Heading into tonight game between Stanford and Oregon, I was like most Duck fans and college football pundits in expecting the Ducks to easily cover the 11 point spread in this year’s contest.
Boy, I have never been so wrong in my life when it came to predicting a college football game.
I chalked up last year’s 17-14 Stanford OT victory to a “perfect storm.” The Ducks missed many obvious opportunities (including a couple of makable field goals) and Stanford got nearly every break in a fingernail close contest.
Based one what I had seen leading up to tonight’s game I was absolutely convinced the Ducks were dramatically improved over last year while Stanford didn’t seem as strong.
Boy, was I wrong.
There are literally hundreds of college football pundits and writers who are dissecting and discussing tonight’s game as the outcome has a huge impact on the BCS championship race. Thanks to Stanford, fan bases in Tuscaloosa, Tallahassee, Columbus and even Waco, Texas are celebrating because they now have an opening in the BCS championship race. The Ducks are now clearly on the outside looking in.
So what the hell happened to the Ducks tonight in Palo Alto?
As was the case last year, I think it was the reincarnation of another perfect storm – and one that Stanford created and deserves credit (for most of it at least).
First, the Ducks missed early huge scoring opportunities.
Just like in 2012, the Ducks had a couple of huge scoring opportunities in Stanford’s red zone early in the game that they were unable to capitalize on – and it cost them dearly. In tonight’s game we saw a huge missed opportunity in the Ducks’ first possession when on a third down play Oregon QB Marcus Mariota missed a WIDE open Josh Huff for what should have been an easy TD. Mariota uncharacteristically under threw the ball and Huff made diving attempt for it at the 5 yard line – but it was rule incomplete and the Ducks had to punt. Stanford got the ball on their own 4 yard line and proceeded to march down the field for a 96 yard touchdown drive to take a lead it would never relinquish.
On its 2nd drive the Ducks found found some rhythm on offense and moved the ball into Stanford’s red zone and found itself with 1st and goal. After being stymied on three straight plays Oregon elected to go for it (rather than take the 3 point field goal attempt) on fourth and 4. The play was a disaster and not even close to successful and the Ducks were turned away without scoring a point.
Stanford made the plays and Oregon didn’t
There were two other occasions when Oregon penetrated into Stanford territory and came away with zero points due to turnovers. In the first case the Ducks would have had first and goal around the Stanford 7 after a successful Mariota to D’Anthony Thomas pass completion – but DAT was stripped of the ball during the tackle and Stanford gained possession. This was a HUGE play as Oregon was poised to cut Stanford’s lead to 14-7 and was showing they could move against their defense.
The second turnover was the result of a Mariota fumble while he was being tackled. This play in particularly was extremely disappointing. Throughout the night I thought that Marcus looked much more tentative and less decisive than he had up to what had been a Heisman-winning campaign. There were so many times it was obvious he couldn’t decide whether to run or pass and it cost the Ducks dearly. I thought that Marcus had many running lanes often and he instead tried to force a pass on well-covered Ducks receiver – unlike Stanford QB Kevin Hogan who was extremely successful scrambling for yards when he couldn’t find a receiver right away.
So if you count the turnover on downs plus the two turnovers in Stanford territory, the Ducks left way too many potential points on the board.
But perhaps the most disappointing performance of the night came from Oregon’s defense and coordinator, Nick Alliotti. Heading into tonight’s game, there was nothing that would lead anyone to believe that Stanford would be able to score as easily and often as it did. Oregon has done a tremendous job of shutting down every offense up to this point in the season. And minus Stephon Taylor and their NFL-caliber tight ends, there was little to fear from this Stanford offense that couldn’t even muster much offense against the likes of Utah, UCLA or Oregon State.
But Stanford’s offense just rolled over Oregon’s defense. The last time I checked, Stanford converted a ridiculous 75% of third down plays. 75%!!! Most of these happened when everyone in the stadium KNEW Stanford was going to run the ball – and yet the Ducks were unable to stop it. In the 2nd half of the game, Stanford maybe attempted 5 passes total -and yet Oregon was unable to stop every time-consuming drive. Stanford clearly won the battle of the trenches and it wasn’t even close. And unlike previous games, Oregon’s coaching staff was unable to make enough necessary adjustments at half time to stem the tide.
To Oregon’s credit they kept things a little interesting in the 4th quarter with a much-needed offensive drive for a TD, a blocked FG that was returned for a TD and a successful onside kick that was also converted into a late TD. But it was all much too little, too late. The Ducks may have won the 4th quarter but they got their asses kicked during the first three quarters and that was just too much to overcome at the end.
Whenever a team loses its natural to point fingers or to look at an individual area to blame. Last year most of us Ducks fans felt that failures in the kicking game and a controversial TD reversal were the key factors in Stanford walking away with the win. This year I think its safe to say the blame needs to be equally divided among the coaching staff, offense, defense and special teams. The Ducks fell far short of their potential in each of these groups while Stanford played a nearly flawless game.
At the end of the day, when you have two very talented teams such as Stanford and Oregon, the team that makes the most plays while also making the fewest mistakes is the team that should (and usually does) win. And tonight that team was Stanford – and they deserve all the credit in the world.
Oregon is still among the top programs in national college football but they learned tonight that they still have another step in the journey before they can truly be considered one of the top 1-3 ELITE teams in the country consistently. Its a tough lesson and one that was very hard to watch in person as a passionate Ducks fan, but it is reality.
The bright spot that Ducks and fans alike can and should focus on is how Oregon rallied late in the game to make Stanford and its fans nervous when they closed to within 26-20. There are many teams that would have given up when down 26-0 but Oregon showed great grit and resiliency in fighting back to make it a 1 touchdown game.
There is still a lot of football left for Oregon as they have games against Utah, Arizona and Oregon State left on the schedule. And while Stanford is clearly in the drivers seat in the Pac-12 North race, it’s obvious that crazy things can still happen. For as many people who actually predicted and thought Stanford would beat Oregon probably also thought Utah would beat Stanford. Oregon is still in a strong position to earn its 5th straight BCS bowl appearance – its just not the BCS bowl we were all hoping for.
It is this unpredictability that comes with college football that makes it so thrilling and frustrating simultaneously.