By Jibriel Taha
On a 90º day in Palo Alto, unranked Stanford (3-2, 2-1 Pac-12) knocked off No. 3 Oregon (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12), 31-24, in an overtime thriller.
Sophomore quarterback Tanner McKee delivered when it mattered most — closing out regulation with a beautiful touchdown drive to tie the score and piecing together another clutch shot to the end zone in OT. He finished 20-for-36, with 230 yards and three touchdowns. McKee has yet to throw his first career interception.
For the second time this year, the opening kickoff featured a targeting ejection on an opposing player. It wasn’t as bizarre as last time at USC, where the kicker (a much more integral player) was ejected, but this time it was Oregon redshirt freshman cornerback Trikweze Bridges who would miss the entirety of the game.
In great field position thanks to the targeting penalty, Stanford drove down the field on the first drive of the game but ultimately stalled near the goal line. Head coach David Shaw left the offense on the field for fourth and goal at the two-yard line, but a false start penalty compelled Shaw to kick the field goal, and sophomore kicker Joshua Karty secured the three points to put the Cardinal on the board first.
The teams traded three-and-outs before the Ducks made a costly error. On a third down, senior quarterback Anthony Brown was intercepted by fifth-year linebacker Gabe Reid.
“I was dropping that play and felt like it was a quicker drop from the QB, so I took a flat angle, and the ball kind of just landed in my lap,” Reid said. “Just made sure I caught it.”
Two plays later, McKee found senior wide receiver Brycen Tremayne in the end zone for an 18-yard touchdown pass. Karty tacked on the extra point, and the Cardinal found themselves up 10-0 midway through the first quarter.
Stanford was able to go for it on fourth down late in the first quarter, but a quarterback sneak by McKee was marked short of the line to gain, giving the Ducks the ball at Oregon’s 45-yard line. The play was reviewed, but the call stood, and Oregon took full advantage, marching down the field in eight plays and capitalizing on the drive with a three-yard touchdown run from Brown.
Stanford responded, piecing together a methodical, 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that lasted over six-and-a-half minutes. After two straight handoffs on Oregon’s two-yard line for no gain to junior running back Austin Jones, Shaw turned to sixth-year quarterback Isaiah Sanders, who ran it in for the score, pushing the Stanford lead back to ten points.
But the touchdown drive came with a cost. Tremayne, a former walk-on who has been a major contributor this season, was carted off the field after suffering a gruesome left ankle injury. Tremayne finished with three receptions for 48 yards.
The Cardinal defense stood strong to close the first half. On a fourth and goal from the Stanford one-yard line, Brown was stuffed by Reid and sixth-year linebacker Jordan Fox, preserving the Stanford lead at 17-7 heading into halftime.
The division rivals traded punts to start the second half, but on Oregon’s second drive of the half, the Ducks took advantage of a poor punt by junior Ryan Sanborn. Starting their drive at Stanford’s 48-yard line, Brown ran it into the endzone eight plays later, cutting the Cardinal lead to 17-14.
Oregon then looked poised to take the lead after a 32-yard punt return by sophomore wide receiver Mycah Pittman, but the defense continued to hold up, and Oregon was forced to settle for a field goal. The Ducks tied the game up at 17 heading into the fourth quarter.
Despite completed passes, a holding call on junior guard Barrett Miller stalled the offense. In response, the Oregon comeback would not let up. A 66-yard reception on third down by Pittman set up Brown for a five-yard touchdown run two plays later. Fifty minutes in, Oregon had their first lead of the game, 24-17.
On the following drive, McKee was sacked on first down. The offense struggled to recover, punting it right back to the Ducks. Oregon appeared to be about to run the ball to seal the victory — the Ducks had 228 rushing yards on the afternoon — and got within one first down of doing so. Two consecutive false starts in Stanford territory, however, gave the Cardinal an opportunity to make a stop, and they got it.
With 1:59 remaining in the game, the Cardinal got back to work on their own four-yard line. Stanford seemed to find their footing again with a 23-yard completion, but on the next play, McKee was sandwiched by two defenders right after he let go of the ball.
McKee laid on the field hurt. Stanford Stadium fell silent.
“I took a shot to the ribs —kind of got the wind knocked out of me a little bit, couldn’t breathe for a little bit, so I was on the floor,” he said. “Once I got off, kind of walking around a little bit, [I] thought I was totally fine. Doctors checked my ribs out, cleared me, and I’m feeling great right now. A little sore, but I feel good.”
McKee only missed one play — a scramble by senior quarterback Jack West for no gain.
The rest was magical: McKee tossed completions to Yurosek and junior tight end Bradley Archer, driving the Cardinal down the field to the Oregon three-yard line. After three failed attempts, Stanford faced fourth down at the Oregon four-yard line. McKee threw a fade to sophomore wide receiver John Humphreys, which fell incomplete, but a flag flew in with the clock at zero. Oregon cornerback Mykael Wright was called for holding, giving Stanford an untimed play from the Oregon two-yard line. Stanford did not miss, as McKee threw a fade to junior wide receiver Elijah Higgins, who made a fantastic catch to bring the game to within one. Shaw elected to kick the extra point to force overtime, and Karty delivered, as the game headed to the extra period knotted up at 24.The Cardinal passing game finally started to click again.
“Across the board, we’ve got two 6-foot-5 tight ends, a 6-foot-5 receiver, 6-foot-4 receiver and a 6-foot3.5 receiver who’s 235 pounds,” Shaw said. “We’re going to test people outside. We’re going to test people outside.”
Stanford lost the coin toss, Oregon chose to get the ball second, and McKee went to work. Stanford got off to a nice start, but a false start on junior running back Nathaniel Peat forced the Cardinal into a first and ten from the Oregon 18-yard line. This time penalties did not stall the Cardinal. On third and eleven, McKee found Humphreys for a 14-yard touchdown. Karty tacked on the point after, and the Cardinal were up 31-24. Oregon needed seven points to send it to double overtime.
With the ball back, Oregon threw an incompletion on first down — which was initially called targeting against sophomore safety Alaka’i Gilman but was reversed after review. A short run and a pass that was completed for a loss of one yard following, put the Ducks in a fourth and eight on their first set of chains.
On fourth down, Brown felt pressure and rolled out right. Angling towards the line of scrimmage, Brown fired towards Pittman, who made the catch, but was out of bounds.
While the northwest corner of the stadium fell silent, the student section exploded and stormed the field for the first time in years.
“Can’t say enough about our crowd, our fans, our student section, the alumni,” Shaw said. “Got some juice from the ’70 and ’71 Rose Bowl teams. Heisman Trophy winner, All-American, first-round draft pick Jim Plunkett gave the guys juice on Friday.”
The Stanford win drastically alters the landscape of the Pac-12 North. With many expecting Oregon to run away with the division title, Stanford now owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Ducks, emerging as their top challenger for a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game come early December.
There is a long way to go until then, and the road does not get any easier next week for Stanford. They will head down to Tempe, Arizona for a Friday-night clash with a talented Arizona State (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) squad. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. PT on ESPN.