Save for a desperate fourth-quarter rally that led to 20 points and a chance to get the ball again and score and win, the Oregon Ducks suffered a beating unlike any others in recent years Thursday night at Stanford Stadium, losing 26-20 to personal Pac-12 nemesis Stanford.
Through three-plus quarters, the physical Cardinal dominated the high-flying Ducks, starting up front on the offensive and defensive lines. It was 26-0 after Jordan Williamson’s fourth field goal with 11:40 left in the game. The Marcus Mariota-led offense, which had averaged 56 points and 632 yards offense, couldn’t get running space or get downfield with passes, and the Ducks had blown some early opportunities to score. The defense had held Stanford to four field goals since giving up first-half touchdowns, but it simply could not stop the Cardinal’s ground-pounding machine on third downs at any time in the game.
The Ducks can talk about near miracles, after scoring 20 points in the game’s final 10:11 of play and booting an onside kick to get the ball back with under three minutes left (Stanford recovered), but the Cardinal outplayed and outclassed them otherwise. And, the Ducks have to live with it, and the prospect of losing out on making the BCS national championship game with a stunning Pac-12 loss for the third consecutive year.
Coach Mark Helfrich tried to save face for his players, asking people to blame him for the offensive woes.
Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti asks people to blame Oregon’s inability to stop Stanford on him.
Well, it’s mighty of each of them, but the Stanford players — especially the O-line and defense, QB Kevin Hogan and running back Tyler Gaffney — beat the Ducks. Oh, and so did Stanford coach David Shaw, who has helped the Cardinal derail UO’s national title hopes in consecutive years.
“Extremely disappointing,” Helfrich said. “We didn’t get off to a good start offensively and on special teams, and that’s my fault, for whatever reason. Defensively, I thought we competed all day. (Stanford) did a good job of just grinding it. …
“It wasn’t like last year. I thought we competed really hard. Are we ever going to play perfect? No. We had to play a little bit better than we did, but that’s my fault. I know how to correct those things, our staff knows how to correct those things. Our guys will bounce back.”
Says Aliotti: “I give a lot of credit to Stanford. That’s a really good football team, well-coached team. I hate to say they dominated the line of scrimmage, because I don’t want to sell my guys short. … They dominated me. My guys are awesome and warriors and fought to the end.”
It was interesting that the Cardinal basically won with the same recipe as last season, and the same recipe that beat former coach Chip Kelly. Stanford controlled the ball with 42:34 of possession time to UO’s 17:26, ran for 274 yards on 66 carries (led by Gaffney with 157 yards on 45 carries and Hogan with 57 yards on eight carries), converted an astronomical 14 of 21 third-down conversion attempts, and made enough defensive stops — actually, six stops until Oregon scored touchdowns on three desperate possessions in the fourth quarter. The Ducks rushed for a measly 62 yards on 24 carries, and QB Mariota, playing on a bad left knee and tweaking the knee in the second half, stuck to passing, going 20 of 34 for 250 yards and two scores. He was sacked three times, giving him a net minus-16 yards on six carries — absolutely ineffective with his legs.
So, which one of Stanford’s very positive aspects crushed the Ducks? It’d have to be the offensive possessions, with Hogan and Gaffney operating behind a big, deep and physical offensive line. When the Cardinal needed one, two, three, four or five yards, they got it.
“They executed better than us and moved the ball; as a defense, we needed to get off the field and put it in the offense’s hands,” Oregon defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. “They converted third down after third down, and we weren’t able to do that. It was frustrating, because we couldn’t get stops to get off the field. I kind of knew coming into the game, they’d be a four-down team, and try to get three yards, three yards and three yards and get their first down and hold on to the ball.”
And, that’s what happened. If Gaffney wasn’t pounding behind the O-line, Hogan scrambled effectively for first downs.
“It was a physical battle,” UO defensive lineman Taylor Hart said. “They did a good job of running the ball against us. They were able to make some holes, and Tyler Gaffney did a good job running the ball. It’s frustrating. As a defensive lineman, you want to make those stops.”
Oregon had its early opportunities to break ahead and make the ground-pounding Cardinal play from behind. On UO’s first possession, Mariota threw short of a wide-open Josh Huff. It would have been a touchdown. On the second possession, Mariota and Bralon Addison couldn’t connect on a fade pass in the end zone (after Helfrich opted not to put three points on the board with a chip-shot field goal).
“(The game) would have been a lot different” if the Ducks converted the plays into points, Mariota said. “That time of game you don’t think about it.”
On the Huff ball: “I just didn’t get enough on it. I can make that throw. I guided it instead of just throwing it.”
After Stanford marched (12 plays, 96 yards, 5:59) to go ahead 7-0 on Gaffney’s 2-yard TD run, the Ducks had a pitiful three-and-out, where Stanford overwhelmed Mariota on a sack. The Cardinal marched for another touchdown, but not before UO’s Ifo Ekpre-Olomu appeared to end the threat with an interception, only to be called for a pass interference. Aliotti bit his lip in his reaction to the call: “That was huge. That call was huge and that’s all I’ll say. The momentum might have swung back our way.”
Hogan scored on an 11-yard TD run to make it 14-0. But the Ducks responded, only to lose the ball at the Stanford 3, when De’Anthony Thomas fumbled, stripped by Shayne Skov, who also recovered — the play was not ruled a fumble on the field, but overturned upon review.
Stanford seemingly squeezed the life out of the Ducks by marching up field for 20 plays and 96 yards and going up 17-0 on the first of four Williamson’s field goals. The Cardinal continued to make stops, the offense continued to hold the ball (2:17, 7:33, 4:27) for three more field goals before the Ducks rallied, down 26-0.
Mariota threw a 23-yard TD pass to Daryle Hawkins. Stanford drained another five-plus minutes off the clock for another field-goal try, but it was blocked and Rodney Hardrick returned the ball 65 yards for a touchdown. It got interesting. The Ducks recovered an onside kick, and Mariota hit Pharaoh Brown on a 12-yard TD pass to make it 26-20.
Stanford recovered the next onside kick with 2:10 left, and Oregon, without timeouts, couldn’t stop the clock. The Cardinal ran three plays and ran out the clock.
Mariota fielded a lot of questions about his hurting left knee. Helfrich says it was part of the game plan for Mariota not to run; Mariota said Stanford just played well against him again — winning battles up front, closing space on UO playmakers and tackling well.
Either way, without their leader playing his best, the Ducks went down to defeat. The Ducks’ fourth-quarter surge helped them gain 312 yards and draw within six points, but it was a domination by Stanford.
Mariota now has two career losses, 17-14 and 26-20 to Stanford.
“They came back with the same mentality,” Mariota said. “They went out and executed. We weren’t able to finish drives. We had some missed opportunities. That happens.”
Frost and Helfrich quickly pointed out that 15 of Stanford’s 22 players on its two-deep defense were seniors, and they had experience and were good players. And, Frost said, Stanford’s offense served as good defense, too, by keeping the ball.
“They’ve seen what we’ve done for four years,” Frost said. “They’re big and physical. I thought our (offensive) line did a good job moving them and running when we had a chance. But we got out of our game plan a little bit early. I don’t know if kids were frustrated or not, but I was, sitting up in the box, after squandering a couple opportunities and we didn’t see the ball again for six or seven minutes.”