Where exactly do you start with a game like this? How do you begin to describe what happened on a cold, rainy night in Eugene against one of the best teams the Pac-12 conference has seen in years?
You begin, I suppose, with the beginning. Stanford's slim hopes for victory rode on the arm and legs of quarterback Kevin Hogan, a redshirt freshman making his first career road start in the chaos of Autzen Stadium, but he didn't enter the fray alone. He'd stand in the huddle with an offensive line that continues to get better each week, tight ends that are the envy of every team in the nation, and a running back who's but a handful of yards short of the all-time Stanford rushing record.
But whenever you play the Ducks, the focus is on the unstoppable Oregon offense, something Hogan and his offense wouldn't really be able to control. (Sure, they could play keep away, but in the last two matchups between these teams, Stanford has owned the time of possession battle 67:53 to 52:07, but they've still given up more than 50 points each time.)
Yes, the offense would need to play well, but success or failure in this game would be determined by the defense, plain and simple. The defense had been brilliant through the first ten games of the season, but they hadn't played the Ducks, the best offense in the land. The defense ranked #1 in the nation against the rush, but they hadn't faced Oregon's Kenjon Barner, the best running back in the country.
The Stanford defense had carried the team through most of the season's first ten games. They couldn't possibly do it in the eleventh against such formidable odds, could they?
The Cardinal and Ducks traded scoreless possessions for the first eleven minutes of the game, but there were positive signs. Head coach David Shaw and many of his defensive players had talked openly over the past few months about the defense's improvements -- size, speed, tackling -- and how it would help them against the Ducks. This defense is built to stop Oregon, we often heard. Early on, they were limiting the run game and containing quarterback Marcus Mariota, but the conventional wisdom -- and ABC announcers Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit -- said it couldn't last the entire game.
The defense earned its first victory on Oregon's second possession. After a perfectly-placed punt pinned the Ducks back on their own 8 yard line, Mariota dropped back to pass on first down, but couldn't find a receiver. He quickly picked his way through the defensive line, skipped out to the right sideline, and ran for daylight. Running free down the edge of the field with De'Anthony Thomas sprinting stride for stride with him as his wingman, it was a certain touchdown. Safety Devon Carrington had an angle on the play, but surely Thomas would turn and pick him off, allowing Mariota to walk the rest of the way into the end zone.
But he didn't. Thomas never looked around, and Carrington was able to shove Mariota out of bounds at the 15, giving his defense another chance. The Cardinal stood tall, eventually holding on third down to bring up 4th and 2 from the 7. A field goal would've given the Ducks the early lead, but settling for a field goal is like taking medicine without the sugar for Oregon coach Chip Kelly, so he kept the offense on the field.
The Ducks went to their bread-and-butter play, the read-option, and Stanford played it perfectly. Oregon lined up with Barner offset behind Mariota and Thomas split out wide. Thomas came across in motion just before the snap, but defensive end Josh Mauro flew into the backfield just a whisper after the snap, launching himself towards Thomas, eliminating that option. Forced to keep the ball, Mariota stepped to his right and decided against the outside pitch to Barner. Just as he turned into the line, the gap was filled beautifully by Shayne Skov, who wrapped up Mariota for no gain. What had looked like a sure touchdown only minutes earlier had turned into a huge win for the Stanford defense.
It should be noted that while the defense is physically better than ever, this series showed that they are also better prepared. In seasons past the defense would begin celebrating after stopping the Ducks on third down and even take a few instinctive steps towards the sideline, only to have to scramble back and have their hearts broken when Oregon converted on fourth down. There was none of that tonight. Stanford would hold Oregon to 4 of 17 on third down, and an even more impressive 0 for 2 on fourth down.
What followed this fourth-down stop was absolutely beautiful. After Taylor ran for no gain on the first play of the drive, the Stanford offense clicked off three consecutive first downs with eleven yards to Ertz, 24 to Kelsey Young on a nice slip screen to the right, and 15 from Taylor to bring the ball into Oregon territory. Things got more methodical from there, but Stanford eventually earned a 1st and goal at the 5.
After Taylor carried it a yard short of the end zone, Hogan broke out his bread-and-butter -- the bootleg. He rolled out to the right and drifted back as he looked for a receiver, but when he saw that Ertz was covered on his crossing pattern, he put his foot in the ground at the 9 yard line and rushed up field. He made one man miss, broke through another, then dove across the goal line for the game's first score and a 7-0 Stanford lead.
It was an epic 15-play drive that covered 93 yards and ate up just a tick over seven minutes. More important than that, the young freshman quarterback who was supposed to wilt beneath the pressure of the moment was showing no signs of youth. At this point in the game he had completed 12 of 13 passes for 96 yards and rushed three times for 18 yards and that touchdown. Don't look now, but one day he could be Stanford's next Heisman runner-up.
The Stanford defense continued to play strong against the Oregon attack, holding them on their next two possessions, aided by punter Daniel Zychlinski. Stanford had a clear edge in the time of possession battle, and thanks to Zychlinski they were also winning the field position battle. He would punt six times on the night, averaging 45.7 yards per kick. Five of those punts hit inside the 20, and three were inside the 10.
Thanks to his work, the Cardinal offense took over at their own 38 with 7:04 to play in the first half and found themselves at a decision point a few plays later as they faced 4th and 1 at the Oregon 41. Much of the talk leading up to the game centered around the idea that Shaw had to take risks if he wanted to earn the upset, and the risk suggested most often was to go for it on fourth down. Part of that feeling comes not only from a fan's natural tendency to take chances (no crowd has ever risen to its feet imploring a team to punt), but also from the man on the other sideline and his habit of leaving the punter on the bench in these situations.
But the decision on this play -- short yardage, on Oregon's side of the field but out of field goal range -- was simple. Shaw kept the offense out on the field with a jumbo set -- seven men across the line of scrimmage with Taylor and two fullbacks behind Hogan. Hogan faked the handoff to Taylor, then turned and looked to pass. Fullback Ryan Hewitt had slipped through the defensive line and broken free near the center of the field. He was wide open. Hogan had been accurate all night, but he missed this throw, certainly one of the easiest of the game. If the throw had been on the money, it would've gone for at least a twenty-yard gain; instead the ball was turned over to the Ducks.
Brent Musburger immediately questioned the play, saying it was a bad call, but I disagree. You can't always measure a call based on the result of the play. This was a great call, it just wasn't executed correctly. When the Ducks followed their stop by covering 59 yards in just three plays and 47 seconds for the game-tying touchdown, Herbstreit reminded us that this is what happens when you give Oregon good field position. Maybe so, but it was still the right call.
After the teams traded empty possessions and a couple of interceptions to run out the first half, the game entered its final thirty minutes with the outcome in doubt, but that wasn't new. Stanford had led Oregon 31-24 at the half in 2010, and trailed by only six points at the break last season. The second half against the Ducks has been the problem for Stanford, particularly for the Stanford defense, and midway through the third quarter it started to look like this game might be following the pattern set by the previous two.
The Ducks took over at their own 5 yard line and started off on one of the most workmanlike drives you'll ever see from Oregon. Their previous touchdown drive had been like a lightning strike, but this one -- 95 yards in 15 plays over 3:20 (an eternity for the Ducks) -- was more like a rain storm. It ended with a six-yard run from Thomas, and Oregon had its first lead of the game, 14-7.
If the Cardinal were to avoid the disasters of 2010 and '11, this would be an important drive. They didn't necessarily need to score, but they needed to be effective. They needed to get some first downs.
They earned a first down on the first play, which was a great sign, but Kelsey Young fumbled the ball away two strides after he crossed the first down marker and the Ducks recovered, which was a bad sign.
The Oregon offense took over at the Stanford 39, and it felt like it was happening again. Surely the Ducks would score in two or three plays, recover an onside kick, score again, and the game would disappear like smoke.
But that's how it used to work when Stanford played Oregon. This time the Cardinal defense stood strong, and when the Ducks found themselves with a 4th and 6 from the 25, Kelly did the unthinkable -- he sent in the field goal unit. Alejandro Maldonado missed the kick to the right, and the Stanford heart started beating again.
Two possessions later it was Code Blue again when Stepfan Taylor, Kulabafi himself, fumbled on the Oregon 20, just as it looked like the Cardinal was heading for the game-tying score. With the clock slowing draining and the Ducks just a touchdown away from sealing the victory, it was once again up to the defense. All they did was come with their second straight three-and-out, giving the offense another chance.
Kevin Hogan led his squad back out onto the field and went right back to his workhorse. Taylor carried the ball six times on the drive for thirty yards (he was the best running back in the stadium and would finish the night with 161 yards on 33 carries), but the drive stalled when Remound Wright, the designated short-yardage back, was stoned for no gain on 3rd and 3 from the Oregon 26.
If there was one place to question Shaw in this game, this was the play. With his team down by a touchdown with eight minutes to play, Shaw sent in the field goal unit. I don't know what he said about this decision after the game, but I know what he was thinking in the moment. He trusted his field goal kicker, but he trusted his defense even more. If he got the three points, great. If he didn't, he was sure the defense would get the ball back. I understand that logic, I just don't agree with it. (Spoiler alert: it worked out in the end, but remember -- we don't judge a play call only by the result.)
Jordan Williamson's kick hooked to the left, just like his misses always do, and Oregon had the ball back with a chance to seal the game and move one step closer to the national championship game. The Stanford defense -- one more time -- had to cover for another missed opportunity by the Stanford offense. Could they possibly do it again?
At least once more, they could. After Barner ripped off twelve yards to move the sticks on first down, the defense clamped down and pushed the Ducks into a punt -- again.
So Stanford took over on their own 22 with 6:28 to play, poised on the precipice of the upset. The drive that followed was everything Stanford football should be. Taylor ran the ball four times for sixteen yards, but Hogan and his tight ends did most of the work. There was a seven-yard pass to Levine Toilolo for an early first down, but the star of this drive was Zach Ertz, who's the best tight end in America, no matter what the people in South Bend might tell you.
Hogan found Ertz for twelve yards and a first down at the Oregon 47, for 22 yards down the sideline to the Oregon 21, then for nine yards (and just short of the first down) three plays later on 3rd and 10.
There was obviously no decision on this 4th and 1, but Shaw took a timeout anyway, just to be certain they had the right play call. When the offense came back out on the field, Hewitt was in the backfield. With Nunes at quarterback in these short yardage situations, there was never a question about what would happen -- a run up the middle. But now things are different. Defenses have to be ready for Hogan to bootleg with a run/pass option, and because of the play run in the second quarter, the Ducks also knew Hewitt might sneak out for a pass. Perhaps because of this indecision, Hewitt was able to take Hogan's handoff and dive forward for an easy two yards, keeping the drive and Stanford's hopes alive.
On the next play Hogan lofted a ball into the corner of the end zone for Ertz. He was covered about as well as a defensive back can cover a 6'6" tight end, but Ertz still managed to get both his hands on the ball as he fell towards the back of the end zone, landing either on or just inside the back line. Even live it looked like a touchdown, but I'm sure all the Oregon fans watching thought the officials had it right when they ruled the pass incomplete. After a lengthy review, the call was reversed and the game was tied at 14.
Ertz has been Stanford's leading receiver all season long, but this night was his coming out party. He caught eleven passes for 106 yards and this touchdown, leaving little doubt that he's the best tight end in the country.
As amazing as it was to see the Cardinal tied with the Ducks this late in the game, there was an obvious truth hanging in the air -- there was still 1:35 left to play, enough time for any good offense to score and more than enough time for Oregon. Could the defense answer the bell again?
They could, and they'd actually answer that bell twice. After an incomplete pass and a zero gain from Barner, Mariota and the Ducks faced 3rd and 10 from their own 22. Mariota saw tight end Colt Lyerla down the right sideline, covered tightly by Terrence Brown. The pass sailed beyond Lyerla's grasp, and it looked for a moment that the Cardinal had forced a 4th and 10, but then the yellow flag flew in. Replays showed some contact, but nothing egregious; defensive backs have certainly gotten away with much more in other situations, but it didn't matter. The Ducks were rewarded with a first down on their own 37.
Mariota's next pass earned another first down, but the defense yielded nothing after that. The Ducks went two yards forward and one yard back on first and second downs, then Mariota threw an incomplete pass on third. Not even Chip Kelly could go for it on 4th and 9 from midfield with a minute left in a tie game, so the Ducks punted the ball away.
When Kevin Hogan took a knee a few minutes later to end regulation and send the game to overtime, most Cardinal fans were a bit on edge as they wondered which team had the advantage in the extra period and struggled to reconcile perception with reality. The first thought is that this is Oregon. Placing the ball on the 25 yard line for a Chip Kelly team is like taking your pet antelope for a walk through the Serengeti. The outcome seems fairly obvious.
But the reality said something completely different. The dominant unit on Saturday evening was the Stanford defense, not the Oregon offense. After the Ducks scored to take a seven-point lead with 6:35 to play in the third quarter, Shayne Skov and the Magnificent Eleven took over. The Ducks had five possessions in regulation following that touchdown, and they only earned three first downs. Aside from the drive that started in Stanford territory after Kelsey Young's fumble, they never crossed midfield.
If the last 21 minutes of the game told us anything, it was this: the Ducks could not move the ball against the Stanford defense.
The Cardinal won the overtime coin flip and naturally chose to start on defense. Mariota dropped back to pass on first down, but was flushed out of the pocket and forced out of bounds for a two-yard loss when he couldn't find an open receiver. The Ducks went with a read-option on second down, and Mariota kept it himself when he saw that only Trent Murphy was left on the right side. Mariota took off to his right, looking to loop around Murphy, but he had underestimated the linebacker's speed. By the time he got around the corner and was pushed out of bounds he had gained only three yards, bringing up 3rd and 9.
Mariota has been praised all season long for possessing a poise that belied his years, but that poise evaporated in this overtime. With Oregon's championship season on the line, Mariota dropped back and looked for wide receiver Josh Huff. Huff had started in the right slot, and when Mariota saw Huff make a shoulder fake towards the corner, he fired in that direction. The problem was that Huff had read post, and he was headed in that direction. Mariota's pass fell to the turf untouched, ten yards from the nearest Oregon receiver. The Autzen Stadium crowd fell silent, save for a smattering of boos and a quiet "Block That Kick!" cheer from the few Stanford fans in attendance.
Maldonado's 41-yard kick wasn't blocked, but it bounced off the goal post, and the ball turned over to the Cardinal, giving them a chance to shake up the world.
This being David Shaw, the play calling was predictably -- and appropriately -- conservative. Taylor rushed up the middle for two yards, and after a timeout Hogan looked to run the ball on second down. He curled around to his left, but the ball squirted out of his hands just as he was being tackled.
It was the type of fumble that induces cardiac arrest. The entire sequence probably took just a second or two, but time seemed to stop as the ball bounced into open space. At first it seemed completely up for grabs, but then the ball bounded towards three Oregon defenders and all appeared lost. The Ducks would grab the ball, sending the game into a second overtime, and yet another opportunity would be lost.
But suddenly there was a white flash from the right side of the screen as an unknown offensive lineman (Khalil Wilkes?) dove into the fray and recovered the ball for Stanford. Cardinal hearts had barely dropped back into rhythm when Taylor gained three yards on third down to bring the ball to the Oregon 20. From there it would be a 37-yard field goal attempt.
We all know Jordan Williamson's story, so rather than recap the entire saga here, I'll leave it at this. He trotted onto the Autzen Stadium field, a young man in desperate need of redemption. In his post game press conference Shaw revealed that following one of Williamson's earlier misses, he had looked his kicker in the eye and told him it was time to grow up. He was tired of telling people about Williamson's potential, and wanted him to start making some field goals.
I doubt that kick in the pants made the difference, but Williamson stepped into the ball and pounded it towards the uprights. For just a moment it looked like it wanted to drift off to the left -- or maybe that's what my mind feared it would do -- but it hung on. Williamson didn't put it down the middle, but he put it through, which is good enough. Stanford 17, Oregon 14.
The national story, of course, is that Oregon's perfect season and national championship aspirations came crashing down, but the Stanford perspective is dramatically different.
Given the context, this is the greatest win in the history of Stanford football. Before you object, hear me out. The Cardinal travelled to Autzen Stadium to face to the fearsome Oregon Ducks, an undefeated team that was averaging 54 points per game. Even the great Andrew Luck teams of 2010 and '11 had failed miserably going up against Oregon teams that weren't as good as this one, so it was foolish to expect a victory with a redshirt freshman making his first career road start.
Sure, there have been other big wins recently, but the 2007 win over USC was a fluke, and last year's overtime thriller against USC was exciting because the defense allowed it to be. Also, that Trojan team wasn't exactly a national power.
Stanford's domination of Oregon on Saturday afternoon was so thorough, however, that there is no way to mitigate it with caveats or excuses. The Stanford defense held the Ducks forty points below their average and rendered Kenjon Barner essentially irrelevant. (After rushing for over 300 yards against USC two weeks ago, Barner was held to just 66 on 21 carries by the Cardinal.) Marcus Mariota, who has looked like a future Heisman winner all season long, was harrassed and bothered into his worst performance of the season. Aside from that one long run, he was incredibly average, completing just 21 of 37 for a touchdown and an interception. He looked like a freshman.
The biggest question after the game was a simple one: How did Stanford beat Oregon? And the answer was equally simple -- they were better. As his players were celebrating around him amidst the deafening silence of the Autzen Zoo, Shaw gave an honest assessment: "We can get so much better. If we cut down our turnovers, this might not even be a close game."
When Kelly got the same question in his postgame presser, he was quick to credit the Stanford defense, rattling off a list of Stanford defenders -- Stephens, Skov, Thomas, Murphy, and Gardner -- and reminding his audience that they were all pretty good. "That's why we're sitting here with frowns on our faces, and they're in their locker room with smiles on theirs."
From here the Cardinal will turn its attention to a possible home-and-home series with UCLA and the Rose Bowl prize that awaits them if they can sweep that doubleheader. I suggest you do the same. Sure, there's a natural tendency to think back to those narrow losses in September and October and project this team into the national championship game, but there's no profit in that.
Instead, think about demons exorcised, think about Roses in bloom, think about the healing power of redemption on a young kicker's soul, and think about the greatness that waits in the future of Stanford football.
[Photo Credit: Don Ryan/AP Photo]