Seventh-ranked Stanford (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) overcame a 17-point halftime deficit to claim a 38-31 overtime victory over No. 20 Oregon (3-1, 0-1) in Autzen Stadium on Saturday night. The Cardinal defense came up with three timely turnovers, and junior quarterback KJ Costello had 327 yards and three touchdowns to lead the offense. Sophomore tight end Colby Parkinson provided the go-ahead 23-yard touchdown catch in overtime before fifth-year cornerback Alameen Murphy officially iced the game with an interception in the end zone. It was the largest Stanford comeback since 1996, and the win places the Cardinal squarely in control of the Pac-12 North race.
“We got to that second half, and we just tightened down,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said after the game. “I told the guys at halftime: Don’t be surprised if we just play our style of football, then we’ll get in the fourth quarter and make this interesting… After not playing a great half of football, we came back and played really, really well.”
Twice it seemed that Stanford’s chances were finished, but both times the defense recovered Oregon fumbles to give the Cardinal life. With 4:32 remaining in the third quarter, it appeared that Oregon wide receiver Jaylon Redd had scored to put the Ducks up 30-7. But replay review overturned the touchdown, and three plays later, a bad snap sailed over the head of Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert. Senior outside linebacker Joey Alfieri scooped up the fumble and returned it 80 yards for a Stanford touchdown that cut the Oregon lead to 10. Then late in the fourth quarter, Oregon was driving with a 31-28 lead and one first down would have essentially ended the game. Oregon running back CJ Verdell appeared to pick up that back-breaking first down, but then Cardinal sophomore safety Noah Williams jarred the ball loose and senior linebacker Sean Barton recovered the fumble to give Stanford the ball back with 51 seconds remaining.
Those turnovers would have been all for naught without the incredible performance of Costello and the Cardinal offense, who scored on their last three drives and four of their last five. After the Alfieri touchdown, the Stanford defense forced a three-and-out to give Costello and crew the ball back late in the third quarter. The junior quarterback then led a lightning-fast three-play, 65-yard drive that culminated with a 22-yard touchdown run by senior running back Bryce Love that brought the Cardinal to within three at 24-21. Later, trailing 31-21 with just 4:39 left in the game, the Cardinal offense orchestrated another three-play touchdown drive that covered 79 yards in just 1:29. Costello found sophomore wide receiver Osiris St. Brown for a 49-yard completion to start the drive, and senior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside capped it off with a 15-yard touchdown catch. Then, after the second Oregon fumble, Costello brought the offense 46 yards in under a minute before junior kicker Jet Toner calmly knocked in a 32-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
Costello had the most efficient performance of his career in the Cardinal comeback victory. The junior quarterback connected on 19 of his 26 passes for a 73.1 percent completion rate that was his highest ever in a start. Six of those completions went to junior tight end Kaden Smith, who had a career-high 95 yards receiving. Arcega-Whiteside continued his fantastic season, as he had four catches for 84 yards and two touchdowns. He now sits at second nationally with seven receiving touchdowns on the year, and his 21 career touchdown catches put him at fourth all-time in Stanford history. Parkinson had three huge grabs for 50 yards, including the game-winner, where he used every inch of his 6’7” frame to tip the ball up to himself in the end zone amidst a horde of Oregon defenders. Although Bryce Love was once again largely bottled up for just 89 yards on the ground, Costello and his gigantic pass-catchers continue to carry the Cardinal offense.
Shaw was in awe of his gunslinging quarterback after the game. “I can’t say enough about KJ Costello. The opportunities to make big plays were there, and the young man stepped up and made them.”
Though the Cardinal offense will deservedly receive much of the credit for the massive win, the defense put together a dominant showing in the second half to make the comeback possible. Oregon reached the end zone on its first three drives but scored just once in its final eight possessions. Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has earned a reputation for stifling halftime adjustments, and this might have been his most wizardly. After surrendering 8.9 yards per play in the first half, the Cardinal defense held the Ducks to just 4.6 yards per play in the second half. In addition to the three turnovers, the Cardinal collected four sacks and seven tackles-for-loss (TFL). Junior linebacker Jordan Fox led the team with nine tackles and 1.5 sacks in his first start, replacing injured senior linebacker Casey Toohill. Fifth-year linebacker Bobby Okereke added eight tackles and 2.5 TFLs.
The Cardinal overcame a nearly flawless performance from Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, who went 25 of 27 for 331 yards in regulation. But in overtime, sophomore cornerback Paulson Adebo made two huge pass break-ups to stymie the Ducks offense before Alameen Murphy grabbed the game-ending interception. Adebo currently leads the nation with 11 PBUs on the season, including four against Oregon.
“(Herbert) made some great plays, and Paulson was right there and bounced right back to make some huge plays in the fourth quarter and overtime to help us win the game,” Shaw said of his young corner.
Overall, the Ducks out-gained the Cardinal 524 to 398 in total yards. Oregon wide receiver Dillon Mitchell had 14 catches for 239 yards. Running back CJ Verdell had 115 yards, and the Ducks ground game put up three total touchdowns while the Oregon defense held the Cardinal to just 71 yards rushing. Looking at the stats, it seems almost impossible that Stanford won the game. But David Shaw saw it differently.
“I’ll be honest with you, it didn’t surprise me because in the second half, we just played how we’re capable of playing,” Shaw said. “The real question is what can happen if we play 60 minutes like that.”
Stanford might need to play 6- minutes like that in order to beat their next opponent, eighth-ranked Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are off to a 4-0 start themselves, making next week’s matchup in South Bend the first meeting between an undefeated Stanford team and an undefeated Notre Dame team since the 1925 Rose Bowl. With a win, the Cardinal would emerge as a top College Football Playoff Contender. That game kicks off at 4:30 PT and will be televised on NBC.
No matter what happens the rest of the season, the memory of this epic comeback on the road will live on in Stanford lore.
Arcega-Whiteside put it best: “I don’t think I’ve ever won a game like this before.”
Contact King Jemison at kingj “at” stanford.edu.