Unlikely, improbable, AMAZING! Stanford rallies from 17 down for a 38-31 overtime road win at Oregon

September 28, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 28, 2018

The Nerd Nation Comeback T-shirt that went on sale this week encapsulates the roller-coaster ride that was Stanford football’s improbable rally at Oregon Saturday evening.

The Ducks moved the ball easily early on, scoring touchdowns on their first three possessions and adding a field goal on their fourth and last drive of the first period. Their phenomenal quarterback, junior Justin Herbert, completed 13 of 14 passes before the break, racking up 184 yards with a short touchdown toss to junior tight end Jacob Breeland. Oregon was also devastating on the ground, with running back C.J. Verdell scoring on a 48-yard rush; he and Herbert also had several other carries of at least 11 yards.

Meanwhile, the Cardinal offense seemed hesitant in its first road game of 2018. A 13-yard K.J. Costello-to-J.J. Arcega-Whiteside fade left Oregon holding a 14-7 lead in the second quarter, but after that, the unit was only able to gain 17 yards in their last two series before halftime.

Stanford’s failure to move the ball in the last two minutes of the second quarter seemed especially ominous. After the Cardinal defense made its best stand of the half, inducing a field goal after Oregon got a first down at the visitors’ 13-yard line, Costello and friends were unable to reduce their 17-point deficit going into the break.

Things momentarily seemed to brighten for Stanford coach David Shaw’s club after intermission. On the opening drive of the third period, the defense forced a Ducks punt after they’d advanced to Stanford’s 22-yard line. But once again, the offense failed to rise to the challenge. Cameron Scarlett was unable to convert third and 1, and Jake Bailey came on for his fourth punt in six Cardinal possessions.

The Ducks methodically moved from the Cardinal 49-yard line to the 17. But then, literally as Oregon was poised to take a 31-7 lead, the game’s tenor abruptly changed.

On first down, Oregon sophomore wideout Jaylon Redd swept in from where he’d lined up on the right side of the formation, took the ball following a fake Justin Herbert handoff, zipped around the left side thanks to a terrific block from Breeland, and raced toward the goal line. Senior free safety Frank Buncom dove at the ball carrier, getting a hand on Redd’s leg, but the man in green kept going into the end zone.

However, when officials reviewed the play, one noted that Redd’s left foot had hit a pylon right before the ball crossed into the end zone. The touchdown was removed from the scoreboard, and Oregon got first and goal inside the 1-yard line.

So what? many observers may have shrugged at the time, and I would be lying if I claimed not to be among their number. This ruling, which surely would only postpone an inevitable score, turned out to have a crucial impact on the game.

On the ensuing play, redshirt freshman running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio fumbled the ball, which Herbert retrieved at the 10-yard line. Verdell soon ran for six yards, but the Ducks still sought to stick a dagger in their division rivals.

Then the ground suddenly shifted under Oregon’s feet. The ball, for at least the second time in the game, was snapped above Herbert’s head — and this time, the quarterback wasn’t able to corral the pigskin.

Outside linebacker Joey Alfieri was, however. Leaning over, he scooped up the ball at the 20-yard line and went to the house. The touchdown, which drew Stanford to 24-14, represented a 14-point swing: Oregon lost seven points thanks to the officials’ video review and the Cardinal gained seven with the defensive score.

Around this time, I told my friend that the only problem with this much-needed defensive score was that it meant the Ducks offense would get the ball right back. Fortunately for the Cardinal, its defense forced Oregon’s first three and out of the game.

This time around, the offense found some mojo, advancing 65 yards to the end zone in just three plays over the course of 71 seconds. Costello connected with sophomore tight end Colby Parkinson for 11 yards and senior wideout Trenton Irwin for 32. Next, it was Bryce Love’s turn, as the senior wonderback exploded through a crowded line and sped past the secondary for a 22-yard touchdown. That reduced Oregon’s lead to 24-21.

The Cardinal defense forced another quick punt. But next it was Oregon’s defense stood tall, as Cameron Scarlett was turned away on fourth and 1 at the 30 with nearly 11 minutes remaining in the game.

The subsequent six minutes and 11 seconds unfolded like a nightmare for Stanford fans. Herbert engineered a 70-yard drive over 11 plays, all going for positive yardage. When the Ducks appeared to score on fourth and 1 from the 17, another video review rightly took the points off the scoreboard. However, this time Oregon didn’t squander goal to go from the 1: Habibi-Likio found a gap on the left side of the line and dove into the end zone, giving his team a 31-21 cushion with 4:31 left on the clock.

Stanford’s offense, now facing more pressure than they’d seen the entire season, was up to the task. Costello unleashed a deep ball that sophomore wideout Osiris St. Brown caught in stride for a 49-yard reception. A 20-yard pass to junior tight end Kaden Smith occurred on the very next play. Following a false start, the junior slinger found — of course! — Arcega-Whiteside for a 15-yard touchdown. The three-play, 79-yard series left Oregon clinging to a 31-28 advantage with 3:10 to go.

Shaw elected to kick off; that led to a touchback, although an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty forced Oregon to start at their own 13. No matter — Herbert unleashed a 23-yard throw to junior wideout Dillon Mitchell, who would finish the evening with 14 catches for 239 yards. The Ducks crossed the 50-yard line with about a minute remaining.

That’s when Verdell made a play that will likely haunt him for the rest of the season, if not longer. While trying to reach the first-down marker on a simple run over left tackle on second and 2 at the Cardinal 42, the redshirt freshman was unable to keep a firm grip as sophomore free safety Noah Williams attempted to poke the ball loose. It came out, and senior inside linebacker Sean Barton recovered.

It was a pivotal play, one so earth-shattering that I let bellowed a short, inarticulate noise as soon as I saw an on-field official toss the marker used to spot the ball on a change of possession. When not only Stanford players but referees signaled a first down for the visiting squad, the Cardinal was poised for an improbable comeback.

Fifty-one seconds remained on the clock. Costello came out throwing, beginning with Incomplete attempts to Smith and Arcega-Whiteside. He converted third and 10 with a 16-yarder to a tightly covered Parkinson that moved Stanford to Oregon’s 44. The next play was also a 16-yard strike, to Arcega-Whiteside. Costello made a nine-yard throw to Love, advancing to the 19, and Shaw called his third and final timeout with five seconds to go in regulation.

Stanford’s kicker came out, but before he had his moment in the spotlight Oregon was flagged five yards for an illegal substitution; then the Ducks called a timeout. Even so, junior Jet Toner booted the ball through the uprights, sending the game to overtime with a 31-31 score.

The Cardinal, playing extra football for the first time since a 2014 double-overtime home loss to Utah, got the first series on offense. Love got the first touch, carrying the ball for two yards. On the next play, Costello made a throw that Parkinson got an outstretched hand on around the 2-yard line. If he hadn’t, the ball might have been intercepted; but he did, and he was able to reel in the pigskin in the end zone. For the first time all game, Stanford held a lead, 38-31.

But Oregon still had a chance on offense, and Herbert had been phenomenal. In regulation, he completed 25 of 27 throws for 331 yards with one touchdown and no picks. Unsurprisingly, Oregon coach Mario Cristobal had Herbert throw on all six of the Ducks’ overtime plays.

Herbert opened the series with a throw to Mitchell in the end zone, but sophomore cornerback Paulson Adebo was able to knock the ball away. The next play saw a short completion that wideout Johnny Johnson III was able to take for 15 yards, setting up goal to go from the 10.

Herbert’s first-down pass attempt went awry as he was being hurried by junior outside linebacker Jordan Fox. Herbert then made another end-zone throw to Mitchell, but Adebo read the play and leaped. He grazed the ball, transforming a likely touchdown into a harmless incompletion.

Amazingly, Adelbo broke up another target of Mitchell on third down as well, setting up a do-or-die fourth down for Oregon. Herbert dropped back and looked right for a moment; then he turned to his left and, seeing that junior left flanker Brenden Schooler was about to work his way free in the end zone, unleashed a throw that intersected with Schooler’s torso in front of the E in the OREGON.

But Stanford’s secondary saw what was developing, and Schooler wasn’t free for long. Fifth-year senior cornerback Alijah Holder raced in from behind and knocked the ball away. Holder’s classmate and fellow cornerback, Alameen Murphy, was perfectly positioned to catch the pigskin. He did so and fell to the ground atop part of the G. The interception capped an astonishing 38-31 victory in which Stanford had trailed by 17 points.

The result dropped Oregon to 3-1 (0-1 in the Pac-12) and moved Stanford’s record to 4-0 (2-0 in league). The Cardinal, now ranked seventh in the nation, will play No. 8 Notre Dame Dame (also 4-0) tomorrow evening in a nationally televised game that has major postseason implications.

If the Stanford team that came out in the first half against Oregon shows up against the Fighting Irish, the home squad could have an easy time of it. But if Stanford shows the form that it had in the second half and overtime against Oregon, the Cardinal might be capable of taking down any team in the nation.


Helpful links

Stanford-Oregon team statistics — ESPN
Stanford-Oregon box score
Stanford-Oregon play-by-play
Stanford-Oregon interactive box score — GoStanford.com
Stanford-Oregon static box score — GoStanford.com
Stanford 2018–19 football roster
Oregon 2018–19 football roster
Game (and some other) tweets — @memomoment
Highlight video — ESPN
Highlight video — BeastModeHighlights

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