Who’s got it better than Oregon? Stanford does, after a thrilling 26-20 Thursday night victory over the Ducks!

November 8, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 8, 2013

That. Was. Amazing.

How else could Stanford football fans describe Thursday night’s 26-20 victory over the second-ranked Oregon Ducks? This was a season-defining game for both teams, who together clearly represent the top echelon of both the Pac-12 North Division and, indeed, the conference itself.

Going into the game, Cardinal faithful knew that their team could prevail over the mighty Ducks; for evidence, all they had to do was cast their minds back to last season, when Kevin Hogan led his squad to a 17-14 overtime upset in his first-ever road start. But Cardinal fans also knew that a win would require Stanford to play a nearly perfect game.

That’s not exactly what the home squad turned in Thursday night; instead, the Cardinal played phenomenal ball for 50 or so minutes before all three of the team’s units suffered very significant lapses. These let-downs turned what had been a thorough beat-down of the Ducks turn into quite the nail-biter, as we shall see.

Oregon received the opening kickoff and responded by doing what the Ducks have so often done for the past four-odd years — by moving the ball with relative ease. Still, their eight-play, 35-yard possession stalled at the Stanford 48-yard line with an incomplete throw by quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Ducks punted, pinning the Cardinal to their own 6-yard line.

Alas, the red-jerseyed offense went three and out, and Bralon Addison returned the punt 25 yards to the Stanford 28-yard line. Less than five minutes into the game, Oregon had moved into scoring position.

The Ducks, rather famously, are not the kind of team to settle for field goals. So when a Mariota throw advanced Oregon to Stanford’s 7-yard line, it was easy to imagine the visitors in white jerseys taking a 7-0 lead. But that’s not what happened. Mariota’s third-down pass was incomplete, thanks in part to the quarterback’s being harassed by Stanford all-world linebacker Shayne Skov.

Head coach Mark Helfrich elected to go for it on fourth and goal from the 4, but Mariota’s throw again fell to the ground. Stanford’s defense had held!

This was reminiscent of the start to last season’s Stanford-Oregon tussle, in which the Ducks had launched their second drive with a 77-yard Mariota run. On fourth down and goal to go from the Cardinal 2, with the game still scoreless, then-coach Chip Kelly elected to go for it. On that occasion, Mariota’s rush was stopped for no gain.

That defensive stand fired up Stanford fans with the hope that a mighty upset might in fact be within reach. So did Stanford’s response to Oregon’s failed drive: a 15-play, 93-yard series that resulted in Hogan scoring on a one-yard keeper.

Flash forward to 2013. Could the Cardinal offense move the ball after its defensive counterparts had turned in a goal-line stand?

Here’s what happened:

• Tyler Gaffney run for 4 yards.

• Gaffney run for 4 yards.

• Gaffney run for 7 yards and a first down.

• Hogan incomplete pass.

• Gaffney run for 9 yards.

• Gaffney run for 4 yards and a first down.

• Hogan pass to Ty Montgomery for 9 yards.

• Hogan pass to Michael Rector for 47 yards and a first down.

• Gaffney run for 2 yards.

• Gaffney run for 5 yards.

• Gaffney run for 3 yards and a first down.

• Gaffney run for 2 yards and a touchdown.

Summing up, the Cardinal tore off a 12-play, 96-yard touchdown drive that featured nine Gaffney runs, including the final play. Here was yet another parallel to the 2012 Oregon-Cardinal clash, which served to further inflame hopes that Stanford could pull off a second monumental upset.

What’s more, the Farm boys kept the momentum going. After the defense forced a three and out by Oregon, due in no small part to Trent Murphy and Henry Anderson sacking Mariota on third down, the offense smartly marched downfield yet again. This time, they contributed an eight-play, 58-yard series that was capped by Hogan’s 11-yard scoring run. Stanford 14, Oregon 0.

But plenty of game remained to be played, and Oregon proved it by quickly marching into the Cardinal’s half of the field. Facing fourth down and 9 to go at the Stanford 29, Helfrich again attempted to convert, and this time the Ducks succeeded: Mariota hooked up with Addison for 18 yards, setting up first down from the 11.

Two plays later, Mariota connected with De’Anthony Thomas. As he was falling down at the Cardinal 2-yard line, Skov chopped at the ball; it popped out, and Skov recovered. Once again, the Ducks had moved into the red zone, and once more they were thwarted by the Cardinal defense.

Hogan, who contributed two runs for first downs, then led his unit to the Oregon 3-yard line. A Hogan throw as time expired drew a pass interference penalty, setting up one untimed down. On came Jordan Williamson, up went a field goal try and up went the referees’ arms. The Cardinal went into halftime with a 17-0 lead.

To that point, the team had held the ball for nearly 21 minutes; Oregon, for just over nine. Stanford was eight of 10 on third downs; the Ducks, 2-6.

The second half began auspiciously for Stanford. Montgomery had a 57-yard kickoff return, giving the Cardinal the ball at Oregon’s 38-yard line. Runs by Hogan, Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson pushed the line of scrimmage to the Oregon 17, at which point Williamson booted his second field goal. Stanford 20, Oregon 0.

Mariota rallied his troops to advance to the Cardinal’s 19. But as A.J. Tarpley sacked him, the ball popped loose yet again, and Jarek Lancaster recovered. The Cardinal counterattacked, but the drive stalled deep in Oregon’s end of the field. Williamson kicked again, and again was successful. Stanford 23, Oregon 0.

The Ducks quarterback threw three straight incompletions, and the Stanford offense came on again. Gaffney ran for 16 yards and Wilkerson ran for 7, which brought the third quarter to a close. Gaffney ran the ball five straight times, but the drive stalled again. Williamson came in and kicked a field goal; then he repeated the exercise a moment later thanks to an illegal formation on Stanford. Williamson’s fourth successful try on four (official) field goal attempts put the Cardinal up 26-0 with 11:40 remaining in the game. Could Stanford actually be on the verge of shutting out a prolific offense that had averaged nearly 56 points per game in racing out to an 8-0 start?

In fact, they would not. When the Ducks resumed possession of the ball, they mounted one of their famed lightning-quick scoring drives. Mariota completed passes to Daryle Hawkins for 11 yards, Josh Huff for 26 yards and Hawkins again for a 23-yard touchdown. That made the score 26-7 in favor of the home team; the possession spanned just 81 seconds.

Jeff Trojan — remember that name — recovered the Ducks’ onside kick try, and Stanford returned to its running ways. Gaffney for 1; Wilkerson for 4; Hogan for 6. Then Gaffney got six straight rushes, after which the Cardinal faced fourth and 6 at the Oregon 23.

On came Williamson for his fifth field-goal try. Up went the pigskin…

…which went ricocheting sharply back toward the ground along a trajectory mirroring Williamson’s kick. An Oregon lineman had blocked the ball. Linebacker Rodney Hardrick, coming off the left side of the Ducks’ formation, scooped up the ball and ran 65 yards to paydirt.

So Stanford’s lead had been narrowed to 26-13. Mariota completed a pass on a two-point conversion try, but it was negated by a penalty on Oregon for having an ineligible receiver. Still, the Ducks were within two touchdowns now…

And things were just beginning to get wild. Alejandro Maldonado’s onside kickoff bounced in and out of the arms of at least two Stanford players, allowing Hawkins to recover the ball. Mariota made throws of 18 yards to Addison and 20 yards to Chance Allen, moving the ball to the Cardinal 2. Skov forced the quarterback to fumble, but Mariota managed to get the ball back.

Then, on third and goal from the 1, James Vaughters sacked Mariota, who fumbled again — and who recovered the pigskin yet again, this time at the Cardinal 12. On fourth down, Mariota dropped back and found Pharoah Brown for a touchdown. An extra point made the score 26-20 with 2:12 left to play.

Maldonado tried another onside kickoff, his third of the game. This time, Jeff Trojan — remember him? — wrapped up the ball. Oregon was out of timeouts, so Stanford didn’t even need to get a first down. The clock hit triple zeroes after runs by Wilkerson, Hogan and Wilkerson again. For the second year in a row, Stanford had done it!

Stanford finished the game with a time-of-possession edge of more than 25 minutes — 42:34 vs. 17:26. The Ducks, who entered the game averaging 331.5 rushing yards per contest, were held to just 62 ground yards by the Cardinal. Meanwhile, Gaffney & Co. had 274 running yards, against a defense that had been letting up 131 such yards each game. The Ducks had been averaging 55.6 points a week. On Thursday, they only managed to score 20.

Mariota was clearly the superior quarterback; he was 20 for 34 with 250 yards and two touchdowns, compared to a conservative Hogan, who was 7-13 with 103 yards. But Mariota was sacked three times and wound up with six carries for minus-16 yards. Stanford’s signal caller, by contrast, gained 57 yards on eight carries, including his touchdown run.

Gaffney also scored once and garnered 157 yards on 45 carries, which eclipsed the school mark of 39 runs by Tommy Vardell against california (lowercase c intentional) in 1991. Gaffney now leads the Pac-12 conference with 13 rushing scores on the year and has 25 in his career, which is good for fourth place in the school record books.

Skov finished with nine tackles, two tackles-for-loss, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. His unit limited Oregon, which was averaging 632 yards each week, to just under half that tally — 312 yards.

Since the start of the 2009 season, Oregon sports a gaudy 54-8 record, which includes a 2-2 mark in Bowl Championship Series bowls. Of the remaining six losses, half were inflicted by Stanford — in 2009 and in each of the last two years. Since USC beat the Ducks in a 38-35 shootout on Nov. 26, 2011, Oregon has won 23 games and lost two. Both of those defeats came at Stanford’s hands.

Three contests remain on the Cardinal’s schedule: at USC, home vs. cal (lowercase c intentional) for Big Game and home vs. Notre Dame. Stanford is now 8-1 overall, 6-1 in conference. If Stanford wins out, it will be guaranteed to make a fourth consecutive BCS bowl.

Let’s go back to a line that former Stanford coach Jack Harbaugh helped make famous: “Who’s got it better than us?”

Right now, the answer is nobody. Hail, Stanford, hail!

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