Well, I suppose now we know that the Ducks do not have a Stanford problem. Oregon's decisive 45-16 victory over the Cardinal proved that and two other things -- first, the Ducks are certainly one of the four best teams in the country and deserving of a spot in the College Football Playoffs, and second, Marcus Mariota is the best collegiate football player in America. It also revealed a few things about the Cardinal, but we'll get to that later. For now, the game.
Oregon took the game's opening kickoff and immediately started doing Oregon things. Because Mariota is the face of the program, there's a misconception that Oregon is just another pass-happy Pac-12 team, but this couldn't be further from the truth. The Ducks have always been a run-first team (though not quite as much now under Coach Mark Helfrich as they had been under Chip Kelly), and they went right to the ground game on this first possession. Mariota completed a pass on first down, but after that the Cardinal defense got a good look at the Oregon rushing attack, led by true freshman Royce Freeman.
Listed at 6'0" and 229 pounds, Freeman gives the Ducks something the Cardinal doesn't have -- a true power back. From 2008 to 2013 the Stanford running game was built on the broad shoulders of Toby Gerhart (6'1", 235), Stepfan Taylor (5'11", 215) and Tyler Gaffney (6'1", 226), workhorses who were strong enough to rack up 30 carries a game while pounding the defense into submission. One of the many theories as to why the Stanford offense has been so inconsistent this season centers on the lack of this power back, but the Ducks have no such questions.
Freeman carried the ball five times for 15 yards on this possession, but it was Mariota that made the difference. He dropped back to pass on 4th and 5 from the Stanford 40, but the Cardinal defensive backs did their job, leaving no passing options for the quarterback. In Stanford's dominant win in 2013, Mariota frequently held the ball in these situations, taking three sacks and rarely hurting the Cardinal with his legs. Whether this was because of a possible knee injury or because of Stanford's excellent containment, it was the key to the Cardinal's success in that game.
On this fourth down play, however, Mariota served early notice that things would be different this year. After surveying the field and finding no options to his liking, Mariota squeezed his way out of the pocket, broke through an attempted arm tackle and avoided a grab at his ankle, and he was free. He took off through the left side of the defense and rambled untouched for 21 yards before stepping out of bounds at the Stanford 19. His longest run from scrimmage in 2013 was eight yards; on Saturday night he would have four such runs, including this one. Last year his rushing total was -16 yards; on Saturday night he would run for 85.
Mariota finished the drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to Charles Nelson on a rollout to his right, and the Ducks were up 7-0.
It wasn't the best start for the Cardinal, but Kevin Hogan and the revamped Stanford offense trotted out onto the field looking to respond. Given excellent field possession thanks to a 35-yard kick return by Ty Montgomery, the offense kicked into gear almost immediately. Montgomery lined up in the wildcat on 2nd and 9 with two extra offensive linemen on the left side of the formation. Kelsey Young was split out wide to the right and sprinted towards the backfield before the snap, but he slammed on the breaks just before Montgomery took the ball and headed left behind a caravan of blockers. One of those blockers was Hogan, who delayed his man enough to spring Montgomery for a nice 16-yard gain and a first down at the Oregon 46.
Another first down, this time a 13-yard pass over the middle to tight end Austin Hooper, moved the ball to the Oregon 33, but the drive stalled three plays later at the 30. Given the nature of the Oregon offense, the gravity of the game, and the well-documented struggles of field goal kicker Jordan Williamson, I fully expected David Shaw to keep the offense out on the field, but I was wrong. Williamson came out instead and, perhaps buoyed by a return to the scene of the greatest moment of his career, promptly split the uprights from 47 yards out, just one yard shy of his career best.
The announcers quickly played up the fact that Stanford couldn't expect to win if they traded touchdowns for field goals (I think they probably cover that in the first five minutes of Football Analysis 101), but they only said that because they didn't know any better. For the Stanford offense to put points on the board this early -- any kind of points -- boded well.
The time to score against the Stanford defense is always the first quarter. After a series or two, defensive coordinator Lance Anderson, just like Derek Mason before him, has a knack for making the proper adjustments to limit a team's attack. Unfortunately, those adjustments weren't yet in place by the time the Ducks took the field for their second possession. The defense had a chance to get off the field when Oregon fell into a 3rd and 7 at the Stanford 44. The defensive front was able to get enough pressure on Mariota to make him a bit uncomfortable in the pocket, but he simply stepped up past it before throwing awkwardly off his back foot -- and hitting Devon Allen right in the hands for 22 yards and a first down. On the next play Mariota went to the read option, and he read correctly. Spotting linebacker James Vaughters streaking towards the running back rather than holding his edge, Mariota kept the ball himself and ran into the wide open space that Vaughters should've occupied. Twenty-two yards later he was casually handing the ball to the official in the end zone, and his Ducks were up 14-3.
Proving that it wasn't yet time to panic, the Stanford offense responded with another quality drive, and again they showcased some of the new wrinkles rolled out the week before against Oregon State. After an 18-yard strike from Hogan to Devon Cajuste gave the Cardinal some breathing room out to its own 35, Hogan called his own number on a designed quarterback draw out of the shotgun. He tucked the ball immediately and rushed upfield through a wide hole on the right side of the line for an eleven-yard gain. Hogan will never challenge Mariota as a runner, but his running skills have been ignored for too long this season. Plays that gain eleven yards are good plays.
Continuing this theme, the next play was a read option. The play was blocked so well that either option would've been successful, but Hogan gave the ball to Young, and the running back sprinted out to the left for ten more yards. On three consecutive plays the Cardinal had gained 38 yards and three first downs, moving all the way to the Oregon 44 and reminding the world that this was a good offensive team. Really. When Hogan converted on 3rd and 5 three plays later with a 16-yard pass to Hooper, it began to feel like the Stanford offense would be able to hang with Oregon at least until the defense could get its bearings and slow down the Ducks. Even though the drive stalled a few plays later and the Cardinal had to settle for a 42-yard field goal from Williamson, things were still looking good. Yes, Stanford trailed 14-6, but things were still looking good.
Oregon's third possession was a series of near misses for the Cardinal defense that built towards an inevitable conclusion -- another Oregon touchdown. First, with the Ducks facing a 3rd and 7 from their own 28, Lance Anderson dialed up a blitz and was able to get enough pressure on Mariota to force an early throw. The ball fell incomplete, and for the briefest moment it looked like the defense had forced a punt, but true freshman Terrence Alexander was rightfully called for pass interference, and the Ducks had their first down. Three plays later it was 3rd and 5, and again the front four were able to pressure Mariota, this time forcing a scramble. Three different Cardinal defenders had him in their grasps at one time or another, but Mariota was able to power through them all, gaining eight yards and another first down. Finally, after the Ducks moved the ball all the way down to the Stanford 1, Alex Carter nearly had a shot at a goal line interception, but he was only able to come up with a deflection. A few seconds later Thomas Tyner was pounding his way into the end zone, and the Ducks were up 21-6.
If you didn't watch the game, I know it doesn't make sense when I tell you that the game wasn't yet out of reach, but trust me when I tell you that it wasn't. On 2nd and 8 from his own 14, Hogan floated a Hoganesque pass (meaning it didn't look pretty, but it got there) to a wide open Cajuste, who caught the ball while back pedalling, then turned up field to add another ten yards to what would be a 42-yard gain into Oregon territory at the 44. A few plays later they faced 4th and 2 at the 24, and Shaw had a decision to make. If either of the first two possessions (or both) had produced a touchdown, perhaps he'd have chosen differently, but with a 15-point defecit it was hard to fault him when he kept Williamson on the sidelines.
The play call was something that I've been wanting to see more of for a while now -- a rollout to the right -- and the design was excellent. Cajuste was in the right slot, and Montgomery lined up outside of him. Everything went to the right on the snap, and Hogan locked in immediately on Montgomery. He fired his pass after taking just a few strides towards the sideline, but the ball was batted out of the air by linebacker Derrick Malone. Even if Malone hadn't been able to get to the ball, the play still would've failed; Montgomery was covered like a blanket.
Even though I loved the play call as well as the decision to go for the first down, the play once again highlighted one of Hogan's most galling weaknesses. Montgomery's route was a short out pattern just past the first down marker, but Cajuste was running a deep post route out of the slot. I can't imagine that Hogan ever looked at him, because if he had, he'd have seen that he had beaten his man and was a step and a half behind the defense. A pass to Cajuste wouldn't have been just a first down, it would've been an easy six points. Instead, the Ducks took over on their own 24. Another opportunity missed. The Stanford defense kept the Ducks out of the end zone for the first time on their next possession, forcing a field goal from Aidan Schneider to extend the lead to 24-6, but it felt like a minor victory.
Stanford's ensuing possession was more than that. With the large Oregon lead and the general ineffectiveness of the running game, the Cardinal offense opened up a bit, and that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Hogan took the field on his own 25, and he went to work almost immediately, hitting Cajuste for a 17-yard gain on the second play of the drive, then bouncing back from a nine-yard sack by hitting Montgomery for gains of 10 and 11 yards on the next two plays to earn an unexpected first down at the Oregon 42. Hogan faced 3rd and 5 three plays later, and this time he found Cajuste for 20 yards to earn another first down at the Duck 17. A few plays after that, after an Oregon personal foul put the ball on the 11, Christian McCaffrey took a short pass out of the backfield and nearly scored. He was pulled down just inches short of the goal line, but Patrick Skov powered it in from there for the Cardinal's first touchdown of the day, cutting the lead to 24-13 with just sixty-one seconds left in the half.
After forcing Oregon to punt for the first time in the game, the Cardinal could actually feel like it had a bit of momentum. Trailing by just 11 points, and knowing they'd be receiving the kickoff after half time, I have no doubt that they headed to the locker room with thoughts of a comeback on their minds.
Even though much of the first half had been the Marcus Mariota Show, the Stanford offense had played well, producing a quality half of football against a quality opponent for perhaps the first time all year. Building on that success, the offense took the ball to start the third quarter and picked up right where they had left off.
The drive opened with Montgomery in the wildcat, and he rushed for a modest six yards to start things off, then Hogan rumbled for eight more on a quarterback draw to pick up a first down. Three plays later Remound Wright earned another first down with a five-yard dive on 3rd and 1, and suddenly the Cardinal was in Oregon territory and moving the ball with authority. On 1st and 10 from the 32, however, Hogan made his first real mistake of the game. Cajuste headed out on a corner route to the left pylon, but there seemed to be some miscommunication between the wide receiver and his quarterback. When the safety came over to bracket Cajuste with deep coverage, Cajuste appeared to slow down, either to sit down beneath the coverage or to give up on the route completely. Hogan didn't give up, however, and threw the ball where he expected Cajuste to be. Alas, only the safety was there, and it was an easy interception.
It was a terrible missed opportunity for the Cardinal, but only minutes later the defense would come up with its biggest play of the game. Feeling just a bit of pressure as he dropped back to pass on 3rd and 7 from his own 33, Mariota underthrew his intended receiver, and his pass landed in the lap of cornerback Alex Carter, giving the Cardinal another chance to cut into Oregon lead.
Hogan went back to the formula that had been successful for much of the night, opening with a 19-yard pass to Cajuste (Cajuste would finish with five catches for a game-high 116 yards) and following that up with a 15-yard run of his own on a quarterback draw. When the drive stalled at 4th and 2 from the Oregon 8, Shaw must've been tempted to push his luck and go for that first down, but he did the right thing by taking the field goal and cutting the lead to 24-16. Certainly, a touchdown would've been nice, but at the time Shaw's decision made perfect sense. The Oregon defense hadn't forced a punt all game long, and the Stanford defense seemed to be gaining confidence with each possession, allowing just three points on the Ducks' previous three drives. The game was going in the right direction for the Cardinal, and the field goal allowed Shaw's team to keep the momentum building.
Over the next ten minutes of clock time, however, everything fell apart. The Ducks took the kickoff and needed just 2:27 to drive 75 yards in seven plays for a touchdown and a 31-16 lead. After Kevin Hogan fumbled on the third play of the Cardinal's next possession, the Ducks scored even faster, taking 30 seconds to cover 30 yards in only two plays, and it was 38-16. After a Stanford three-and-out and Ben Rhyne's first punt of the day, Mariota and his crew sliced through the Cardinal defense again, using six plays to travel 58 yards in 2:32 to close out the scoring at 45-16.
There was still more than nine minutes to play at this point, but that hardly mattered. In the blink of an eye -- and thanks to just an interception and a fumble -- the Ducks had taken the game by its throat and asserted themselves as the clear favorites in the Pac-12.
Before we move away from Oregon and focus on the Cardinal, one thing should be pointed out. Sometimes in football, what matters most is not whom you play but when you play them. When Arizona played the Ducks back on October 2nd, the Oregon offensive line was a shambles, and it was hard to imagine that group standing up to Stanford's pressure. This weekend, though, the Ducks were the healthiest they've been all season up front, and the Stanford defenisve line was missing one starter (Aziz Shittu) and playing another (David Parry) at less than full strength. If we'd played them in early October instead of early November, the outcome might've been different. But we didn't.
As Oregon was piling up those 21 unanswered points, each one felt like another nail in the coffin of Stanford's season. Heading into the game, all of Stanford's goals, save the national championship, were within reach, but the Ducks took all that away and forced Stanford fans to consider a winter without a bowl game. At 5-4 (with only four FBS wins), Stanford needs to win two of its remaining three games (Utah, Cal, and UCLA) to earn a bowl bid*, something which might seem unlikely.
But before you give up hope completely, remember that lots of good things happened on Saturday. Even though the defense struggled, yielding more than 30 points for the first time in 31 games, the offense played one of its best games of the season. Really.
First, let's look at the two quarterbacks, Marcus "Heisman" Mariota and Kevin Hogan.
Quarterback A: 21 of 29 for 237 yards, 42 yards rushing
Quarterback B: 19 of 30 for 258 yards, 85 yards rushing
Yes, Mariota (Quarterback B) was otherworldly, but Hogan acquitted himself well. In fact, considering the quality of his opponent, this was one of his finest games this season. He was aided by an offensive game plan that allowed him to run, and I'm sure we'll see more of the same from him over these last three games.
While the running game was stuffed early on and became irrelevant in the later stages of the game, the continued diversification of the passing game is encouraging. Devon Cajuste has developed into Hogan's favorite target, but the tight ends continue to have a strong role in the game plan. If there's one concern I have here, it's the marginalization of Ty Montgomery. Convinced that they need to get the ball in Montgomery's hands at all costs, the coaches have forgotten that he's actually a wide receiver who can run routes downfield. He had seven receptions against Oregon, but five of those were at or behind the line of scrimmage, which is ridiculous. Admittedly, Montgomery sees far different coverage than any other player on the Stanford roster, but every time I see Cajuste wide open, I wonder why plays aren't being designed to get the ball to Montgomery in those same spaces.
But I still believe in this team, and that isn't just blind faith. I think it's clear by now that the Cardinal was never going to compete for a national championship or even a conference championship, but even in this 29-point loss there is evidence of improvement and reason for optimism. I expect them to use this upcoming bye week to lick their wounds and make the necessary adjustments to compete with Utah on November 15th, beat Cal on November 22nd, and play their best game of the season against UCLA on November 28th.
Go Mighty Card.
* UPDATE: Soon after this post went live, I received a message from Kurt Svoboda, Senior Assistant Athletic Director at Stanford University. He informed me that the NCAA allows schools to count one FCS win towards their eligibility count. Because of this, the Cardinal only needs one more win to become bowl eligible.
[Photo Credit: Steve Dykes/Getty Images]