In 2012 and 2013, Stanford’s defense was the epitome of the proverbial immovable object that proved a worthy answer to Oregon’s unstoppable force of an offense.
But on Saturday at Autzen Stadium, for the first time in three seasons, there was just no answer to the unstoppable force and not even the nation’s best defense could stop Marcus Mariota and his quest for the Heisman Trophy as the Ducks’ speed finally left even the Cardinal in the dust.
“The bottom line is we played against one of the best teams in the nation tonight, and we fought them as hard as we could,” head coach David Shaw said. “We tried to stay close and we got within a score in the second half. We had to play a near-perfect second half, and we didn’t do that.”
When that dust had settled, Stanford had given up more than 30 points for the first time in 32 games and the No. 5 Ducks (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) were finally able to unleash two years’ worth of frustration in pounding out a 45-16 victory over the Cardinal (5-4, 3-3).
It took Oregon three years, but Mark Helfrich and the offense finally found the solution to their “Stanford problem.” In each of the last two years, Stanford had won the battle at the lines of scrimmage. But this year, Oregon was just the better team — more physical, more athletic — while Helfrich and his staff called a nearly perfect game.
Even with a rested Stanford defense on the field for most of the game, Oregon running backs Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman out-muscled a depleted Stanford defensive line and broke tackle after tackle to reach the second level more often than not.
Meanwhile, a fully healthy Mariota wasn’t exactly perfect on a 19-of-30 night for 258 yards and an interception, but he also passed for two touchdowns and added two more on the ground for good measure as he sliced and diced through the gaps of Stanford’s defense in a campaign that likely propelled him to the front of the Heisman Trophy race.
“I’ve thought he’s the best player in the nation the last three years,” Shaw said. “I don’t care what the stats say. When you watch him play, there’s nothing he can’t do.”
On the other side, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan had one of the best games of his career on a 21-of-29 night with 237 yards and one interception but just couldn’t finish drives and coughed the ball up on a critical fourth-quarter fumble to put the nail in Stanford’s coffin.
Oregon made it clear from the get-go that this matchup wasn’t going to play out like those of the last two years. Last season, it took the Ducks three quarters and change to find the end zone, but on this game’s opening drive, it was the Mariota show as the Ducks methodically drove down the field on 14 plays for 75 yards and a touchdown.
On that drive, Mariota passed for 23 yards and rushed for 28, including a 21-yard gain on a critical fourth-and-5, as he and Freeman pounded Stanford’s defense and jumped out ahead to shake the bad taste of the last two seasons.
Stanford’s offense, meanwhile, did what it was supposed to against a high-powered Ducks offense: It held onto the ball and was able to methodically drive down the field. Even though Jordan Williamson made field goals of 47 and 43 yards to keep the Cardinal within striking distance, Stanford couldn’t find the end zone until there were less than two minutes remaining in the half after freshman running back Christian McCaffrey took a screen down to the 1-yard line before junior fullback Patrick Skov punched it in for a touchdown.
But at that point, Stanford had already been trailing 24-6 after the Ducks had made short work of scoring on each of their first four possessions, and although Stanford’s offense had been moving the ball, a lack of good run blocking from the offensive line and early third-down stops limited the Cardinal to field goals. And Saturday, field goals just weren’t enough to keep up with the Ducks.
After the Cardinal opened the third quarter with a field-goal drive that cut the lead to six, however, it was all Ducks — pouring it on in the late stages of the game as they are known to do.
First, it was Tyner unleashing a deft spin move into the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown. Then it was Mariota swiftly coasting into the end zone on an outside run for a 7-yard score to cap off a 35-second scoring drive. Finally, Mariota escaped the pocket and found Darren Carrington all alone in the corner of the end zone for the final score — a score that ended both his and Hogan’s nights.
The Ducks put up 525 total yards of offense in a clinic unseen against Stanford’s defense since the 2012 win over Arizona. Meanwhile, although the Cardinal put up 428 yards of offense with wide receiver Devon Cajuste finding all of the weak spots in the zone up the middle for 116 receiving yards, the efficiency and finishing power of the Ducks just weren’t there.
“We ran into a buzz saw today,” Shaw said.
Senior inside linebacker Blake Martinez had a career-high 14 tackles in the game and senior safety Jordan Richards added 13 more — many on Oregon option runs that punched through all the way to the safety level of Stanford’s defense. Meanwhile, fifth-year senior David Parry had just two tackles as he played limited time due to a nagging injury.
So where does Stanford go from here? The Cardinal do have a bye week before a clash with No. 17 Utah in two weeks, but with tough games against Cal and No. 22 UCLA remaining on the schedule, it’s figuring to be an uphill battle for bowl eligibility as the season draws to a close.
But the signs are promising — the offense moved the ball, while the defense was just beaten by a better team. But, as has been the case with this Stanford Cardinal team this season, only time will tell.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.