By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 15, 2016
Should you happen to flip through the recent records of what is now the Pac-12 Conference, you’ll notice something interesting:
Although the league had 10 teams from 1978 through 2011, and now contains an even dozen universities in the American West, ownership of the football title has been somewhat streaky. The University of Spoiled — sorry, the University of Southern California — had a six-year run atop the conference spanning 2003 through 2008. Since then, however, the championship has belonged to one of two teams: either Stanford University or the University of Oregon.
The Ducks won the Pac-12 three years running, from 2009 through 2011, before yielding to the Cardinal the next two years. Oregon reclaimed its crown in 2014 but was shouldered aside by Stanford last year. Over this period, encounters between Stanford and Oregon were generally expected to have important implications for the state of conference — and in some years, for all of college football.
It became evident in early October that another team would be this year’s league champion. Stanford’s chances of winning the Northern Division were severely damaged by the blowout loss to Washington and essentially eliminated in the following week’s nearly-as-ugly blowout loss to Washington State. By that point, the Ducks were mired in what eventually became a five-game conference losing streak.
And so it was that on Saturday in Eugene, the 6-3 Cardinal was hosted by a 3-6 Ducks team that had managed to win but a single conference game. A clash of the titans this was not.
That’s not to say that the game was unimportant. For Oregon, a win would maintain their chances of appearing in a bowl game. Stanford had already achieved bowl eligibility the previous week against Oregon State, but another win would bolster the team’s likelihood of appearing in, if not a prominent bowl, then at least a mid-tier bowl.
Besides, a victory would mean bragging rights. For some of the players, the game offered a chance to avenge Stanford’s blowout 2014 and narrow 2015 losses to Ducks, the latter of which arguably did more than even the Cardinal’s desultory road loss to Northwestern to keep the team out of the College Football Playoffs, or Oregon’s 2012 and 2013 losses to the Farm boys.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the game did not start out promisingly for the Cardinal offense. After the defense forced the hosts to go three and out, the men in green returned the favor for fledgling Stanford starting quarterback Keller Chryst and his unit.
On their second series, the Ducks advanced to the Stanford 26-yard line. But after they were pushed back by a false start penalty, the Ducks failed to convert on third and fourth downs, and the white-clad travelers took over.
This drive was short and to the point, and it was all Christian McCaffrey. After an eight-yard run to start things off, the Cardinal set up in a heavy-load formation. Junior fullback Daniel Marx and freshman guard Nate Herbig, who pulled over from the left side, set blocks on the right end of the line. McCaffrey saw the opening, darted through it and turned on the jets for a 61-yard rushing touchdown.
Oregon’s attempt to answer backfired. On the Ducks’ second play from scrimmage, freshman quarterback Justin Herbert began an exchange with feature back Royce Freeman before trying to retract the ball. Whether because Freeman didn’t expect to return the ball or because the angle was awkward when Herbert started to retrieve it, it popped loose. Junior defensive lineman Solomon Thomas fought his way through a block and pounced on the pigskin before anyone else got a chance to scoop it up.
Five plays and 47 yards later, Stanford took a 14-0 lead. It was perhaps the Cardinal’s most varied offensive series of the year: Bryce Love ran the ball twice, for 17 and 3 yards; Chryst completed a pair of 11-yard passes, to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Dalton Schultz; and McCaffrey capped the drive with a five-yard scoring run on a direct snap.
The home and away teams each essayed three-play series, but only Stanford generated points. The visitors went up, 21-0, when Chryst threw a deep ball down the right sideline. Arcega-Whiteside separated from his defender, gathered the pigskin around the 20 and beat the only other nearby Duck to the end zone for a 61-yard touchdown, Stanford’s second of that distance in the first quarter alone.
Oregon answered near the end of the period with a seven-play, 75-yard drive that saw Herbert tossing a 41-yard touchdown to Johnny Mundt. The Cardinal responded with a 43-yard field goal from Conrad “Ol’ Reliable” Ukropina.
Nine snaps later, Oregon was knocking on the door when outside linebacker Joey Alfieri made the first of two crucial plays on the afternoon. On third and goal from the 16-yard line, the junior defender took a step toward the line. But almost instantly he changed direction, moving outside to track Oregon running back Tony Brooks-James, who was running a route out of the backfield.
When Herbert threw to Alfieri’s man, strong safety Dallas Lloyd read the play and zipped toward Brooks-James and Alfieri. The fifth-year senior extended an arm and tipped the ball, which Alfieri somehow bobbled to himself and ended up catching for an end-zone interception. It was an excellent demonstration of defensive teamwork; Brooks-James had gotten inside of Alfieri, and if it hadn’t been for Lloyd’s heroic run and deflection, he might have scored Oregon’s second touchdown.
The Cardinal began the ensuing possession with an 11-yard Cameron Scarlett run and a 14-yard Love rush before turning to the air for all but one of the next nine plays. Chryst went 5 for 8 on the drive, completing no throw longer than 18 yards (to Arcega-Whiteside), before he targeted receiver Michael Rector for a seven-yard touchdown strike. Chryst underthrew the ball slightly while rolling out of the pocket, and the fifth-year senior made an impressive sliding catch for the score, which gave Stanford a 31-6 lead. It was a welcome return to the box score for Rector, whose only previous two touchdowns this year had come in the team’s first two games of the season.
Oregon quickly responded with a long kick return that was precursor to a four-play, 50-yard drive in which Freeman ran for 50 yards and a touchdown with 4:01 to play in the half.
Stanford went to its ground game to kill the clock, handing the rock to McCaffrey six times on an eight play drive. (Chryst went 1 for 2 with a 14-yard completion to Rector.) The series ended with a pair of 14-yard carries by McCaffrey, the second of which found paydirt and gave the visitors a 38-13 lead — this, mind you, from a team that had broken the 28-point barrier just once on the season.
The Cardinal opened the second half with a three-and-out. But even this ultimately worked to the visitors’ advantage, as the ball struck the back of a Duck and was recovered at the Oregon 40 by sophomore inside linebacker Sean Barton. (Frankly, the Carinal was lucky not to be flagged for encroachment, as the Duck punt returner had called for a fair catch.)
From there, Stanford needed just three plays to score, all of which went through the air. Chryst threw to McCaffrey for 17, Schultz for 8 and Rector for a 15-yard touchdown. This last ball was nicely placed by Chryst; he was rolling out of the pocket and faced heavy pressure from an oncoming linebacker but threw the ball where his receiver could reach it easily and no defender had a chance to interfere. (Oregon’s defender was flagged for a personal foul for his hit on Chryst, eliciting a 15-yard penalty that was enforced on the kickoff.) This score put the Cardinal up, 45-13.
The next Ducks drive resulted in another interception — amazingly, also by Alfieri and again in the end zone, this time as he wrestled a ball away from tight end Johnny Mundt on a Herbert deep pass from the Cardinal 34-yard line. The teams then exchanged punts before Stanford added on to its lead with a six-play, 44-yard drive.
That possession began with an incomplete pass targeting Rector; then Love rushed for 19 yards. The next four carries all went to Scarlett, who capped the possession with a 13-yard scoring run, the first touchdown of the sophomore’s collegiate career. Score: Stanford 52, Oregon 13.
The Ducks would score two touchdowns to narrow the gap, but that didn’t affect the outcome as Stanford went on to vanquish its division rival, 52-27.
Oregon fell to 3-7 and 1-6 in the Pac-12 while Stanford advanced to 7-3, 5-3. This Saturday, the Cardinal wraps up its conference schedule with Big Game before concluding the regular season at home vs. Rice. Should the Cardinal win those two games — and both of them are eminently winnable — and then go on to win a bowl game, the team would finish 10-3. That would be no small feat for a team that merely had to replace one of the best quarterbacks in school history.