By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Since Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh took over the football program it's always been about breaking down barriers, competing for the Pac-10 championship and earning a berth in the Rose Bowl.
The ninth-ranked Cardinal (1-0, 4-0) finds itself in position to gain some advantage toward those goals Saturday when it travels to Eugene to meet fourth-ranked host Oregon (1-0, 4-0) for a 5 p.m. kickoff.
It's only the second game of the conference season and yet it could be a defining moment for Stanford, which is looking for its first 5-0 start since 1951, when the then-Indians went 9-2 and played in the Rose Bowl.
"As your team plays you either getting better or you're getting worse," Harbaugh said. "You never stay the same. Every day we're analyzing it and finding ways to improve it. Oregon . . . they're the champs."
Stanford was on the brink of a possible conference title last year before losing to California, and a win over the Ducks two weeks previously helped put the Cardinal in that position.
"You have to embrace playing the best in the country," Harbaugh said. "We have to challenge ourselves to play great football."
Last week Stanford beat Notre Dame, 37-14, for its first win in South Bend since 1992. This week the Cardinal will be looking for its first win in Eugene since 2001. Stanford hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since 2000, following the 1999 season.
Since Harbaugh has taken over, Stanford ended its longest streak of losing seasons at seven by qualifying for the Sun Bowl last year. Is the Rose Bowl the next logical step?
"There's no question Oregon has a great offense, maybe the best in the country," Harbaugh said. "They have a great play maker and a lot of speed on both sides of the ball. We'd like to limit their scoring."
Oregon's offense ranks first in the nation with a 57.7 points-per-game scoring average and is the first ranked team Stanford plays this season.
The Cardinal defense, ranked 12th nationally with a 13.8 scoring average, will be tested in front of one of the loudest environments in the nation and the Ducks play fast. They get back to the line of scrimmage and are ready to go, go, go.
"They try to get you with their tempo," Harbaugh said. "They hope you can't get lined up right. Their coaching and execution is outstanding."
Oregon's LaMichael James leads the Pac-10 in rushing with a 158.3 yards per game average. He's rushed for at least 100 yards in 12 consecutive regular-season games.
Ducks' quarterback Darron Thomas (like Stanford's Andrew Luck, a Houston native) throws for 205 yards a game and is a dangerous runner. No one has been able to slow them down yet.
"You have to be committed and focused," Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov said. "They are unique in their spread offense. Guys have to be in the right spots this week."
Stanford's offense, which ranks fourth nationally with a 48.0 scoring average, will also be at a bit of disadvantage inside raucous Autzen Stadium, which will be overflowing with more than 54,000 fans.
"It's a great college football atmosphere," Luck said. "It's a special place and Oregon is a great team. We have to work on communicating in different ways."
The Ducks rank first in the conference in scoring defense with an 11.0 average.
Luck threw his first two interceptions of the year last week, but he's only been sacked once this year. Should he continue to get time to throw, the game could resemble a tennis match with the way these two offenses can march down a field.
Luck's stock as a quarterback has risen to new highs and he shows no signs of taking backward steps. He leads the conference with a 169.5 passing efficiency, throws for an average of 228 yards a game and averages 268.8 yards of total offense.
Stepfan Taylor ranks 10th in the Pac-10 with his 66.2 yards rushing average but that doesn't tell the whole story. The Cardinal averages 223.2 yards on the ground, spreading it around among several runners. Oregon averages 321.8 yards on the ground.
Defensively the Ducks lead the Pac-10 in turnover margin at a plus-11.