It had been 406 days since the Stanford football team last lost a game.
But on Saturday night against the Oregon Ducks, the Cardinal experienced the worst form of déjà vu.
For the second time in as many years, the No. 4 Ducks undressed the No. 9 Cardinal in a prime-time showdown, rolling to a 53-30 victory that stamped out Stanford’s perfect season and ended its hopes for a national championship.
The Ducks took the early lead in the first quarter and never looked back, capitalizing on five Stanford turnovers—including two interceptions and a fumble from star quarterback Andrew Luck—that spelled disaster for the Cardinal.
“They took advantage of our turnovers,” said head coach David Shaw. “You play against a team that’s got that kind of speed and that kind of talent and is as well-coached as they are, you turn the ball over, you can’t win.”
Luck, who finished 27-of-41 passing for 271 yards and three touchdowns, had a harsh assessment of his play.
“Not good enough to win,” he said. “Worst game of the year, I guess, in that category.”
But even with his hopes to play for a national championship—and perhaps his Heisman campaign—dashed so forcefully, the redshirt junior tried to grasp for perspective.
“It’s disappointing obviously,” Luck said. “Disappointment, yes, but life goes on. We’ve got two more games coming up.”
Overall, the Cardinal’s performance was not up to par—mostly due to the Ducks forcing a season-high five turnovers and sacking Luck a season-high three times. The offense scored a season-low 30 points and rushed for a season-low 129 yards.
Shaw admitted that his team did not perform up to expectations but was also quick to point out that Oregon was not just any other opponent.
“I don’t think we gave them our best game, and they took advantage of it,” he said. “They’re not a good team, they’re a great team. That LSU game [a 40-27 Ducks loss earlier this season], if they don’t turn the ball over against LSU, they might be ranked No. 1 in the nation right now.”
Oregon’s lightning-fast offense didn’t rack up an insane amount of yards (unlike the 626 it hung on the Cardinal defense last season), but it continually capitalized on a short field with big plays set up by a ferocious defense.
Oregon’s first big play of the night came on the Cardinal’s third drive in the first quarter, as Luck fired a dreadful pass directly into the arms of Oregon linebacker Dewitt Stuckey, who returned it to set up a touchdown and two-point conversion that made the score 8-0 early on.
Redshirt junior running back LaMichael James then ripped off the first big play of the day for the Duck offense in the second quarter, juking past senior safety Delano Howell for a 58-yard touchdown that made the score 15-6 in Oregon’s favor.
After Stanford made a field goal, the Cardinal defense forced the Duck offense to a fourth down at the Stanford 41-yard line. Needing seven yards to keep the drive alive, quarterback Darron Thomas found running back De’Anthony Thomas on a screen pass, and the speedster jetted untouched into the end zone to extend the lead to 22-9.
Luck did engineer a brisk drive to make the score 22-16 at halftime, but the Cardinal wouldn’t make it any closer after that, as the Ducks found ways to make impact plays over and over again in the second half.
Oregon receiver Josh Huff took a Darron Thomas pass and made two defenders miss for a 59-yard touchdown on the Ducks’ first drive of the third quarter, then James took in his second score of the day after a Luck fumble to make it 36-16. The two quick scores put the Cardinal down by 20 with 22 minutes left in the game, a deficit that proved far too large to overcome, even though the Cardinal cut the Oregon lead to 13 two times after that.
The final margin was set when Luck threw his third pick-six of the season in the fourth quarter off the hands of freshman wide receiver Ty Montgomery—the ghastly cherry on top of Stanford’s already miserable day.
When the dust that the Ducks kicked up finally cleared, James finished with 146 yards rushing and three touchdowns, certainly putting him back into the Heisman conversation, and Darron Thomas went 11-of-17 through the air for 155 yards and three touchdowns.
The loss left a conspicuously bitter taste in the mouths of the Cardinal, which found little to be positive about as a whole.
“You can’t miss a tackle or it goes for 60 yards and a touchdown,” said redshirt sophomore defensive end Ben Gardner. “And that happened far too many times tonight.”
“With a team like this, once they get a lead, that’s what they’re built for,” Shaw echoed. “In spurts we played well, but just playing well against a great team—not a good team—you can’t win.”
And while the Ducks’ dominance made the Cardinal’s short-term sourness understandable, Stanford won’t be able to afford any hangover effects if it wants to play itself into a BCS bowl for the second season in a row.
Indeed, the Cardinal still has two games remaining on its schedule—home contests against Cal and Notre Dame—and can still make it to a BCS bowl with two more victories.
“I had no grand illusions of just showing up and things just falling for our team just because we show up on Saturdays,” Luck continued. “We’ve still got football left, and for that, I’m grateful. Hopefully, more games after the conference season is over. There’s still goals left for us to accomplish.”
Shaw said that his team would not need any extra help to finish the season strong—especially after Saturday’s dreadful déjà vu.
“I expect them to rebound greatly,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys in our locker room with a lot of character. We’ve got two regular-season games left, and next week is Cal. We don’t need help with motivation this week.”