Ducks by a nose: Oregon nabs 38-36 road victory over Stanford in a game where small things made a huge difference

November 17, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 17, 2015

When thinking about a football game, and especially the reasons why it turned out the way it did, it’s tempting to focus on big things.

For example, in contemplating Stanford’s heartbreaking 38-36 home loss to Oregon Saturday night, the mind is naturally drawn to things like Royce Freeman’s 49-yard rush on the Ducks’ second play of the game, which set up a touchdown; or Charles Nelson’s 75-yard rush on the Ducks’ second possession, a one-play drive that put the Ducks up by 14-10; or Darren Carrington’s 47-yard touchdown reception that gave the visitors a one-point advantage, 21-20; or Vernon Adams Jr.’s 33-yard pass to Evans Baylis on the first play from scrimmage in the second half, which instantly put the host team back on its heels; or Taj Griffin’s 49-yard touchdown reception from Adams at the close of the third quarter, which gave the visitors a 35-23 lead.

But I would posit that the outcome came down to three much less flashy or dramatic plays — one in the third quarter, two in the fourth quarter.

In the first of these, a Stanford special-teamer failed to execute a difficult but nonetheless relatively routine play successfully. In the second of the decisive trio of plays, Stanford’s center and quarterback failed to conduct a successful exchange, perhaps the single most fundamental action in the sport of football. And in the final such play, an Oregon defensive back managed to deflect a Cardinal pass — not by a lot, but by just enough to secure the outcome of the game.

Let’s pick up the action late in the second quarter, after Carrington scored with 1:18 remaining. Following an 11-yard Christian McCaffrey run and an incompletion on a throw to the running back, Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan masterfully ran a one-minute drill. He threw to McCaffrey for 11 yards, Michael Rector for seven yards and then Rector again, this time for six yards. Head coach David Shaw called his last timeout (all were used on this drive) and sent in Conrad Ukropina, who nailed a 49-yarder as time expired to restore Stanford to a 23-21 lead.

Unfortunately, coming out of the locker room, Oregon took the kickoff and scored in just five plays and 93 seconds. Freeman, who finished the evening with 105 yards on 20 carries, capped the possession with a 19-yard touchdown run to put the Ducks ahead by five points.

Stanford responded with a typical gritty, grind-it-out possession, moving from its 27 to the Oregon 26 on 10 plays over roughly five and a half minutes. Shaw called upon Ukropina for the third time in the game. He had also hit from 33 yards out on the game’s first series. But this time, the 43-yard try missed wide right, despite Ukropina having successfully kicked from further out earlier in the game. This was the first of the three small but costly miscues.

The teams traded a pair of punts (of which the game featured just four) before the Ducks got back onto the scoreboard with a four-play, 82-yard drive that spanned a mere 63 seconds. A seemingly unguarded Griffin streaked along the left sideline, caught Adams’s throw and evaded the defensive backs to give Oregon an intimidating 35-23 edge as the third quarter expired.

Stanford pulled back to within five points with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that consumed five minutes and 38 seconds. Junior tight end Greg Taboada hauled in a three-yard touchdown catch — his fourth reception of the season and his first score in 2015 — despite having his facemask grabbed by a Duck defender. The Ukropina extra point made it 35-30.

The red-jerseyed defenders then forced the Ducks’ second and final punt of the game, after which Hogan, McCaffrey and associates swung back into action. The Cardinal moved from its own 33 to the Stanford 48 before disaster struck.

In the team’s second fatal miscue, Hogan was stuffed on second down and eight, losing a yard and — more importantly — coughing up the ball. Stanford had botched the snap from the center to the quarterback, an action that the pair do literally dozens of times a game and hundreds of times a week.

Tyson Coleman recovered the pigskin for the Ducks, giving them an easy opportunity to go up by two scores. That didn’t happen, despite Oregon’s advancing to the Cardinal 13-yard line. On fourth down and five to go, Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich sent in Aidan Schneider, who split the uprights with a 31-yard field goal. Now Oregon had an eight-point lead, 38-30, with a little more than five minutes remaining in regulation. Stanford needed points, and it had little time to kill.

The Cardinal’s next three plays were extremely promising, as Hogan hit Rector, Dalton Schultz and McCaffrey on the first three plays for gains of 17, 17 and 18 yards, respectively. McCaffrey rushed right for eight yards on the fourth play, after which Hogan rushed up the middle for one yard. On the next snap, though, Hogan was pushed backward and fumbled yet again, with Oregon linebacker Torrodney Prevot recovering for the Ducks with a shade over two minutes to go.

The defense was spectacular, forcing a three and out with a tackle for a loss of Freeman and a sack of Adams. Stanford called its remaining pair of timeouts during the series, and after an Oregon punt to midfield, the Cardinal had 69 seconds left on the clock with which to score a touchdown and a game-tying two-point conversion.

Cardinal faithful know what happened: Hogan fought through several incompletions to lead the team to two aerial first downs, plus another one by penalty thanks to a pass-interference call on the Ducks. Finally, on fourth and goal from the 4-yard line, Hogan connected with Taboada for six points with seven ticks left on the clock.

But on the two-point conversion try, Hogan’s pass was deflected by a diving Joe Walker — again, not by much, but by enough. The ball fell to the ground, all but killing Stanford’s chance to play for a win in overtime.

Hogan threw low on the play, but that was not entirely his fault. Another Oregon linebacker, Tyson Coleman, darted in unguarded from the right end, hitting the Stanford QB as he released the pass. His target was Austin Hooper, who had immediately released from the line upon the snap, moved straight ahead into the end zone, and then separated himself from Walker by running toward the middle of the field. If Hogan hadn’t been under such heavy pressure, he might easily have thrown the ball directly to Hooper’s breadbasket, and the game would presumably have gone into overtime…

But that’s not what happened. Instead, the Ducks recovered Stanford’s onside kick attempt and walked away with a 38-36 victory. The outcome preserved Oregon’s chances of winning the Pac-12 Northern Division, although they will need to win out and hope for Stanford to lose its last conference contest, this Saturday against Cal. The result also quashed the Cardinal’s hopes of advancing to a College Football Playoff semifinal and participating in — as some boisterous fans chanted after the Colorado win on Nov. 7 — six more games!

For my money, the most devastating play of the game was Hogan’s first fumble. Stanford turned the ball over three times against Oregon, but the Ducks only managed to score three points as a result of those errors, and Schneider’s field goal turned out to be the margin of victory. If the visiting squad had led by five points in the final minute, instead of by eight, all the Cardinal would have had to do is score a touchdown and then hold off a Ducks drive with scant seconds remaining on the clock. Instead of being absolutely crucial, in that scenario, the two-point conversion would have been gravy — even if the post-touchdown try was somehow foiled, the Cardinal would have led by one point.

But again, that’s not what happened. Credit to Helfrich, Adams (who completed 10 of 12 passes for 205 yards and a pair of touchdowns), Freeman and the rest. Thanks in part to Adams’ returning to health, the Ducks have recovered from a historically bad 62-20 home loss to Utah in late September and a double-overtime loss to surging Washington State in mid-October.

The Ducks have now won four straight games and positioned themselves for a shot at the league title. The next two weeks will be very interesting indeed for fans in both Palo Alto and Eugene…

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