Stanford stifles Oregon in clash of West Coast football cultures
STANFORD, Calif. -- Stanford went all-in on its "Nerd Nation" mantra for Thursday night's showdown against undefeated Oregon. Band members, students in the stands, former players on the sidelines and even current players in the postgame press conference all donned prop black-frame glasses with fake masking tape on the bridge.
If only the rest of us were so smart, perhaps we might finally stop dismissing the Cardinal.
For the second consecutive November, Stanford entered its matchup with the Ducks as a double-digit underdog. Last year, the Cardinal held Oregon to its lowest point total in more than three seasons in a 17-14 overtime win in Eugene. Yet the consensus this week was that sixth-ranked Stanford couldn't possibly replicate such a sterling defensive performance against the the nation's No. 2 team and the Pac-12's reigning offensive juggernaut.
Instead, the Cardinal raised its game to an entirely new level.
"It's our mentality," defensive end Henry Anderson said after a deceivingly close 26-20 upset win, during which Stanford actually led 26-0 as late as the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. "It's not like we have to hang with them and hope we can pull it out. We feel like we can blow those dudes out."
That's presumably how the Ducks feel every time they step on the field, because that's what they have done to every other Pac-12 opponent over the past two seasons. But the Cardinal so thoroughly dominated Thursday night's game that it did more than simply squash Oregon's national title hopes and shake up the BCS standings. It signaled a changing of the guard on the West Coast.
The Ducks' frenetic tempo and glitzy uniforms are out. Vanilla is now the flavor of the Pac-12.
"We knew going in this game was going to be a test of wills," said star Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov. "Two different approaches, two very different tempos. One team was going to decide the way it was going to go."
That team was the Cardinal, which staged a nationally televised clinic in big-boy football.
Stanford ran the ball 66 times on Thursday night. Read that again: 66 times. Never mind that the Cardinal averaged just 4.2 yards per carry and never had a gain of longer than 16 yards. Big plays on offense aren't necessary when the defense holds the opponent's normally explosive rushing attack to a measly 2.6 yards per carry.
Stanford set the tone early, keeping the Ducks off the scoreboard on their second offensive series. Oregon drove to the Cardinal's four-yard line. Ducks coach Mark Helfrich went for it on fourth-and-goal. But in a scene that would become plenty familiar over the course of the evening, Skov blitzed and helped force quarterback Marcus Mariota into an incompletion.
Stanford then drove 96 yards for its first touchdown, with tailback Tyler Gaffney rushing nine times during the march. By game's end, Gaffney had carried the ball a school-record 45 times. Only one of his runs went for negative yardage. In turn, the Cardinal maintained possession for more than two-thirds of the game (42:34).
"It was awesome," said Stanford guard David Yankey. "Going into the fourth quarter, coach [David] Shaw said, 'We're done. We're not going to pass any more. We're going to run them out of the stadium.'"
Shortly before kickoff an Oregon television station reported that Mariota had a partial sprain of his left MCL. The Ducks have an adamant policy that forbids the discussion of injuries, but Mariota admitted afterward that he was "a little banged up." That might explain why he seemed off his game for much of the night. He frequently chose not to take off and run when lanes seemed available. He also fumbled three times, losing one.
"I tend to just not focus on the pain because you've got to play with it," said Mariota, whose Heisman Trophy hopes took a hit with the loss. "You have to play with that kind of stuff. It happens."
Even a fully healthy Mariota would have struggled against the relentless pressure of Skov, Anderson, and linebackers James Vaughters and Trent Murphy, who combined for three sacks and six tackles for loss. Mariota's job was made even more difficult by the ineffectiveness of Oregon's running game.
"Our defensive style is a little bit different than most teams' [use against the Ducks]," said Anderson. " [We want to] be aggressive, try to get in the backfield and disrupt the running game. A lot of teams play more laterally."
Trailing 14-0, Oregon briefly ran the ball with success and was able to push the tempo during a second-quarter drive. On second-and-10 at the Cardinal's 11-yard line, Mariota completed a pass to tailback De'Anthony Thomas that would have put the Ducks within a couple yards of the end zone. But just before Thomas hit the ground, Skov stripped and recovered the ball. As if that wasn't crushing enough, Stanford, which took over with 8:26 remaining in the first half, proceeded to run out the clock with a 20-play, 96-yard field-goal drive that increased the Cardinal's lead to 17-0.
Oregon never seriously threatened again, save for a mad-dash fourth-quarter rally. Trailing 26-7 with just 5:08 left to play, the Ducks' Rodney Hardrick returned a blocked field goal 65 yards for a touchdown, which cut Stanford's lead to 26-13 (Oregon went for two but failed to covert). That was followed by an onside kick recovery, and then a breakneck Ducks' touchdown drive that cut the deficit to six points with 2:12 remaining. But the rally ended when the Cardinal recovered Oregon's next onside kick, and promptly ran out the clock.
"When they start, it's never just for one play. It's for seven or eight plays," Shaw marveled afterward. "You have to stop the waterfall."
Stanford students rushed the field after the final whistle, and their enthusiasm was understandable given the game's massive buildup. But really, this should be old hat by now. Remarkably, this was the Cardinal's third win over a No. 1 or No. 2 team since just last season (No. 2 USC and No. 1 Oregon in 2012; No. 2 Oregon in '13).
And yet, despite reaching three straight BCS bowls and becoming a fixture in the top 10, Stanford still has to keep proving itself.
"We definitely weren't happy about how people viewed us after winning a Pac-12 championship and a Rose Bowl last year," said Yankey. "We use that as motivation."
An increasingly inexplicable 27-21 loss at mediocre Utah on Oct. 12 will make it difficult for the Cardinal to reach the BCS championship game, even if more undefeated teams start to fall. It's no certainty they'll even remain ahead of undefeated Baylor in next week's standings following the fifth-ranked Bears' 41-12 rout of No. 12 Oklahoma on Thursday.
But one thing is certain: A nation that has spent much of the past two years clamoring for a January culture clash between Alabama and Oregon might want to recalibrate its bearings. The best team on the West Coast plays a style of football so old-fashioned that it makes even Nick Saban's Crimson Tide look futuristic by comparison.
"When you walk into our new facility, to the left is [a picture of] the offensive line, to the right is a picture of the defensive line," said Shaw. "That is what football is all about. You control the line of scrimmage, you have a chance to win."
It's an age-old concept, but one the Cardinal has used for two consecutive years to render the Ducks mortal -- and to assert itself as the best in the West.