I meant to write this post yesterday, but work and lack of sleep (Stone woke me up at 4 am) meant an early bedtime and no blogging.
But now that sufficient time has passed and I’ve had to wade through the expected “expert” analysis of the Ducks loss at Stanford, I thought I’d offer one final perspective before putting the game to bed once and for all and focusing entirely on the rest of the season – which has plenty at stake.
In general I think there has been way too much overreaction to the loss by the media and fans alike – but this isn’t really a big surprise. When a game is as anticipated as this match up and you have a near repeat performance of the previous year’s results, its easy for many people to jump to conclusions as they search for an answer as to how this can happen in back-to-back years.
There are a few popular myths that have gained traction among Ducks detractors – especially in the national media.
In no particular order I’m going to address some of the popular narratives:
* Stanford owns the Ducks and has cracked the code how to beat them consistently
Yes, Stanford has beaten Oregon two years in a row and in both cases were double-digit underdogs – this can’t be disputed. But winning two games in a row by a combined 9 points when each game came down to final possessions is not the definition of “owning” a team. You want owning? Look at the Ducks beating UW 10 straight times by double digits. That is the definition of owning.
Stanford has created match-up challenges for the Ducks in both games and certainly made an impression with their big lines, but what seems to go unnoticed is that Stanford played flawless football.
In Thursday night’s game, Stanford had zero turnovers while forcing two critical Duck fumbles (as well as turnover on possessions). Even more amazingly, Stanford was only flagged two times for 10 yards in penalties – despite running the ball a whopping 62 times (what, not one holding penalty?). Meanwhile Oregon had 10 penalties for 81 yards – including two costly pass interference calls.
In the 2012 game it took two missed Oregon FGs, a controversial reversal of a TD reception and a missed block by De’Anthony Thomas to help Stanford upset the Ducks.
In both cases Stanford played better overall games and earned the wins – but they hardly “owned” the Ducks.
Oh, and who else remembers when Lane Kiffin and USC beat the Ducks in 2011 and pundits declared that he created the perfect blueprint for other teams to beat Oregon?
* Oregon needs to change its recruiting and go for bigger players or else it’ll never win a National Championship
This is complete nonsense. Yes Stanford controlled the line of scrimmage against the Ducks for much of the game but I think this had as much to do with the flow of the game as well as coaching adjustments (or lack thereof on the Ducks part – more on that later).
The Ducks have lost a total of 4 conference games since 2009 and have blown out nearly every opponent in the majority of their wins. Absolute perfection is nearly impossible to find in college football. Even Alabama – as dominant and impressive a team as there has been in the country the past five years – lost a game during the regular season to conference opponents in the past two years and nearly lost to Texas A&M again this year. Yet it would be preposterous to suggest that Alabama should change its recruiting to find players that will help it against spread offenses. They win doing what they do best – and they do it very well. In the past five years no programs have won as many games as Alabama, Oregon and Stanford.
Oregon plays one of the most exciting (and effective) styles of football in the country. No system is perfect and each presents its own weakness. Good teams will attack those weaknesses and adjustments must be made to overcome these attacks. Have the Ducks always made the best adjustments? No – but that has less to do with the size of the players than coaching (in my opinion).
Oh and I heard an interesting statistic – Stanford’s defensive line outweighed Oregon’s line by a *total* of 8 pounds. That is hardly a huge difference.
* Oregon proved again that they can’t play with the “big boys” and their team/game is based on a flashy/gimmicky offense.
Again, this is total nonsense. As noted earlier, the two most recent losses to Stanford were not blow outs. And its also easy to forget that two years ago it was Oregon who went into Stanford Stadium and blew out a Cardinal team that featured Andrew Luck and at least 5 other future NFL players (after doing the same the previous year in Autzen against Luck and the Cardinal).
So in the past four years between these two powerhouses we’ve had two Ducks blowout wins and two close Stanford wins.
In the 2011 BCS title game against Auburn from the mighty SEC, Oregon took the Tigers to the wire, losing on a game-winning kick as time expired.
In each of Oregon’s last three conference losses (Stanford, Stanford and USC) the Ducks made way too many mistakes early (and throughout) the game and you can’t do that and expect to win against very good teams. And yet in each game, they were within a score of pulling off the win.
Now that I’ve addressed some of the myths, lets look at some of the “woulda coulda” aspects from Thursday night’s game:
* How much did Mariota’s injury impact Oregon’s offense?
Well the obvious answer is: plenty. It was clear from the beginning of the game that something wasn’t quite right with Oregon’s offense – and it wasn’t just Stanford making great plays (although they certainly did that). The fact that Mariota only had 3 rushing attempts the entire game shows that both he and the coaches were plenty concerned about his injured knee (or his effectiveness). Mariota’s ability to run and throw was cited as one of the biggest reasons why the Ducks were 11 point favorites heading into the game.
But Stanford is smart – they also saw early on that Marcus wasn’t going to run and adjusted accordingly. They keyed on running backs during the read options (knowing Marcus wasn’t keeping it) and when he dropped back to pass they covered tightly and put a “spy” on him to make sure he didn’t escape. And yet there were plenty of times when he had lanes to run for big yardage (or critical first downs) and chose not to. That was huge – but injuries are part of football.
* How much was Oregon out-coached by David Shaw and his staff?
Much has been made about Oregon passing up a short field goal attempt early in the game and missing a 4th and goal pass. I thought at the time the decision was unwise. Yes the Ducks like to gamble and go for bigger points but I think there are times when you can make exceptions in your approach without sacrificing your identity or game plan. In the scheme of things how much would have a 3-0 lead mattered? Its hard to say but points are points – and that early in the game you have to be confident you’ll have many more possessions and opportunities for more touchdowns (although ironically, this was NOT the case after Stanford successfully played keep away with their ball control offense).
Stanford had a very effective game plan but it was only successful because the flow of the game allowed it to be. Once Stanford was ahead by more than two touchdowns it wasn’t worried about scoring any more points (although they tacked on field goal after field goal). They just wanted to keep the Ducks offense off the field – and they did this with basically a goal line formation and 3-4 yard runs time after time.
I think if there was an area where the Ducks coaching could be questioned it would be on the defensive side of the ball. It was hardly a secret that Stanford would try to mash the ball against Oregon’s defense. But the Ducks stuck with their base 3-4 defense for the majority of the game and this gave an overall size advantage to Stanford when they had 7-9 lineman blocking for Gaffney. In most cases Defensive Coordinator Aliotti’s “bend don’t break” approach works well because other teams can’t grind out possessions as well as Stanford – but at some point I would have liked to see the Ducks gamble more on defense by stacking the line of scrimmage and selling out to stop the run. I would have much rather dared Hogan to beat the Ducks with his arm than allow Stanford to keep running the ball. While Hogan did hit one long completion (really the only big play in the game) to set up Stanford’s first touchdown, I don’t think he would have been capable of doing so time and again against Oregon’s talented secondary. And from a strategic standpoint I think the Ducks would have been better off trying to create a shootout vs. a nip-and-tuck defensive struggle.
* Why does it always have to be Stanford breaking the Ducks heart??
Ducks fans are well-aware that Stanford has now beaten Oregon three times in the past 12 years when a potential BCS Championship Game appearance was on the line. They also knocked Oregon out of the Rose Bowl in 1995 and prevented them from a perfect conference season in 2009. What the hell is it with Stanford and Oregon in these games?
As a lifelong 49ers fan it reminds me very much of the Cowboys and 49ers during the 1970s and 90s. Too many times the Cowboys dashed San Francisco’s hopes with playoff wins and were a thorn in their side through two separate generations. But the 49ers persevered and figured out a way to beat the Cowboys in critical conference championship games that led to both their first and most recent Super Bowl wins. And I’m confident the Ducks will do just that and will get past Stanford again on their way to a championship.
Oregon has built a great program and one that I believe has great staying power. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think they would be at this point where they are legitimately challenging for a national championship on an annual basis. They haven’t quite been able to get that brass ring yet but the journey is hardly over – even this season Las Vegas still gives them 12-1 odds to reach and win the BCS Championship (in spite of last week’s loss).
So with that in mind I’m not focusing solely on the rest of the season and am excited to see my Ducks back in action Saturday against Utah. I’ll be taking Ty to the game since we got rained out of the football game experience during the Cal game in September. And we’re both prepared to yell our lungs out and look for Oregon to start a new winning streak.
Bring on the Utes!!