Where do you even begin with a game like this? The temptation is to start with the glory of the second half, but that wouldn't be right. You have to see the darkness to appreciate the brilliance of the morning sun. As brilliant as the the last two quarters were for the Cardinal, the opening was dark. So, so dark.
Stanford's first possession wasn't terrible. Bryce Love, back from his week of rest, carried the ball on the game's first three plays and gained 18 yards, suggesting that maybe the running game was back. A holding penalty eventually contributed to the fizzling of this opening drive, but it wasn't a bad start.
The Ducks, on the other hand, had a great start. Justin Herbert had a decent game against Stanford two years ago, but we've missed his ascension, as he was out with an injury when the Ducks travelled to Palo Alto last season. Since we had seen him last, Herbert had established himself as not just the premier quarterback in the conference but the presumptive top overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. I'll admit to not being that sure of all that since I hadn't yet seen any of it with my own eyes, but it didn't take long before I was convinced.
Oregon's first play from scrimmage was a simple pass from Herbert for an eight-yard gain to wide receiver Dillon Mitchell, a player I'd never heard of before. And why would I have? In three previous games this season his totals were forgettable -- 6 receptions for 98 yards. By the end of the night, I'd certainly know his name. A few plays later, on 3rd and 10 from his own 40, Herbert connected with Mitchell again, this time on a deep ball in the middle of the Stanford secondary. The play went for 53 yards to the Stanford 7, and tailback Tony Brooks-James took it from there on the next play, giving the Ducks a 7-0 lead and sending their crowd into a frenzy.
They say that the home crowd at Washington is incredibly loud, but no stadium in the Pac-12 can match the reputation of the Autzen Zoo. And considering the Ducks have been down for the past few seasons, the crazies in the stands hadn't had much to be loud about for a while. They were in full throat, and we were just midway through the first quarter.
Stanford's second possession again showed promise (a 24-yard pass over the middle to tight end Kaden Smith) but again sputtered after six plays. After a Jake Bailey punt, Oregon took over at their own 12 and went to work immediately. The drive was methodical at the outset -- four yards here, six yards there -- until linebacker Bobby Okereke made Stanford's first big play of the game. Breaking through the line on a blitz, Okereke cornered Herbert and pulled him down for a 13-yard sack. With 2nd and 23 upcoming, it certainly looked like the Cardinal was about to get off the field and slow the Oregon bonfire. Even after a nine-yard run from CJ Verdell, the Ducks were still facing 3rd and 14, and the Stanford defense still looked to be in control -- until they weren't. Herbert found Mitchell again, this time for 28 yards, and once again Oregon was deep in Stanford territory at the 18. From there it took them five plays and two timeouts, but that fifth play was a 7-yard pass to wide open Jacob Breeland for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
The game was only a minute or so into the second quarter, but Stanford's next drive felt rather important. The first play, naturally, was a handoff to Bryce Love, who was naturally tackled for a one-yard loss. There are any number of mysteries in the natural world -- what happened to the Anasazi, how the pyramids were built, why the National League refuses to adopt the designated hitter rule -- but no less mystery is the sudden inability of the Stanford offense to open holes for Love. During his historic campaign in 2017, there were times when the field would open to such an extent that you could see the touchdown coming as soon as Love gathered in the pitch. Sometimes he was sprinting around one end or the other, and other times he was racing untouched through a massive hole between the tackles. Football, like any sport, is a game of adjustments, and through four games, the Stanford offense is yet to adjust to the changes they're seeing on the other side of the line. To be fair, there have been times when eight or nine defenders are rushing towards the line of scrimmage, completely selling out to stop Love, but there have also been times when defenses have backed off and the linemen have still not been able to win their battles. It isn't necessary for Love to run for 2,000 yards again, but right now he isn't a threat, and that needs to change.
Love carried the ball three times on this drive, but not once did he cross the line of scrimmage. Thankfully, there is K.J. Costello. The junior quarterback threw a nice ball to Kaden Smith for 13 yards and a 1st down, and then converted a 3rd and 10 by hitting J.J. Arcega-Whiteside with a deep ball for a 40-yard gain to the Oregon 12.
If you didn't read my recap of the UC-Davis game, don't worry -- to my knowledge only one person did. In that piece I suggested that one day soon the NCAA may simply award touchdowns to the Cardinal whenever they get into the red zone because even though everyone knows the ball is going to one of Costello's big targets, no one can stop them. No rule changes have been enacted just yet, so Costello went through the motions. Arcega-Whiteside -- or Acegatron, as Stanford Twitter has christened him (was @dbking65 the first?) -- lined up to the left and drove directly into his defender until he reached the end zone and turned around for the box out. Keeping his defender on his hip, Arcega-Whiteside gathered in Costello's pass for Stanford's first score of the game.
With the deficit now a manageable seven points, Cardinal fans everywhere took a deep breath -- but before they could even exhale, they were probably panicking again. Actually, based on the texts and tweets that were pouring into my phone, I know they were panicking again. The problem was that Herbert and the Oregon offense were on fire. First there was a 48-yard touchdown run by Verdell to push the lead to 21-7, then after a Stanford three-and-out the Ducks were driving again. This possession stalled and only produced a field goal, but the 24-7 halftime lead felt almost insurmountable.
Even so, I tried to muster hope among the masses during the break. I spun a thread of tweets that were more or less directed at myself in an attempt to see the brighter side. The hope that I came up with was for more spread formations on offense, and more pressure on defense. After all, I reasoned, Justin Herbert couldn't possibly duplicate the success he'd had in the first half, could he?
Turns out he could. The Ducks looked ready to score on the opening drive of the second half as they moved the ball all the way to the Stanford 22, but a four-yard loss on 2nd down and a big sack from Jordan Fox on 3rd down pushed Oregon out of field goal range. It was a step in the right direction, but when the Stanford offense responded with a three-and-out, Herbert and his offense were back out on the field and ready to roll once more.
This drive just about took away all of my hope. As the Ducks were moving down the field, it felt like even though we were only in the middle of the third quarter, this possession might determine the game. (Hint: It would.) Herbert continued to sit calmly in a wide open pocket before finding one wide open receiver after another with one perfect pass after another. The Ducks marched methodically down field, and with each 1st down things began to look darker and darker. The Autzen crowd was reaching manic levels, and the Stanford defense was in disarray.
When Jaylon Redd took and handoff and outraced everyone to the pylon for an apparent touchdown, it was suddenly 2010 again. A talented Stanford team had travelled to Eugene and suffered an embarrassing defeat on national television. The Ducks were an extra point away from taking an insurmountable 31-7 lead, and all of my halftime hopes were evaporating. I began worrying about next week's game against Notre Dame, and I worried for the rest of the season as well. Would this wealth of offensive talent be squandered? Would the Cardinal be relegated to some second- or third-tier bowl game in the second week of December?
And then something unusual was going on. The officials were huddling on the field, and we were being told that Oregon's touchdown possibly wasn't a touchdown. As it turns out, the end zone pylon is actually out of bounds, so if a player touches that pylon, he is ruled down and the ball must be spotted where it is located at that moment. Replays flashed across the screen, and it quickly became apparent that the touchdown would be coming off the board, and the ball would be placed at the 1-yard line.
Surely it was nothing more than a momentary reprieve. The Ducks would run the ball into the end zone, the celebration would be back on, and Stanford hearts would shrivel up once more. And then something really unusual happened. Oregon came out in an un-Oregon-like formation, with three running backs in a reverse wishbone. In fact, it was a Stanford formation, and it struck me that they were trolling the Cardinal, hoping to beat them with their own plays. But they were too cute, and Herbert's exchange fell to the turf before being kicked backwards. An Oregon lineman fell on the ball, but the nine-yard loss made the touchdown far less certain. Suddenly there was hope.
Two plays later there was much more than hope. Herbert dropped into the shotgun on 3rd down, but the snap was high and looped over his head. Stanford was in a full blitz, so the offensive line was immediately overwhelmed as several Cardinal defenders rushed towards the loose ball. Linebacker Joey Alfieri, once a prized Oregon recruit, scooped up the ball at the 20 and raced 80 yards untouched for the touchdown.
To say that this was an important moment in the game would be underselling it just a touch. Only a few minutes earlier the Ducks had seemed to be up 31-7 and the Stanford equipment managers had been poised to begin packing up the gear and loading the trucks for the drive pack to Palo Alto. Now, the Cardinal trailed by just ten points. Sure, all the old issues remained -- the offense was stagnant and the defense was a sieve -- but there was hope.
Suddenly, the game was upside down. The Oregon offense came back out on the field, but when two short gains brought up a 3rd and 3, Herbert threw just his second incomplete pass of the game, and the Ducks were forced to punt the ball back to the Cardinal after their first three-and-out of the night.
Stanford's ensuing possession would also last only three plays, but it wouldn't end in a punt. First there was an 11-yard pass to Colby Parkinson over the middle, and then a deep ball down the sideline to Trenton Irwin for 32 yards to the Oregon 22. With the Duck defense clearly on their heels, the Cardinal went back to Love. It was a play we've seen before. The right side of the line took on their blockers, and Brandon Fanaika pulled around from his left guard spot to clean up a linebacker who had entered the fight, and for the first time since 2017, Love had a hole between the tackles. He exploded through that hole, beat the defense to the pylon (without touching it), and inexplicably the Cardinal trailed by only three, 24-21.
In less than four minutes of game time, everything had completely changed. Stanford had momentum, and when Herbert and the Ducks came back out to try and stem the rising Cardinal tide, they weren't able to. On 3rd and 3 Jordan Fox and Dylan Jackson shared a five-yard sack of Herbert, and the defense celebrated its second straight three-and-out.
It was still early in the fourth quarter, but it felt like the game was ripe for the taking. Starting at his own 35, Costello came out looking for Stanford's first lead of the game. After a 22-yard strike to Kaden Smith and then an eight-yard run from Love, there was no reason to believe the beleaguered Oregon defense would be able to stop them. On 3rd and 2 from the Oregon 31, Cameron Scarlett was stopped after just a one-yard gain; predictably, David Shaw kept the offense out on the field for 4th down. It used to be that the 1st down was a foregone conclusion in situations like this. The Tunnel Workers owned 4th and short, but in recent years the conversion has been less and less of a sure thing.
Costello handed the ball to Scarlett, and he never had a chance. Oregon's defensive line overwhelmed the middle of the Stanford line, and that was that.
The Ducks took over at their own 30, and once again Herbert was at his brilliant best. Yes, running back Travis Dye carried the ball five times, but this drive was all about Herbert. The Cardinal defensive backs had tightened up their coverage considerably in the second half, but on this possession Herbert was able to find cracks in the Cardinal armor as he completed all five of his passes for 67 yards. Herbert left no doubt that was the best player on either side, but Oregon wide receiver Dillion Mitchell, who'd finish with a preposterous 14 catches for 239 yards, was a close second. Herbert's last pass of the drive went to Mitchell. It was initially ruled a touchdown, but replay review put the ball at the one, from which point the Ducks pounded it in for a touchdown and a 31-21 lead that likely put most of Duck Nation at ease. The threat, it seemed, had passed.
When Costello and the Cardinal came back out onto the field with just 4:30 to play in the game, it was hard not to think back to that 4th down play. With all of the momentum in their favor, the Cardinal had seemed poised to take control of the game like so many Stanford teams had done under David Shaw. Stanford fans in various stages of grief took to Twitter in disbelief and anger, wondering why something else hadn't been called in that critical situation. All of the hope regained by that frantic comeback had been lost.
And then Costello brought it all back. On 1st down he settled into the pocket and looked deep. Sophomore Osiris St. Brown was streaking down the middle of the field on a post pattern, and Costello fluttered a pass right into his arms for a 49-yard gain to the Oregon 30. St. Brown would likely have contributed as a freshman last season had it not been for an injury, so he entered this season with a fair amount of buzz. At media day this summer I asked Arcega-Whiteside about what we'd see from St. Brown this fall, and his answer was immediate: "Speed." St. Brown had used that speed to separate from the Oregon defensive back, and it was an easy throw for Costello.
Costello found Smith for twenty more yards on the next play, and after a false start pushed the line of scrimmage back to the 15, it was time for Arcegatron. This time he went with a change of pace, juking his defender off the line and sprinting towards the corner of the end zone. He was wide open, so it was another easy throw for Costello and another touchdown for Arcega-Whiteside. The senior receiver now has 7 touchdowns this season and 21 in his career, good for fourth on the all-time Stanford list.
More important than all that, of course, was that the Cardinal had crawled back to within three. With 3:10 to play and all three of his timeouts remaining David Shaw knew that this Oregon series would determine the game. He chose to spend his timeouts on defense, hoping for a three-and-out that would give the ball back to his offense with a reasonable amount of time to play. Once he adopted this strategy, it became clear that a 1st down for Oregon would essentially ice the game.
Oregon's first play, naturally, was a 23-yard pass to Mitchell. Even with that big gain, there was still hope. Two plays and two timeouts later, Herbert stood behind center facing a 3rd and 3 with 2:17 left on the clock. The stakes were clear. If the Cardinal could get a stop, Oregon would have to punt the ball back. If Herbert could manage a 1st down, the Stanford comeback would be over.
Oregon ran probably the safest and smartest play they could in this situation -- a read option. Herbert had run this to perfection all night, gaining 63 yards when he kept the ball. When he took the snap and turned towards his running back, the desperate Stanford defense all funneled towards the back. Herbert saw this and pulled the ball back, and before he took a single step towards the outside, I knew he'd get the 1st down. I knew the game was over. I knew the Ducks had won.
Herbert ran for seven yards to midfield, and the Ducks had their 1st down. The math at this point worked heavily in Oregon's favor. The Ducks took the play clock as far as they could before snapping the ball on 1st down with 1:45 to play. Herbert could take a knee three times, burning forty seconds of clock each time, leaving roughly 15 seconds left when they'd have to punt the ball back to the Cardinal, who would've had to have used its final timeout. If Herbert decided to run around for a few seconds each time before taking that knee, they might not even have to punt. In short, the game was over.
And then it wasn't. Instead of taking a knee, Herbert handed the ball to CJ Verdell. Verdell gained 7 yards on 1st down, but on 2nd and 3, as he struggled for extra yardage and a 1st down the Ducks didn't need, he lost the ball. Linebacker Noah Williams, the former walk-on who had enjoyed a moment of Twitter fame when Coach Shaw granted him a scholarship two weeks ago, punched the ball loose, and Sean Barton recovered it.
Improbable? Unlikely? Not strong enough. Try miraculous.
Thinking back on it now, I realize there was still a lot of work to be done, but in the moment I had no doubts. My only question at the time was whether or not Costello would get the end zone. It never occurred to me that he might not get into field goal range.
Costello's first two passes fell incomplete, but his next three found their marks. First it was Parkinson over the middle for 16 yards, putting them just a few clicks short of Jet Toner's range. Next he found Arcegatron on a short comeback route that the receiver turned into a 16-yard gain when he spun away from his defender and raced down the sideline before getting out of bounds to stop the clock. Finally, it was Love looping out of the backfield to grab a short pass and race ahead for nine yards to the Oregon 19.
Shaw took a timeout with five seconds left, and Toner came in to attempt what would be a 37-yard field goal. Stanford fans who had watched Toner over the past two seasons probably felt good about that distance, but they felt even better when an Oregon penalty shortened it to 32. It never once occurred to me that he'd miss. Toner split the uprights, and we were headed to overtime.
Putting this Stanford offense on the 25-yard line is kind of like putting Steph Curry on the free-throw line, so it wasn't surprising that they scored, it was only surprising how they scored. On 2nd and 8, Costello looked down the seam for his 6'7" tight end Colby Parkinson, who was inexplicably being defended by the 5'11" cornerback Deommodore Lenoir. Parkinson was open on a post route, but Costello seemed to be worried about an oncoming safety, so he put the ball behind his tight end, forcing Parkinson to reach back towards the pass. He was only able to get one hand on the ball, but it didn't matter. Parkinson calmly tapped the ball up into the air, then grabbed it with both hands for the touchdown and Stanford's first lead of the game.
That play was the sum of so many plays that had come before -- Oregon's overturned touchdown, Alfieri's scoop and score, St. Brown's deep ball, Williams's forced fumble, Toner's field goal, and probably a dozen others -- that it might get lost in the aftermath of this miraculous win, but Stanford fans will remember. As Shaw would say after the game, "We're Tight End U."
As great as that play was, it wasn't the clincher. Justin Herbert would have one more chance to answer that Stanford touchdown with one of his own, and even though the Cardinal defense had certainly tightened in the second half, they would be tested once more. A fifteen-yard pass to Johnny Johnson gave the Ducks a 1st and goal at the ten, and then it was clear. Herbert would have four shots to extend the game.
Midway through last season the coaches and players began talking about freshman cornerback Paulsen Adebo. There wasn't much need for him to play last season, but considering all the accolades we'd heard it wasn't that much of a surprise when he earned a starting spot this season. Saturday night's overtime was his coming out party. He had already broken up one pass on Oregon's first play of the overtime, but Herbert kept looking in his direction. On 2nd and goal Adebo turned his head just in time to avoid a pass interference penalty as he knocked a ball away from Mitchell, but he was even better on 3rd down. With a full blitz sending seven men at Herbert, Adebo was left alone again on Mitchell. Herbert fired his pass when he saw that his receiver was open for just a second, but the 6'1" Adebo was able to slide inside of Mitchell and use his length to knock the ball away. Herbert challenged Adebo again on 3rd down, but again Adebo swatted the ball away. Herbert had thrown only two incompletions in regulation, but Adebo broke up three of his passes in overtime. It was quite a performance.
And still, the game wasn't over. With the outcome hanging in the balance on 4th down, Herbert again saw a receiver who was momentarily open; he fired the ball at his target. This time it was senior captain Alijah Holder who rose to the occasion, perfectly timing his reach in front of the receiver to bat the ball into the air. It fluttered for just a moment before falling into Alameen Murphy's arms for an interception. After seeming to be over several times, the game, finally, was actually over, and the Cardinal, miraculously, had actually won.
It hadn't been that long since the Ducks had scored and gone up 31-7. After that touchdown was reversed, the Cardinal reversed that score, dominating Oregon 31-7 the rest of the way to craft one of the most miraculous comebacks in Stanford history. The pessimists will say that this was a lucky win that obscures flaws that may still haunt this team, but that's an unfortunate way of looking at things. This group could easily have given up after facing so much adversity during the game's first forty-two minutes, but instead they believed. That belief paved the way for this unbelievable 38-31 win, and there's still so much more to come.