “It goes back and forth.”
The Ducks got a boost last week when star edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux returned after missing two games with a sprained ankle. Thibodeaux played only a handful of snaps but should have no limitations this week against the Cardinal.
“He's a combination of all the things you're looking for in a defensive player,” Shaw said. “He has size, he has length and he has explosion. ... He's one of the best players in America and is really special.”
BOLSTER THE BACKFIELD
Stanford is hoping running backs Austin Jones and Casey Filkins can return after being sidelined last week. Nathaniel Pete was the only healthy running back to get the ball and was held to 27 yards on 13 carries.
Shaw said he will plan for Pete to handle most of the duties again but is hopeful he will have some help.
“We don’t want to count on them being there, but we’re prepared for them to be extra if they are there,” Shaw said. “We’re prepared again for Nathaniel Pete to carry the load as much as necessary.”
Stanford will be down a key lineman with right guard Branson Bragg out this week with an injury. He will be replaced by Jake Hornibrook, who played in all six games in 2020 and started six games in 2019.
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