STANFORD -- Know what happiness is in college football?

Happiness is when the opposing quarterback just flat-out drops the ball without anyone touching him -- and gives Stanford a gift-wrapped turnover to convert into a game-winning touchdown in a 27-23 victory over Oregon State.

"That's part of the game, definitely part of the game," said Stanford linebacker Alex Debniak, with a smile. "You've just got to capitalize on what happens."

Know what happiness is not in college football?

Happiness is not the realization that next Saturday at Oregon, there will likely be no gift-wrapping. Not against a team that will surely be ranked No. 1 in the nation.

"It's going to be a big challenge for us," said Debniak, without a smile. "But we look forward to the opportunity."

It is a big opportunity. It is not merely an upset opportunity. It is an opportunity for the Cardinal to still win the Pacific 12 title and qualify for the Rose Bowl. It is, in short, the very reason Stanford showed up for summer practice back in August -- to have an opportunity to do all those things in November and December.

Yet through most of Saturday afternoon here, opportunity was scoffing, rather than knocking, for the Cardinal.

Oregon State, which entered the game ranked No. 13 in the nation, scored 23 unanswered points in one stretch. Stanford committed four turnovers. Little wonder that the Beavers held a nine-point lead with 3:30 left in the third quarter.

But over the game's final 18 minutes, the 16th-ranked Cardinal fared much better and more than resembled a top-20 team. Running back Stepfan Taylor had a wildly entertaining 40-yard catch-and-run touchdown that took a detour into Menlo Park and over the Dumbarton Bridge. After that, Oregon State quarterback Cody Vaz committed the aforementioned bizarre turnover when he was scrambling to his right and suddenly lost the ball at his own 29-yard line.

"He was just kind of carrying it loose, and it just popped out right there," said Stanford defensive end Josh Mauro. "I just jumped on it. I'm not real sure what happened."

Seven plays later, new Stanford starting quarterback Kevin Hogan found tight end Zach Ertz for the game-winning touchdown. Stanford coach David Shaw noted that because Ertz had fumbled the ball away in the first quarter and Hogan had thrown two interceptions, the redemption factor was paramount.

"It was Shakespearean to a certain degree," said Shaw, a quote that under NCAA rules, only a Stanford coach is permitted to utter.

Ah, but now comes the real bubble, bubble, toil and trouble -- with freaky uniforms and a no-huddle offense.

Oregon.

"We've not fared well with those guys," Shaw said.

Definition: In the Ducks' last two games with Stanford, they have won by scores of 53-30 and 52-31.

Could it possibly be different this time? Let's be blunt. If you are wondering whether this Stanford team is good enough to stop the hyper-speed wood-chipper machine that is Oregon's offense while scoring enough points against the Ducks' underrated fast-to-the-ball defense ... well, going by the way Stanford played Saturday, the answer is a clear cut and unambiguous "no."

"We can't turn the ball over four times up in Eugene," said Shaw. "That can't happen."

Each week is a new week, of course. But Oregon -- which will surely rise to the top of every poll after Alabama's upset by Texas A&M on Saturday -- seems to treat every week as a chance to maul the scoreboard. The Ducks are on a 13-game winning streak and have scored 42 points or more in all 13 games.

"Those guys are special," Shaw said. "I agree with what most people outside the computers say -- those guys are the best team in the country. It's going to take our best game, and not their best game, to pull this thing off. ... We're going to go play our best."

And if the unfathomable occurs and Stanford does shock Oregon, then Saturday might not have been the last home game for the Cardinal in 2012 because the Pac-12 title game would be played at Stanford Stadium -- a fact Taylor did not initially grasp.

Taylor -- who will leave Stanford with many rushing records -- was among the many Stanford seniors who grew emotional when realizing that Saturday was their final regular season home game.

"I love playing here and would love doing that again," Taylor said. "But I don't know how we can."

Then the conference championship option was explained to him.

"Oh," Taylor said. "Great ... but see, that's how things get messed up, if you get too far ahead of yourself."

Know what happiness is in college football? Getting far ahead of Oregon. Problem is, no one has done it yet this season. Your turn, Stanford. Good luck.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.