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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

November 7, 2013 at 9:48 PM

Stunner at Stanford: Insta-reaction on the season-turning upset of Oregon, and what it means

Well, that wasn’t exactly high on the list of possibilities for the Pac-12′s game of the year, was it? Stanford, exquisitely prepared and far more physical than Oregon, simply squashed the Ducks into submission most of Thursday night, then held on for dear life to win 26-20, a game that carries all sorts of implications.

– I guess stranger things have happened, but for now, it takes Oregon out of the national-title picture. It’s one thing to play an even, back-and-forth game and lose, and come through the back-door later, but to get dominated like the Ducks did most of the night is likely lethal to their chances.

– Stanford, on the other hand, thrusts itself into the national-title picture. It was already No. 5 in the BCS standings, but it will need some help, because there are unbeaten teams out there in Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Baylor, while the Cardinal has a loss. It’s possible Stanford could squeeze past Ohio State in that race, but it won’t happen against ‘Bama, and likely not against Florida State. Baylor’s a team from a league considered having a down year, the Big 12, but even as Stanford was putting the hammer to the Ducks, Baylor was impressive in smashing Oklahoma, 41-12. So the Cardinal will need some assists, but it’s still relatively early.

– Oregon’s Marcus Mariota probably saw his Heisman Trophy chances evaporate. He was rushed hard, looked unsure, and held the ball too long at times. And he didn’t run, which might be his best attribute.

– What does it mean for the Pac-12? Surely it’s not positive for its chances of a national title, unless Stanford can slip in. But it shouldn’t hurt the league — in fact, it might help — in getting two BCS bids. If Stanford plays the Pac-12 South winner for the conference title and the Rose Bowl berth, Oregon will be out there, probably as a one-loss team, and would be hard to pass up as a second BCS entry.

Thoughts on the game:

– If Oregon was intent on redeeming itself for not playing tougher in the upset a year ago in Eugene, it never showed it. I thought even its return of the opening kickoff was a tepid run, and the Ducks seemed unable or unwilling to be physical and all-out.

– With Oregon down 14-0, De’Anthony Thomas was stripped of the ball by Shayne Skov at the Stanford 2, not only a pivotal turnover but another sign that the Cardinal was hungrier and more physical. Thomas didn’t go after the ball like Skov did. A year ago in Eugene, Thomas’ inability to have the presence of mind to get in the way of a Stanford tackler prevented Mariota from a long touchdown run, and Stanford eventually stopped the Ducks on downs, a key turnaround in that game.

– Ducks coach Mark Helfrich made a bad decision early to forgo a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the Stanford 4. It was a move that almost seemed to say, “We’re too good to kick field goals.” In the end, of course, you could argue that Oregon would have needed a touchdown. But at the time, even three points would have given Oregon some life.

– Mariota’s early underthrow to a wide-open Huff inside the Stanford 10 was huge. It was an obvious touchdown that would have given the Ducks a 7-0 lead and confidence.

– The Cardinal stopped the Oregon inside run game, just as it did a year ago, more physical than the Ducks and very well schooled to stay in the gaps.

– Excellent game by Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, who’s now 8-0 against ranked teams. He had a tackle-breaking, 10-yard run in the first half from the Stanford 8 to ignite a long drive that was a killer for the Ducks. And Tyler Gaffney (school-record 45 carries) must be feeling a lot more tired than he ever did as a Pittsburgh Pirates farmhand before he returned to football. Gaffney always seemed to be leaning forward, getting the extra yard or two.

– Perhaps it’s because Oregon can look so brilliant on offense, and does much of the time, but nothing looks quite as bad as the Ducks’ offense when it’s being stopped. Remember Chip Kelly’s first game at Oregon in 2009, when the Ducks went three-and-out on their first seven series against the Boise State defense in a 19-8 defeat?

– Ducks defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti told me earlier this season that the expectations had grown ridiculous in Eugene, and this game won’t do anything to quell critics that say Oregon can’t stand in against physical teams. It happened in the national-title game after the 2010 season against Auburn, and again against LSU in the season opener of 2011.

– A quirky thought: If Oregon had come all the way back, recovered that last onside kick and scored to win, might it have fallen behind Florida State for good even while winning? No question Oregon was dominated, and recovering onside kicks (and returning a blocked field goal for a TD) is a bit of a fluky proposition that might not have sat well with voters.

– Stanford has to rue the fact it lost at Utah last month. And I still can’t figure out — and would bet some Stanford guys can’t, either — why the Cardinal, down 27-21 inside the final minute, didn’t run the ball at least once with third-and-2 at the Utah 6 to get a first down, setting up a potential winning TD. Instead, it settled for two Hogan passes, both incomplete, and it was done.

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