Trepidation of Stanford

Do you know which college football team the Oregon Ducks have had the most difficult time with under coach Mike Bellotti? USC you say? No, before last Saturday, Oregon had only lost once to USC since 1995, the 22-24 nail-biter down in the Coliseum in 1997 when the Ducks missed a 36-yard field goal to win with only three seconds remaining. One of the other Northwest schools you think?

Wrong again, the Ducks have only lost twice in the last seven years to each Northwest school, Washington, Washington State and Oregon State.

The answer is Stanford, Oregon's opponent for this Saturday's game at Autzen Stadium. Stanford actually is tied with UCLA for beating the Ducks four times in the last seven years (eight years for UCLA which the Ducks have already played and beaten this year.) Oregon lost to Stanford in 2001, 1997, 1996 and 1995. Two of the losses occurred at Autzen Stadium.

I am filled with trepidation concerning any game Oregon has against Stanford. A convenient word, trepidation. When I look up its synonyms on my computer I find the following: fear, anxiety, unease, nervousness, apprehension, consternation, foreboding, concern, misgivings and disquiet. These describe my feelings about a game with Stanford under the best of circumstances, let alone my feelings about an Oregon team facing Stanford that is also coming off its first incidence of consecutive losses dating back to 1999.

History has conditioned me to feel this way. Who's ranked higher? Who has had the best of common opponents? Offensive and defensive unit match-ups? Individual match-ups? Injuries? All of this seems to go out the window when the Oregon plays Stanford. I guess it's not just pure coincidence that this happens to be Halloween week.

Since 1989, the year Oregon started returning to the Bowl circuit after a 26-year hiatus, the Ducks are 3-8 against Stanford, representing their worst win-loss record against any Pac-10 Conference team in the same period of time. A jinx you might say. For me, the whole nervous twitch seemed to have started with that 1989 game. You know the one I'm speaking of when the Ducks were leading 17-0 with a little over seven minutes remaining in the game and still managed to lose 17-18? Big leads against Stanford have proven to not count as much as they do against other teams.

The Stanford losses have always been hard for me to personally reconcile. Generally, not only have they been close but involved unusual circumstances, horrific collapses or mistakes and dramatic changes in momentum that also bordered on the surreal.

The Ducks are returning from their historic Rose Bowl year. They start out the year 3-0 winning dramatically close games against Illinois and UCLA. Their first Pac-10 game in Autzen Stadium is September 23 against Stanford. Oregon's quarterback Tony Graziani uncharacteristically throws three first half interceptions. Stanford has no turnovers. Stanford is the beneficiary of a 96-yard kick-off return for a touchdown in the third quarter. Oregon loses 28-21 breaking a seven-game winning streak over Pac-10 opponents. Oregon's only other regular season loss in 1995 was to Arizona State capping a 9-2 season.

It's October 12 and the Ducks are facing Stanford in Palo Alto. Oregon is smarting from two consecutive past losses to Pac-10 opponents Arizona State and UCLA. The Ducks blow a 10-point advantage over the Cardinal in the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter and send the game into overtime. Key to this circumstance is the ability of Stanford receivers to out-jump Oregon defenders including Andre Kirwan's 49-yard reception over Kenny Wheaton to set up a game tying 25-yard field goal with 50 seconds remaining in regulation. Stanford's Kailee Wong, a Eugene, Oregon native, strips Oregon's quarterback Tony Graziani of the ball during the Duck's overtime possession and then Stanford simply kicks a field goal, winning the game 24-27.

Oregon is again 3-0 going into its September 20 game against Stanford in Stanford Stadium. The Ducks have dispatched Arizona, Nevada and Fresno State. There is hope and promise budding among the Oregon faithful. But, Stanford quarterback Chad Hutchinson completes 21 of 31 passes for 340 yards and four touchdowns and Stanford wins a shootout 58-49. Stanford's receivers Troy Walters and Damon Dunn had it over the Oregon defenders combining for 278 receiving yards. It didn't help that tailback Anthony Bookman got free for a 67-yard touchdown run and that the Cardinal was able to amass 238 yards on the ground. Kailee Wong's name again gets mentioned with a safety in the waning moments of the fourth quarter. The Ducks were able to rally from two-touchdown deficits in each of the four quarters and four of the last six touchdowns scored in the game were by Oregon. But, this was a sprinter's game with little defense and Stanford proved to be the fastest, tallest and strongest.

Heartbreak. One game away from a national championship game. One game away from an unprecedented undefeated regular season totaling 11-0. The seventh game of the year, the same game the Ducks couldn't get over against Arizona State this year. The wall. Oregon never trails leading into the fourth quarter. To begin the fourth quarter Oregon leads 42-28. The game appears over. But wait. The Ducks lose the game in the fourth quarter when they are unable to score and suffer from two blocked punts, a recovered pooch punt and an interception deep in Oregon territory. Stanford wins 49-42. Oregon's "Captain Comeback" quarterback Joey Harrington records one of his three career losses as a starter against Stanford. Oregon's 23-game home winning streak, the longest in the nation at the time comes to an end.

I suppose if there is a silver-lining to the Stanford game it's the fact that of the three games out of the last 11 that the Ducks have won against the Cardinal, Oregon has won big. Oregon shutout Stanford 31-0 in 1990, beat them 55-21 in 1994 and routed them 63-28 in 1998. I think if Oregon is able to prevail against Stanford this Saturday it may just be consistent with these other wins over the Cardinal. And, that could prove to be just the medicine the Ducks need to shore themselves up after consecutive losses the last two weekends and steel their hearts for three extremely tough remaining games against Washington State, Washington and Oregon State.

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