Cardinal calamity: Ducks dive-bomb stultified Stanford, 45-16, in Eugene showdown

November 4, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
MEMwrites.wordpress.com
Nov. 4, 2014

Remember the glory years, Stanford football fans.

Remember 2009, when Toby Gerhart was leveling opposing defenders seemingly at will, and a dubious penalty (against Wake Forest) and a questionable coaching decision (against Cal, natch) may have been all that separated Stanford from a 10-2 regular-season record and the school’s second Heisman.

Remember 2010, when Andrew Luck came into his own as arguably the finest college quarterback of his generation, and certainly the best in Stanford history, when the Cardinal went 12-1, scoring at least 31 points in every game but one, and cruised to a 40-12 Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.

Remember 2011, when Luck returned and Stanford graduate David Shaw replaced Jim Harbaugh as coach, when the Cardinal went 11-2, scoring at least 28 points in every game, and a case of freshman kicker nerves and a questionable coaching decision (by Shaw, alas) may have been all that separated Stanford from a Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma State.

Remember 2012, when a high-powered defense and an underpowered offense overcame early losses and rose to amass a 12-2 record — including a road victory against the mighty Oregon Ducks, a pair of wins in consecutive weeks against the resurgent UCLA Bruins and a thrilling 20-14 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin — and only a dubious official’s whistle and a questionable coaching decision or two (by Shaw, alas, again) may have been all that separated Stanford from a berth in the national championship game.

And finally, fellow Stanford football fans, remember 2013, when another high-powered defense and a…well, a merely average…offense combined for an 11-3 record — including a thrilling home win against Oregon, a 63-13 embarrassment of Cal, a 27-20 payback victory over Notre Dame and twin shows of domination over Arizona State — and a questionable coaching decision or two (yes, again by Shaw) may have been all that separated Stanford from back-to-back Rose Bowl victories for the first time since 1971–72.

Remember that glorious five-year run, Stanford fans, because the fun is over — at least for now. That’s the takeaway from Saturday’s 45-16 loss at Oregon, the worst defeat the Cardinal had sustained since Sept. 29, 2007, when visiting No. 23 Arizona State inflicted a 41-3 drubbing on the Farm gridders.

Saturday’s defeat was infuriating on multiple levels. After Oregon mounted 75-yard touchdown drives on each of its first three possessions, and notched a field goal on its fourth drive, the game was shaping up as a rout. The Ducks took leads of 7-0, 14-3 and 24-6.

But after that Ducks field goal, which came with 6:32 to play in the second period, Stanford began fighting back. The Cardinal mounted a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive; it ate up more than five and a half minutes and was capped by Patrick Skov’s one-yard scoring run. Most importantly, this drive seemed to signal the return of the resilient, potent Stanford team that had only shown up in brief stretches against quality opponents in the 2014 calendar year.

Even better than that, arguably, was the way the Cardinal defense stepped up after Skov’s touchdown. After Heisman candidate Marcus Mariota threw a 22-yard completion on first down, junior inside linebacker Blake Martinez sacked Mariota. Not only did this #partyinthebackfield key Stanford’s first defensive stop of the game, it kindled hope in Cardinal fans that their team might be able to mount a monumental upset.

The start of the second half was a rocky affair, but hope remained even after a Kevin Hogan pass was intercepted by Erick Dargan at Oregon’s 1-yard line. The Ducks moved to their 33-yard line before Mariota was picked off by junior cornerback Alex Carter at the Stanford 40. It was just the second interception that the Ducks QB has thrown all year, and it essentially erased Hogan’s mistake.

That was the hope, at least. The reality turned out to be…not quite so positive. Mainly on the strength of a 19-yard pass to Devon Cajuste and a 15-yard Hogan run, the Cardinal was able to get a first down at the Oregon 16-yard line.

But then a short run by Remound Wright was wiped out by a 10-yard holding penalty. A few plays later, it was third and 10 from the same 16-yard line, and a Hogan pass to Michael Rector only gained eight yards. Jordan Williamson came on and nailed a 25-yard field goal.

Williamson was a perfect three for three on the day, banging home his first two kicks from 47 and 43 yards, but Stanford was scoring field goals and Oregon was scoring touchdowns, and that’s always a losing proposition for the team that’s kicking. So Hogan’s mistake, while not as costly as it could have been, still represented a lost opportunity.

And yet — and yet! — Williamson’s third figgie made the score Oregon 24, Stanford 16, with 2:30 remaining in the third quarter. The Cardinal was just eight points away from tying the game…

But the deficit only got worse from there. Oregon marched smartly downfield on the next drive. Mariota hit Royce Freeman for passes that gained 15 and 30 yards before finding Darren Carrington for a 12-harder. Thomas Tyner took it from there, running 21 yards for a touchdown that made the score 31-16.

Early in the fourth quarter, on Stanford’s next drive, Hogan had just carried the ball across midfield when Dargan forced a fumble that Tony Washington brought back to the Cardinal 30-yard line. Moments later, Mariota took the ball into the end zone on a 7-yard run.

Oregon led, 38-16, after that. The rout — the one that had started to take shape early in the game, the one that heroic efforts by the Cardinal had almost staved off — was completely and fully on.

Going into the game, Stanford’s defense had allowed opponents to convert only 31 percent of third-down chances, the 16th-best mark in the nation. But Oregon converted 8 of 13 opportunities on third down, or 61.5 percent. The Ducks also converted fourth down and five to go on the opening drive. This was a crucial defensive failure, just like all of those third-down conversions. Stanford’s 2014 defense is good, but — possibly due to injuries on the defensive line — the unit played far below its potential.

Oddly, Stanford dominated time of possession against Oregon, holding the ball for 35 minutes and 38 seconds, or 11 minutes and 15 seconds more than the Ducks did. But while Oregon converted most of its third-down plays, Stanford only managed to do so six times in 13 tries. The Cardinal also failed on both of its fourth-down attempts — on fourth and two at the Ducks 24 in the second quarter, when the team trailed 21-6, and on fourth and goal at the Ducks’ 2-yard line in the team’s final possession, when Skov was only able to gain a single yard.

That was, in effect, the final humiliation. Stanford, already defeated, tried to save face with a little more than two and a half minutes on the clock, but its power running game was once again stopped.

Stanford may be better next season; Shaw is an intelligent coach, and he leads a staff of capable men who are guiding a team of smart, tough athletes. The 2014 season is already something of a horror show, however.

The team, which lost four games total in Shaw’s first two seasons — 2011 and 2012 — now holds a 5-4 record (3-3 in the Pac-12 conference). Of the three remaining regular season games, the Cardinal will likely be favored only in one, against arch-rival Cal. That game won’t be a gimme, however; second-year Golden Bears coach Sonny Dykes has gotten his squad out of the conference basement, and Cal is racking up touchdowns at a prolific rate. The Bears, who are 5-4 overall and 3-4 in league, have scored at least 31 points in all but one game, and they’ve scored at least 45 points five times.

It’s not inconceivable that the Cardinal could win out and finish 8-4 overall — good enough for a mid-level bowl game. But then again, it’s not inconceivable that the team could lose its three remaining contests and conclude the year with an abysmal 5-7 record.

In other words, my friends, the glory years of Stanford football are gone, at least for now.

Remember those heady days. Let’s hope they rapidly return.

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