"We fought hard, but we didn't fight smart."
Coach had it right on Saturday night after Stanford's playoff hopes were lost in the blur of Oregon's scorching offensive attack. I have to say I was feeling exceptionally distraught when Stanford went down 35-23 late in the 3rd on a Taj Griffin wheel route that utterly befuddled Stanford's perpetually lost secondary Saturday night. I was kneeling right at the goal line as Kevin Hogan's pass to Austin Hooper hit the ground and the painful reality and piercing echoes of the Duck fans echoed throughout the stadium. Once more, Stanford came into a home game vs. the Ducks with a chance at a national championship at stake, and once more they were lost in the flood of a devastating and brilliantly conceived Oregon attack. And as badly as I felt when the Ducks performed the perfunctory kneel down to run the clock to :00, I felt proud of the way the team had fought back but bitterly convicted that the better team didn't win last Saturday night.
That Oregon was the better team last night is...well, debatable. Offensively they were awesome, and on defense, they were at least hitting hard despite surrendering yards. That may have played a role in the endgame, in a way in which we'll get to in a moment. However, when you stack up the list of awful mental mistakes and self-inflicted wounds for Stanford that night, and consider that if even one of these transgressions hadn't occurred, Stanford would have won the game, it's hard not to view this as anything but a Stanford loss. Let's relive, shall we?
- Kevin Hogan's not one but two fumbled and lost exchanges on two Stanford's final three drives of the game. There's not much to say, and Hogan would be the last one to make excuses, but those miscues were brutal. I will say this: a friend of mine remarked that Hogan had taken a lot of big hits during the game. We take him for granted, but frankly I felt that Stanford was leaning a bit too much on Hogan's running. Hogan never slides, and we love him for it. We also know that Hogan's legs often activate the #LetHoganBeHogan show, which has been great for Stanford especially this year. But I am left to wonder especially because this friend played college football, if the pounding Hogan took impacted those fumbles?
- Elijah Holder's personal foul that turned what would have been a 3rd and 12 into a 1st down, and the devastating 49-yard touchdown to Griffin we already chronicled.
- Kani Benoit of Oregon doing a great job of running down Kevin Anderson after Vernon Adams, Jr.'s fumble flew right into Anderson's hands.
- Hogan deciding to laser beam two five-yard passes to Christian McCaffrey, one of which ended up as an INT and another that would have been a big gainer if completed.
- Ukropina's missed FG
- The Red Zone struggles, which Coach Shaw was particularly frustrated by afterwards.
That's just too many mistakes against an Oregon team that everybody kicked around, but who now looks very much like the team that's been to national championships and who has now beaten Stanford twice in a row. Really, that's the story of the game. Stanford fought back, put up 202 yards rushing, 304 yards passing, and held the ball for 42:06. They went 12 for 17 on 3rd Down, but it's that 17 that tells the story. Oregon faced 3rd down only 7 times on Saturday night, on their way to a preposterous 9.1 yards per play.
Was Stanford exposed? On defense, certainly. The inability to pressure Adams, Jr. put the secondary in a bad way, and safeties Kodi Whitfield and Dallas Lloyd looked like guys who'd spent their entire career on the other side of the ball. Adams, Jr. averaged 17.1 yards per attempt. Duck offensive coordinator Scott Frost and Helfrich routinely had Stanford outflanked on the perimeter. It will be really interesting to see whether Sonny Dykes and Cal are able to manipulate and take advantage of Lloyd and Whitfield the way Oregon did, as they've not been worked over that badly all season. Also, remember, defending Oregon is not like defending anybody else, and that knife cuts both ways. Teams that watched the Ducks carve up the Cardinal aren't necessarily gonna be able to replicate the performance.
Ultimately, what hurts about this loss brought me back to David Shaw's pre-USC speech this year. He pointed out how the Cardinal had a roster full of players who'd played in a Pac-12 championship game, and the Trojans had none. I don't know that Mark Helfrich gave a similar speech to his team, but he could have. Stanford's got nobody who's played in a College Football Playoff game, and the Ducks have plenty, and it showed. Oregon was in no way, shape, or form, overwhelmed or intimidated by this moment, whereas Stanford once more looked like a team not quite ready for the brightest and biggest of stages. This reality is the inspiration for the title of this article.
There remains a ceiling on this most spectacular of Stanford Football Eras. The Cardinal has yet to push through and stand amongst the truly elite in this era of college football. It's rarefied air, a space pretty much only occupied by Alabama, Oregon, and Ohio State. These are the teams repeatedly reaching the Playoff and National Championship stages, the ones for whom special seasons end at the highest levels. Historically you can add Notre Dame and USC to this list as well. Many Stanford fans thought there was something special happening this season, that this was the year a playoff berth was a distinct possibility. Instead, this very good team can have a great season, but not an unprecedented one. Once more, Stanford was able to field only one half of a national championship team (offense) and last only two-thirds of the way into the season as playoff contenders. In 2011 and 2015, the Cardinal had an elite offense, but simply couldn't defend well enough to get past teh Ducks. In 2012 and 2013, its defense was national championship caliber, but Stanford couldn't produce enough points to avoid close games and ultimately fell prey to the whims of the football gods.
There is a clear silver lining here, of course. To say that in all of the FBS there are only three programs who can really look down at Stanford is to say that David Shaw's program stands on some lofty ground itself, and it does. Stanford can clinch the Pac-12 North on Wednesday, and can still win as many as 12 games this year. That woujld put them in Pasadena for their third Rose Bowl in four seasons. I will never turn my nose up at a season that ends in Pasadena on January 1. Never. But that's not to say I never find myself fantasizing about that one special year when Stanford puts it all together and makes an unprecedented impact on college football and changes EVERYTHING about the way we (and everybody else) looks at our program.
It's just to say that this year isn't gonna be that year, and that's what hurts the most.