I spent most of Saturday afternoon convincing myself that Stanford would win this game. My doubting innerself didn't put up much of an argument, and I started thinking about the Pac-12 championship game and even the BCS champhionship game. I imagined David Shaw hoisting a trophy in New Orleans, and I pictured Andrew Luck posing at a press confernence with a stiff-arm trophy on one side of him and a crystal football on the other.
Stanford University would be on top of the college football world.
And just like that, the dream was over. In most games there's a moment you can point to, either when things turn in the winnng team's direction or when the door is shut on the possibility of a comeback. In Oregon's crushing victory over Stanford on Saturday night, however, the Cardinal died a slow death. It was as if they suffered a mortal wound in the first half but then took two painful hours to bleed to death.
At the outset, things looked... well, it's hard to say that things looked good, but things at least looked promising.
The Stanford offense opened the game with a three-and-out, but when the defense came on the field and snuffed out Oregon's first drive in three plays as well, there was hope.
Stanford's second drive wasn't much better (there was a first down before they had to punt the ball away again), but the defense looked almost dominant on Oregon's second series. In fact, the Cardinal probably should've come up with the game's first big play. Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas dropped back to pass on third and ten from his own forty-seven and immediately found himself in the crosshairs of Matthew Masifilo. Thomas back-pedalled, but Masifilo pursued relentlessly and finally caught him fifteen yards behind the line of scrimmage. He wrapped him up for what looked to be a sure sack, but as the two were headed to the ground, Thomas foolishly flipped the ball up into the air. The ball came down in the arms of linebacker Trent Murphy, and Stanford should've gotten possession in Oregon territory.
The officials saw things differently, however. A whistle had blown as Masifilo was tackling Thomas but before he threw the pass. There was no disputing the order of those events, but the explanation was curious. Thomas's forward progress had stopped, so Masifilo was credited with a twenty-yard sack.
To cite this play as a reason for Stanford's loss would be ridiculous, but it's a play that could've changed the direction of the game at that moment, and if you look at a game as a serious of moments, each building upon the last, it's hard to know what might've happened next had Murphy been credited with the interception.
Instead, something bad happened next. On a third and nine play from the Stanford forty-nine, Luck dropped back to pass. In the face of an Oregon blitz (Oregon's pressure, from various blitzing packages to a straight four-man rush, would be a story all evening), Luck had to work through his progressions a bit faster than he'd have liked. When he finally looked back to his right and fired a pass out in that direction, it was as if he hadn't seen linebacker DeWitt Stuckey. Stuckey stepped in front of the pass right at the line of scrimmage and sprinted down the sidelines. Luck easily ran him down to tackle him at the twenty, but Oregon was in business.
On Oregon's first two possessions, it had looked like the Stanford front seven might be too much for their offensive line. The line of scrimmage seemed to move at least a yard or two into the backfield as the Stanford defensive line was completing overwhelming the Ducks, allowing the linebackers behind them to attack and smother the Oregon running game.
Apparently energized by the turnover, the Ducks suddenly looked completely different. Or, more accurately, they looked exactly like they always look. Darron Thomas rushed for nine yards on the first play, and two plays later LaMichael James went for eight. Two plays after that Thomas fired a bullet to Lavasier Tuinei in the corner of the end zone, and the Ducks were up by seven.
Check that. If the Ducks are anything, they're unconventional. Oregon raced out for the extra point and dropped into an odd formation, with one player lined up behind the center and everyone else swung out wide to the left. Instead of snapping the ball behind him, the center shovelled the ball to tight end David Paulsen, who was standing behind that wall of linemen five yards to the left of the ball. Paulsen then passed the ball to linebacker Mike Garrity in the end zone for the conversion. It seemed like a lot of creative energy spent for just two points, but it did more than just move the score from 6-0 to 8-0. It sent the message that the Ducks would do anything at anytime, and they weren't worried about possibly leaving a point on the field had the play backfired. Perhaps more importantly, it meant that even if Andrew Luck were able to take the next possession and march down the field for a touchdown, the Cardinal would still be trailing.
So Andrew Luck did take the next possession and march down the field for a touchdown. This was the drive where things looked the most promising for the Cardinal. Stepfan Taylor continued to pound his way through the Oregon defensive line and into the second level of defenders. Other running backs contributed as well -- Ryan Hewitt had a big seven-yard gain on a third and one and Tyler Gaffney picked up seven out of the Sequoia -- but it was Taylor driving the bus as he carried the ball eight times for forty-one yards on this drive alone. Luck finished things out with a sixteen-yard pass to Griff Whalen for a touchdown to bring the score to 8-6. It would remain 8-6 after backup kicker Eric Whitaker shanked the extra point.
What this drive showed was that Stanford had a huge advantage running the football. Luck had only thrown three passes, and yet they had had no trouble moving the ball. They had fallen into third down situations only twice, and both times it had been third and one. The second quarter had just started, and Stanford was dominating everywhere except the scoreboard. The Cardinal had gained 98 total yards and held the ball for 10:53; Oregon, meanwhile, had -1 in the total yard category. It was only Luck's interception that allowed for that short twenty-yard touchdown drive that had kept the Ducks in front. Surely, the tide would start to turn.
The tide did start to turn, but not in the direction Cardinal fans would've liked. Oregon took the next possession and reminded everyone of the importance of speed on the football field. The Stanford defense had done an excellent job of limiting LaMichael James in the first quarter, but the problem with facing the Oregon offense is that you can do an excellent job -- for a while. You can bottle them up and bottle them up and bottle them up -- and then something explodes, like the cork from a champagne bottle.
On second and ten from the Oregon forty-two, James became the cork. He made a couple guys miss at the line of scrimmage, but was then in the open field and in the end zone in the blink of an eye. The play had covered fifty-eight yards, but it had all happened unbelievably fast. After a conventional extra point, Oregon led 15-6.
Stanford couldn't do anything on its next drive, but Oregon gave them a bit of life when running back/wide receiver De'Anthony Thomas fumbled the ball away, setting up the Stanford offense at its own forty-five. A Stanford touchdown here would essentially even the score and erase the importance of Luck's early interception.
They went back to Taylor, who tirelessly pounded into the Oregon defense three more times and added his first reception of the game on this possession. The drive stalled, however, and the offense had to settle for a Whitaker field goal. The lead was cut to one possession at 15-9, but there was a sense that this more than just a lost opportunity. The Oregon offense seemed to be revving up, and it was hard to imagine that they'd be settling for field goals.
Those fears were confirmed two minutes and four seconds later in another play that highlighted the differences between these two teams. Oregon found themselves facing a fourth and seven at the Stanford forty-one, but they kept their offense on the field. Coach Chip Kelly would explain his rationale afterwards, and it made perfect sense. He realized that a punt from that spot on the field would likely end up as a touchback, giving the Cardinal the ball on the twenty and only netting twenty-one yards of field position. He also felt like if he could call two plays on third down (De'Anthony Thomas had taken a two-yard loss on third and five), they could get to the line of scrimmage quickly and possibly catch the defense off guard on fourth down.
That's pretty much how it worked. After stopping Thomas on that third down, the Cardinal defense reacted as you might expect. They celebrated, knowing they had stopped the Ducks and given the ball back to their powerful offense. If Luck could direct a scoring drive in the final three minutes, they could even go into halftime with the lead.
Those were the thoughts running through my head as well, but we all quickly realized that Kelly was thinking something completely different. The defense only managed two or three steps towards the sideline before they saw what Oregon was doing and had to scamper back out to their positions. Quarterback Thomas dropped back and took his time, sucking the defense in. Just before he was tackled from behind, he found running back Thomas in the flat. Thomas didn't have to do much besides use his blinding speed to get into the secondary, and then it only took a simple change of direction to get around the final defender for a touchdown. Oregon 22, Stanford 9.
The swing of emotions was stunning, but Andrew Luck responded like the Heisman candidate he is. (More on this later, by the way.) He opened the next drive at his own sixteen with 2:47 to play and completed his first three passes to tight ends to bring the ball out near midfield. From there he focused on his favorite target, Griff Whalen (though there was also an eight-yard completion to freshman Ty Montgomery). When Luck hit Whalen for a thirteen-yard touchdown with twenty-four seconds left the deficit had been cut to 22-16, and there was hope.
I was encouraged by the knowledge that Stanford has been an excellent second half team over the past two years, but I was worried because of what had happened in the second half last year in Eugene.
I was right to be worried. Oregon took the opening kick off and put their speed on display almost immediately. All game long the Stanford cornerbacks were having trouble staying with the Oregon receivers. Derron Thomas is a good quarterback, but he was made to look even better on Saturday night because his targets were frequently three, five, or even ten yards away from the nearest defender. On second and ten from the Oregon forty-one, Thomas found wide receiver Josh Huff -- wide open. Huff made a quick spin to get around a cornerback (Terrence Brown, if memory serves), then eluded a tackle attempt by safety Michael Thomas and sprinted for the fifty-nine yard touchdown. Here's how it looks on the stat sheet: Oregon 29, Stanford 16. Four plays, 74 yards, 1:37. In reality, it looked even worse. It was Oregon's fourth touchdown and their third to cover more than fifty yards.
Stanford responded with a three and out, but just when it looked like the game was about to get away, there was hope. LaMichael James fumbled the punt, and Stanford recovered with new life at the Oregon thirty-four.
All game long I found myself desperately projecting the outcomes of this drive or that. Here I assumed the offense would easily cash in this turnover for a touchdown and bring the score to 29-23. Then all they'd need was a stop -- just one stop -- from the defense, and they'd have a chance to take the lead.
But the drive stalled immediately. Facing third and six from the thirty, Luck hit Coby Fleener in the hands. Fleener was short of the first down marker, but he appeared to have enough of an angle that he'd be able to make the catch, turn up field, and keep the drive alive. But he dropped the ball. Whitaker missed an ill-advised forty-eight yard field goal attempt, and for about the tenth time that night -- repeat after me -- it felt like the game was getting away.
The defense stood strong, though, and forced a three and out. It was still just a two-possession game, and Andrew Luck had the ball in his hands. This time I didn't have time to project. Luck was sacked on first down and the ball popped out of his hands. Offensive lineman Jonathan Martin raked the ball towards him as he lay on his side and seemed to have the recovery, but he somehow lost it to Oregon's Brandon Hanna. Four plays later James was skipping into the end zone, and Oregon led 36-16. I was projecting again, but I didn't like any of my projections.
Stanford scored on the ensuing possession (a one-yard toss from Luck to Jeremy Stewart), but Oregon answered with a field goal that looked incredibly important at the time. They led 46-30, meaning it would take two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions for Stanford to tie. It was a tall order, but was it impossible?
Two plays later, it would be. On second and five from his own twenty-nine, Luck hit Montgomery right between the eights for what should've been a first down. Instead the ball bounced off Montgomery and directly back into the arms of linebacker Boseko Lokombo, who was trailing the play. It happened so quickly that it looked like a perfectly executed hook and ladder, only this time the ladder was headed in the wrong direction. Lokombo turned and ran untouched for the touchdown. It wasn't Luck's fault, but it was still the third pick six he's thrown this season, his third turnover of the night, and something that Heisman voters might remember when they cast their votes next month.
The main thing, though, was the game was over. Oregon led 53-30 with less than five minutes to play. The suddenness of that play combined with the suddenly huge twenty-three point margin made it seem odd that anyone would've been holding out hope before the interception, but that was now a moot point. Andrew Luck trudged the sideline, and it seemed odd to me that he walked past Coach Shaw without even glancing at him. And then it made perfect sense. He headed straight for Montgomery. He looked him in his eyes, patted him on the head, and told him it would be okay.
So if you're still reading this, allow me to pat you on the head and tell you that it will be okay. Yes, Stanford failed to win this game, the biggest game in Stanford history, and no, the national championship dream is no longer possible.
Stanford lost to a superior team, but I'm not sure if the gap is as hopelessly wide as it might seem. On this night, however, the gap was extraordinarily wide. According to Matt Hinton from Dr. Saturday, "It wasn't just Stanford's worst offensive effort of the season: It was arguably the worst in nearly three full seasons with Andrew Luck as starting quarterback. Thirty points marked the Cardinal's lowest-scoring game in two years; their output in terms of total yards (372), rushing yards (133) and yards per play (4.9) marked new lows in any game Luck has started in his career. The best-protected quarterback in America was sacked three times, a career high, hit a dozen more and forced into three turnovers — yes, another career high." [Editor's note: Stanford actually scored only 17 points last year in a victory over Arizona State.]
How did this happen? Injuries are a part of sports, but it should be noted -- as it was repeatedly noted all week -- that Oregon's injuries are behind them while Stanford's are front and center. Would Shayne Skov have made a difference? Obviously. Would Zach Ertz? Certainly. And what if Chris Owusu had been available -- maybe the 2009 version of Chris Owusu? What if Luck's top two receivers hadn't been a former walk-on and a true freshman?
These aren't excuses, they're merely statements of fact. Oregon is a great team, and even had all those injured Cardinal players been available on Saturday night, they'd have still presented a great challenge. LaMicheal James is clearly one of the best running backs in the country, and one of his backups, De'Anthony Thomas, is one of the fastest people in the country. There is no shame in losing to this team, a team whose only loss came more than two months ago at the hands of LSU, the number one team in the nation.
Even so, there will be national pundits who will want to bury the Cardinal for not beating the best team on its schedule. Others will even want to claim that Andrew Luck is no longer worthy of the Heisman Trophy.
But when you hear those things, remember this. The sports media is insanely reactionary. As Andrew Luck and Michael Thomas said after the game, they still have two important games to play. They shouldn't have any trouble beating Cal next week, and they should also be able to get past Notre Dame as well the following week.
If that happens Stanford will have finished the season at 11-1 for the second straight year. Andrew Luck will still win the Heisman Trophy. As for their bowl destination, we'll know a lot more once the polls are released, but I think the Cardinal will still find its way into a BCS bowl, probably either the Sugar Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl.
The national championship dream was nice, but any season that ends with a Heisman Trophy and a BCS bowl game has to be considered a success.
Go Mighty Card.
[Photo Credit: Paul Sakuma/AP Photo]