Luck misses Harbaugh. He's not the same quarterback that we've seen the past two years...He's really not a good quarterback.
As I was leaving the stadium Saturday night, I managed to walk by Phil Knight as he was heading (I assume) to the Oregon locker room. He was surrounded by two handlers who were looking for people that may have caused trouble, but no one acted up. Instead, the near-silence of Stanford fans leaving the stadium allowed for Knight's opinion of Andrew Luck to be heard loud and clear.
On a cool Saturday night in November, the Stanford Cardinal football team played one of its biggest games in school history against the Oregon Ducks. Instead of showing the country that it belonged with the nation's traditional elite football schools, the Cardinal fell flat in performance that got progressively worse as the game went on. While there is plenty of blame to go around for the embarrassing performance, there seemed to be one certainty.
For at least one night, Andrew Luck was not a good football player.
Stanford won the coin toss and elected to receive. In retrospect, Stanford should have deferred to the second half. At this point in the season, practically everyone in college sports knows that Stanford is a notoriously slow start team. While its understandable why David Shaw and the captains wanted to dictate play in the first half, Stanford just doesn't know how to start off games in a positive manner for the offense, especially when it receives the ball first. In fact, Stanford has scored on its opening drive when receiving to begin the game only once this season, against Washington. Against a supposedly inferior team in Corvallis last weekend, Stanford appeared to spend the first half sizing up the Beavers before pulling away in the middle of the third quarter. At least in my opinion, the decision to receive was curious and just one of several questionable decisions.
As I mentioned, Stanford didn't score on its first drive and managed to move the ball only five yards on that first drive. After a David Green punt, Stanford's defense held Oregon to a punt, and for a moment, it appeared as this game might be living up to its potential as a shootout. After both Stanford and Oregon punted on their next possessions, a brief thought of this being a replay of Alabama-LSU crossed my mind. Unfortunately, on the Cardinal's third possession, the problems started, and it just went downhill from there.
Facing a 3rd and 9, Luck needed to throw at midfield in order get a first down. For whatever reason, Luck threw an interception to Dewitt Stuckey on an extremely poorly thought out throw. Stuckey returned the ball all the way to the Stanford 20, and Luck added his third interception in as many games, notable since he had thrown only two interceptions before the USC game, both of which were the result of tipped balls. Oregon then went on to score off of the turnover. In another moment of a mental lapse on the part of Stanford's defenders, the Ducks' trademark swinging gate formation for extra points, the majority of Stanford's defenders were near the sidelines, allowing for a near clear pass for a two-point conversion.
At the end of the first quarter, Stanford fans should have known that it was going to be a long game. Look at these stats:
Oregon rushing: -5 yards
Oregon passing: 4 yards
Oregon total offense: -1 yards
Thomas: 2-3, 1 TD, 0 int
Stanford rushing: 83 yards
Stanford passing: 15 yards
Stanford total offense: 98 yards
Luck: 3-8, 0 TD, 1 int
Oregon 8, Stanford 0
If we look at the positives from that first quarter, Stanford's defense forced two punts and sacked Darron Thomas for a 20 yard loss on their second possession. Speaking of that sack, if anyone can explain how that was a sack and not an interception, I'd like to know. It was one of two times during the game where the officiating utterly confused me.
With possession of the ball to begin the second quarter, Stanford opened up play with a touchdown on that first drive. Unfortunately for the Cardinal, the fact that Eric Whitaker is a back-up kicker became quite obvious when the PAT went wide right, one of two missed kicks for Whitaker for the game. In fact, it could have easily been three if not for the fact that he sent a PAT in the third quarter closer to the crossbar than the 2OT kick back in Los Angeles last month.
Oregon responded with a touchdown of there own, and from there it seemed that the game was going to be a matter of trading scores and seeing who had possession of the ball last. Unfortunately, Stanford had to resort to a field goal. Oregon responded with a 41 yard De'Anthony Thomas touchdown. On 4th and 7. Stanford ended the half down six. Even though Stanford prevented Oregon from scoring again just before the half, the Ducks were set to receive the ball in the third quarter.
From there the rout was on. Similar to last year's game in Eugene, Oregon began to pull away in the third quarter. The Ducks opened up the half with 14 unanswered points. Oregon scored their touchdowns while holding the ball for only 1:37 and 1:05 on their first two possessions. Of course, it certainly helped that Luck fumbled the ball at the Stanford 31, giving the Ducks a short field to play with on their second touchdown. Luck would end the game with three sacks for 28 yards lost, almost doubling the number of sacks Stanford had allowed all season.
While Stanford made a concerted effort to come back, there were some questionable coaching decisions by Shaw and his staff in the second half that may have played a role in Stanford's loss. First, there was the decision to kick a field goal from the 30 yard line on 4th and 6. Whitaker, having already missed a PAT, missed the field goal and Stanford turned the ball over down 13 points. While the defense was able to force a punt, the Luck fumble happened on the following possession.
Another questionable coaching decision happened after Stanford, down 20 points, was able to pull the game to within two possessions in the middle of the fourth quarter. At that point, the clock was not in Stanford's favor, given Oregon's tendency to milk the clock when holding comfortable leads in the fourth quarter. Why Stanford did not try for an onside kick is puzzling. At that point in the game, it seemed that Stanford's defense would not be able to stop the Ducks and Darron Thomas and LaMichael James. At least with the people I was with, it would have been better at that point to try the onside kick and risk giving Oregon favorable position as opposed to hoping Stanford's defense would be able to hold.
Oh, and about that clock. I couldn't tell what in the world happened, it was so loud with booing around me, but for some reason, head referee Jack Folliard played a game of back and forth with the clock operator. All I know is that in the fourth quarter the time went from 8:30 to magically 8:20, and the play clock was jumping all around. At one point, I thought I heard Folliard tell the clock operator to wind down the game clock without running the play clock, so again, utter confusion on the officiating.
After Oregon scored a field goal with just over five minutes remaining, making the differential 16 points, the wheels on the Stanford train just all fell off at once. After that field goal, on 2nd and 5 from the Stanford 34, Luck threw a pick six that was eerily similar to the pick six from the USC game. The lead upped to 23 points. Then, on the ensuing kickoff, Tyler Gaffney fumbled the ball, only to have it recovered by Oregon's kicker Rob Beard. After milking the clock and turning the ball over on downs, on the very first play of Stanford's possession, Drew Terrell fumbled the ball at 26 yard line, ending any chance that Stanford had for reducing the blowout loss. What Stanford fans that didn't head for the exits and remained booed, justifiably perhaps, at Stanford's collapse to end the game while Oregon fans began their chants of "Our house!", "Overrated!", and "Hey hey hey, goodbye!" And so the game ended with Stanford fans upset at their team's failure to close the game on a somewhat positive note while some Oregon fans sent a smoke bomb into the tunnel just before Stanford exited the field.
After the game, Luck told reporters that he guessed this was his "worst game of the year." Guessed? Luck perhaps hasn't had as terrible a game since Big Game 2009, nearly two years ago. Not even last year's debacle at Oregon was as bad as this game. Meanwhile, the Ducks' own Heisman candidate LaMichael James played lights out against Stanford, and despite missing two games due to injury, certainly made the case that he is the better overall college football player than Luck. Much like Tennessee's Peyton Manning, despite beating the Ducks in 2009, Luck has had an "Oregon problem" in both of his Heisman candidacy years. As with Manning, voters look for how a candidate did in the big games. If they do well, even in losing efforts, voters won't knock the candidate down. Luck neither contributed to a win nor played well. In the end, he lead Stanford to an even worse defeat to Oregon on his home field than last year's game in Eugene. Luck's ball control (or lack of it) was in part responsible for 22 Duck points. If Stanford had prevented those points, and Whitaker made his missed PAT or FG, then this game would have been much, much more interesting.
So now Stanford has to regroup and find motivation for Big Game despite being knocked out of the national title picture. Stanford remained in the top-10 of the BCS poll (barely), but will need help in order to make it to a BCS bowl. At this point, Stanford could land anywhere from the Holiday bowl (if Oregon loses once more and is upset in the Pac-12 championship game) to the Fiesta or Sugar Bowl as one of the three at-large bids, depending on whether or not Oklahoma defeats the Cowboys in December. This kind of uncertainty may have been diminished if Stanford had managed to keep it close at home, but there's no use guessing how the coaches and Harris poll voters would have judged a close game as opposed to the blowout at the hands of the Ducks.
Right now, the best thing that the Cardinal can do is just continue to win (big), keep the Axe, and ensure that Notre Dame is relegated to the Capital One Bowl. It enters Big Game in an eerily similar position that Cal had in 2004. In fact, Stanford's 2011 campaign shares a remarkable amount of the same story with the Bears' 2004 season. Stellar quarterbacks in their final year, impressive defenses, a great running game... and an inability to beat one team in particular several years in a row. Stanford fans, though, I think, will prove that this year was not a fluke experiment in fan support and show that yes, Santa Claus, there are Stanford fans, even in a loss and with little possibility of making the Pac-12 Championship Game. If Stanford's GameDay turnout is any indication, it may show that the fanbase has turned a corner from being bandwagon fans to dedicated supporters. In any case, Stanford must shake off its disappointing showing against the Ducks and prepare for the 114th playing of Big Game.
Oregon 53, Stanford 30
While the Pac-12 game of the year was played in Palo Alto, there were five other notable games across the conference (where every home team won). And, as could easily be expected, the Pac-12 South again provided surprises.
Arizona 29, Colorado 48 -- Colorado Buffaloes: you are not the worst team in the conference. [/Maury Povich voice] On Senior Day in Boulder, the Buffs won their first Pac-12 football game in an electric Folsom Field. Arizona, meanwhile, continued their spiral downward, losing their eighth game of the year. It's hard to believe that this is almost the same team that was ranked in the top 10 nationally just a little over a year ago.
Washington 17, USC 40 -- There would be no threepeat for the Huskies this year over the Trojans as Barkley and Woods lead USC to a comfortable 23 point home win. Instead, Washington has now lost its third game out of four with a trip to Corvallis coming up.
Oregon State 6, California 30 -- Cal's woes against the Beavers finally ended Saturday with a "home" win to close out their time at AT&T Park to get their sixth win, assuring them of a bowl game and taking the pressure off of the remaining games against Stanford and ASU. The Beavers woes continued, though, sending OSU back home to face the Huskies hoping to send out James Rodgers and the rest of the seniors on a winning note.
UCLA 6, Utah 31 -- In a snowy Rice-Eccles Stadium, Utah pulled out another win to become bowl-eligible for the ninth consecutive season. UCLA, meanwhile, continued its road agony in a loss that could have ended their South division title hopes were it not for...
Arizona State 27, Washington State 37 -- Don't look now, Pac-12 fans, but Wazzu is two wins over Utah and Washington away from making its first bowl appearance in almost a decade. While UCLA may be a bad road team, ASU is an even worse one. ASU must now hope for a UCLA and Utah loss and beat the Bears and Wildcats at home in order to even hope for competing for the Rose Bowl. With Utah defeating UCLA to stay in the division race, the Pac-12 South is just one big mess without USC competiting for representation in the championship game.