If you didn't watch the game at all, but instead had to rely on the score updates scrolling across the bottom of your television, your first thought was probably that the Cardinal got waxed in Eugene. You figured that Andrew Luck was rattled by the rowdy Autzen Stadium crowd. You shook your head and scolded yourself for believing that this year's defense was any better than last year's. Finally, you resigned yourself to the fact that the Cardinal simply couldn't compete with Oregon and they weren't worthy of their top-ten ranking. I'm here to tell you that if you're thinking any of those things, you're dead wrong.
Everything started out so well. Oregon took the opening kickoff and drove methodically down the field, finally getting a first and goal inside the ten-yard line only a few minutes into the game. There hadn't been any big plays, they hadn't exploited their speed advantage, so even if they had punched it into the end zone, I wouldn't have been overly concerned. But then a funny thing happened -- the defense held and forced a field goal.
The Cardinal then took the ensuing kickoff and marched seventy yards on eleven terribly efficient plays. Stepfan Taylor carried five times for seventeen yards, and Luck took care of the rest, completing all six of his passes, the last of which was good for an eighteen-yard touchdown to Griff Whalen.
Things were good, but they'd get better. Oregon fumbled the kickoff, turning the ball over to the Cardinal on the twelve-yard line. Sixty-four seconds later Luck would cash in this mistake with a ten-yard touchdown run, putting his team up 14-3.
An eleven-point lead is nice, but since Oregon features what could be the most explosive offense in the nation, it wasn't time to relax just yet. The Ducks came out firing, opening their next drive with a twenty-yard run by their Heisman candidate, LaMichael James. After incompletions and penalties pushed them back into a third and twelve just past midfield, quarterback Darron Thomas drifted back fifteen yards or so, attempting to bait the defensive linemen before dumping a screen over their heads. But as Thomas backpedalled, lineman Chase Thomas saw through the ruse and laid back instead. When Darron floated the pass in his direction, Chase was able to leap up and snare it easily for the Cardinal's second turnover of the game.
On the first play after the change of possession, Luck handed the ball off to Taylor at the Oregon 44. He darted through a hole, shed an attempted tackle, and suddenly there was nothing but green grass in front of him and green jerseys behind him.
Taylor's trip from the line of scrimmage to the end zone couldn't have taken more than six or seven seconds, but time stood still for me. I jumped off the couch and immediately began screaming at the television screen, urging on a runner that I knew wouldn't be caught. As he angled his way across the hash marks and towards the left side of the end zone, my mind began to wander. In just seconds the score would be 21-3, and -- it appeared -- the route would be on. I wondered what it would look like to see a Stanford Cardinal football team in the top five of next week's poll. I looked ahead to USC and Arizona and Arizona State. I imagined the drama of an undefeated Stanford team going to Berkeley for Big Game. I even thought about the BCS Championship game on January 10th in Glendale, Arizona -- just half a day's drive from home. Not once during all of that did I remember that these last two scores had come courtesy of Oregon turnovers. Not once did I remember that there were still forty-six minutes left to play. Not once did I think that Oregon would come back.
But they did.
The Ducks recovered to march eighty-five yards in 2:51 to slice the lead to 21-10, recovered an on-side kick, and then travelled fifty-four yards in 1:59. In less than five minutes of game time, Oregon's fast break offense had turned a 21-3 blowout into a 21-17 ballgame. Darron Thomas led the way on both drives. With a series of plays designed to minimize mistakes, increase confidence, and eliminate the threat of the Cardinal front seven, Thomas would take the snap and almost immediately deliver a pass to one side of the field or the other. These were essentially long handoffs to wideouts who would then gain small chunks of yardage if the tackle was made, large chunks if it was missed. LaMichael James also did his share of damage running the ball, and when the defense became too preoccupied the first two options, Thomas would take advantage and throw downfield behind the cover of a play-action fake. Having discovered a recipe that tasted good, the Ducks would stick with it for the rest of the game. After trading scores through the end of the second quarter, the teams went into the lockers at halftime with the score Stanford 31, Oregon 24. The Cardinal wouldn't score again.
When I watched the game a second time on Sunday night (dedication, my friends, dedication), I realized that the second half wasn't quite as bad as it seemed on Saturday. Save for a few bad plays and a little bad luck, the game could've turned out a lot differently.
Stanford, 31-24; 12:16 3rd Quarter
The Cardinal received the kick to start the second half and immediately began moving the ball downfield as they looked to pad their lead. After two first downs brought the ball to the Stanford 46, Luck took a shot down field and connected with Doug Baldwin at the Oregon twelve. Business as usual for the Mighty Card. But Baldwin was called for offensive pass interference, negating the forty-two yard gain. I can't say that it was a bad call, but plays like the one Baldwin made -- a hand on the back of the defender as he navigated around him in pursuit of the ball -- are sometimes allowed. On this day it wasn't. The drive would eventually stall, and Oregon would score, tying the game at 31-31.
31-31; 5:39 3rd Quarter
This might have been the biggest play of the game. Following Oregon's equalizer, the Cardinal took the field looking to regain the lead. Again, they moved the ball well until confronted with a third and five at their own 48. Luck then completed a pass to Chris Owusu, who made the first down just before being separated from the ball by a vicious hit. Oregon's Eddie Pleasant scooped the ball up off the turf and left the semi-conscious Owusu behind him as he scampered towards the end zone. (A quick aside. Pleasant looked for all the world to be headed for a touchdown until Andrew Luck came flashing into the picture, outran the Duck trying to block him, and finally dove at Pleasant's feet to knock him out of bounds at the three-yard-line. It was a phenomenal play that said as much about Luck's heart as it did his legs. I guarantee that when ESPN is running highlight packages at the 2012 NFL draft as they wait for Luck to be selected with the top pick, you'll see this play again and Mel Kiper, Jr. will be raving.) LaMichael James would cash in the turnover, and Oregon had its first lead since 3-0. The two teams would trade empty possessions until Oregon finally scored on the first play of the fourth quarter, stretching their lead to fourteen.
Oregon, 45-31; 10:43 4th Quarter
All was not yet lost for the Cardinal as they assembled another quality drive to bring the ball deep into Duck territory again. At second and goal from the two-yard line, Stepfan Taylor dove towards the goal line but was stopped just short. ABC announcer Brent Musberger initially called the play a touchdown, but replays showed Taylor had clearly been stopped, and the officials placed the ball about four inches shy of the end zone. My first thought: "It doesn't matter. They'll just punch it in from here." My second thought: "But something might go wrong..." Something did. In one of the oddest plays you'll see, there was a bad center-quarterback exchange and suddenly the ball was bouncing around on the field. Luck fell on it quickly, but third and goal from the four-inch line had become fourth and goal from the six. With no choice but to go for it, Luck threw incomplete to Zach Ertz and the Ducks had held. I still wonder how that play might have been different if either starting receiver (Owusu or Ryan Whalen) had been available, or even if 6'7" tight end Levine Toilolo hadn't been lost for the season on the opening series of the opening game. We'll never know.
Oregon, 45-31; 4:18 4th Quarter
Even though all the Oregon defense had to do at this point was keep all the receivers in front of them, Luck was still somehow able to find Jamal-Rashad Patterson for a forty-one yard completion to the Oregon eleven yard line. With just over four minutes left, a comeback suddenly seemed possible. A quick touchdown here and a recovered onside kick, and I'd happily take my chances with Andrew Luck and sixty yards against the Oregon defense. But in about as much time as it took me to formulate all that, everything was washed away when Luck threw into double coverage in the corner of the end zone and Oregon defensive back Cliff Harris came down with the interception. It wasn't a bad decision as much as it was a desperate one. Rather than simply take a knee, Chip Kelly chose to pad the score and his running back's Heisman résumé, but I can't be mad about that since I know Harbaugh would've done the same thing. When LaMichael James popped loose for a seventy-six-yard touchdown run, we finally had a final score: Oregon 52, Stanford 31.
I'm comfortable in saying two things. First, the better team won on Saturday, without question. Oregon is a great team, and I expect them to play this well all season long. I'll be rooting for them when they take on Alabama in the BCS Championship game on January 10th. Second, Stanford is still one of the best teams in the nation. Four terrible things happened to them in the second half, and they simply weren't able to recover. (Obviously, Oregon had something to do with that, and it should be mentioned that one difference in the game is that the Ducks were able to recover from their mistakes.) Even so, I still expect big things from the Mighty Card. Stay tuned.
[Photo Credit: Steve Dykes/Getty Images]