Welcome back to The Vault. The Stanford Cardinal are hosting the Oregon Ducks this Saturday and to mark the occasion I’ll be looking back at the most important game these two teams ever played. Unfortunately, it’s not a happy memory for Stanford fans.
2010 was landmark year for college football. It was the last season before conference realignment permanently changed the landscape of the sport. It was also the last time that two undefeated teams played for the national championship. Which teams met in the BCS Championship Game that season was partly decided in this game.
2010 was the final year of the PAC-10. The league had remained static since 1978, when Arizona and Arizona State joined, but in the summer before the season began the conference had agreed to add Colorado and Utah in 2011. As a result, 2010 was the last time that the champion of the league would play every member school. The nine-game round robin schedule, the toughest in the nation, was a curse as much as it was a blessing. Started in 2006, it had claimed every would-be undefeated team’s hopes for a 12-0 season. This mostly boiled down to USC being upset and the PAC-10 losing representation in the BCS Championship Game as a result.
In 2009, Oregon had finally supplanted the Trojans as the best team in the PAC-10. The Ducks finished the season 10-2, with a loss to Boise State in Week 1 putting them under the radar for most of the first half. It became apparent in October that Oregon was in fact the best team in the league. The Ducks had risen from unranked to 7th in the nation in one month. Very few experts predicted Oregon to have much trouble winning out, but they weren’t paying attention to Toby Gerhart and the nine game conference schedule claimed its latest victim. The Ducks were stunned by unranked Stanford in a 51-42 barn burner at Stanford Stadium. Oregon would finish 8-1 in PAC-10 play and the Ducks played in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1995, losing to Ohio State 26-17. Still, Oregon was finally on top of the PAC-10 and wanted to keep it that way.
After years of building under Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly inherited a thoroughly talented team. With power at the skill positions and Kelly’s high-octane offense, Oregon was a force to be reckoned with in 2010. The offense was led by quarterback Darron Thomas and the explosive LaMichael James at running back. The stable of wide receivers included Jeffrey Maehl, D.J. Davis, David Paulson, and Lavasier Tuinei, all of whom averaged over ten yards per reception and accounted for more than 2000 yards through the air. The Ducks had a very stout defense as well, anchored by DBs John Boyett, Talmadge Jackson III, and Kenny Rowe, alongside linebackers Spencer Paysinger, Eddie Pleasant, and Casey Matthews.
Oregon was loaded for bear. The 2010 Ducks were very probably the best team that has ever come out of Eugene. It’s quite the coincidence that they would take the field the same year against arguably the best Stanford team of all time.
The Oregon Duck program was built over decades by a succession of coaches. Starting from the absolute bottom in terms of recruiting ability, resources, and history, Rich Brooks and then Mike Bellotti slowly dragged Oregon from bad to mediocre to good and occasionally great. Chip Kelly got the keys to the program in 2009, and was able to put the final touches together to make the Ducks a true football powerhouse for the first time in school history. Jim Harbaugh managed a similar rebuild in just four seasons.
When Harbaugh came to Stanford in 2007, the Cardinal were one of the worst teams in the entire nation. At 1-11 the previous season they were in a rut just as bad if not worse as Oregon was in when Rich Brooks went to Eugene in 1977. What Stanford had going for it was a past more decorated than the Ducks had and the potential to recruit nationally thanks to the finest degree in FBS football. With these resources combined with a boundless enthusiasm, Jim Harbaugh began drawing in talent to Palo Alto and developing it far beyond what was expected.
The Cardinal took their lumps in 2007 and 2008, but each season was marked by definite progress. In 2009 Stanford took a big leap forward, finishing 8-5 with the aforementioned big win over conference champion Oregon to boot. Running back Toby Gerhart was the star of the show, and nearly won the Heisman (and probably should have). Gerhart was a hero of the Cardinal renaissance, but the young signal caller next to him in the backfield would wind up an even bigger legend.
Andrew Luck was the centerpiece of the 2010 Stanford Cardinal. He was the best quarterback in the nation according to QBR and he was clearly one of the best quarterbacks Stanford ever produced, in the same mold as John Elway and Jim Plunkett. With Gerhart gone, Stepfan Taylor was the new workhorse at running back. Taylor was augmented by Anthony Wilkerson and Tyler Gaffney. Doug Baldwin, Ryan Whalen, Coby Fleener, and Chris Owusu were Luck’s favorite targets. Stanford’s linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas were always dependable, and defensive backs Taylor Skaufel, Johnson Bademosi, and Michael Thomas anchored the line. Receivers turned safeties Richard Sherman and Delano Howell locked down the deep threats. Owen Marecic bears special mention as a great two-way player.
All of this talent on one team made the 2010 Cardinal something special. It may very well have been the best team assembled in the Harbaugh-Shaw era and perhaps the best team that Stanford University has ever put onto the field. It was evident that they were destined for greatness.
Oregon started the season ranked 11th, and were considered the favorites to repeat as PAC-10 Champions. The Ducks began the year by torching New Mexico 72-0 at home before traveling to Tennessee and downing the Vols 48-13. Oregon broke into the top five before beating up Portland State 69-0 and then passed their way through Arizona State to secure a 42-31 win in Tempe before their revenge game against Stanford.
The national experts chose not to rank Stanford in the preseason poll. The Cardinal victimized Sacramento State 52-17 to get into the 25th spot in Week 2. Stanford shut out UCLA 35-0 in an impressive performance at the Rose Bowl. They were ranked 16th just a week later after annihilating Wake Forest 68-24. The Cardinal gave an eye opening performance in a 37-14 drubbing of Notre Dame in South Bend. It was Stanford’s first win over the Irish on the road since 1992. After one month, the Cardinal soared all the way from unranked to 9th in the AP Poll before their showdown with Oregon.
College Gameday was on hand to mark what already looked like the deciding game in PAC-10 play. Kickoff was 5 pm Pacific Time, primetime for the West Coast. It was the first time that Stanford and Oregon had ever met as ranked opponents.
The game began when Stanford kicked off to Oregon, who raced down the field thanks to both the legs and arm of Darron Thomas. With 1st and goal at the Cardinal 9, the Stanford D held fast and only allowed a field goal. On their first possession, the Cardinal efficiently marched down the field in a drive culminating in Andrew Luck finding Griff Whalen in the endzone to take an early 7-3 lead. On the ensuing kickoff, the Ducks fumbled the ball on their own 12 yard line and it was recovered by Stanford. The Cardinal doubled their lead when Luck hustled into the endzone, and then tripled it after Chase Thomas picked off Darron Thomas. Stepfan Taylor broke free for a 44 yard touchdown run to make the lead 21-3 as the first quarter was ending.
It was an incredible advantage for the Cardinal. The game was supposed to be a dogfight between two highly potent offenses with their very solid defenses trying to hold on for dear life. With this unexpected lead Stanford was now in great position to take the PAC-10 for themselves if they could fend off the expected onslaught.
Oregon responded fiercely and tenaciously. The Ducks kicked their high octane offense into overdrive and scored their first touchdown of the game on an 85 yard drive lasting under three minutes. Oregon then converted an onside kick and in just under two minutes LaMichael James found the endzone. In five minutes Oregon had narrowed Stanford’s lead to just 21-17. The expected slugfest was now beginning.
The Cardinal responded with a touchdown of their own as Andrew Luck connected with Coby Fleener for a 36 yard pass and run. Oregon retaliated in half the time, running eight plays in 1:49 of game-time, Thomas found Josh Huff who sprinted to the endzone on a 41 yard play to bring the Ducks within a touchdown again. Both teams traded punts as the half was drawing to a close. It was the first drive by either team where nobody scored. Thomas was intercepted at Oregon’s 43 with under a minute left and Stanford’s Nate Whitaker was able to kick a field goal. The score at halftime was 31-24 Stanford.
The second half was when everything fell apart. Stanford began with the ball and in a four minute drive the Cardinal only managed to gain 13 yards before punting it away. In two and a half minutes Oregon went 68 yards into the endzone. The game was tied for the first time since midway through the first quarter. Stanford had just crossed midfield two and a half minutes into their next possession when Chris Owusu fumbled the ball. It was recovered by Duck safety Eddie Pleasant who took all the way to the Cardinal 3 yard line. James brought the ball home and Oregon had their first lead since it was 3-0 in the first.
Luck was intercepted on the first play from scrimmage following the lead change, but the Stanford defense kept the Ducks from scoring and forced a turnover on downs at the Cardinal 34. Stanford punted the ball away on a three and out, giving Oregon possession as the third quarter ticked away to the fourth with the score still at a manageable 38-31 Ducks.
Oregon once again ate up a lot of yards without eating up a whole lot of time. The Ducks found the endzone once again, bringing the score to 45-31 with just under 15 minutes remaining. Stanford took six and a half minutes to bring the ball to Oregon’s one yard line, but Stepfan Taylor fumbled on third down and Luck’s incomplete pass on fourth and goal ended any real chance of the Cardinal pulling out the comeback. The Ducks finally slowed down their offense, and punted the ball away with just over four minutes remaining. Stanford’s offense now had to hurry, and Luck brought the Cardinal to Oregon’s ten yard line with two minutes left, only to be intercepted in the endzone for a touchback.
To add insult to injury, on the third play of Oregon’s final possession, LaMichael James rushed 76 yards for a touchdown with only 70 seconds remaining. The final score was 52-31. The Cardinal hadn’t scored in the entire second half.
It was a crushing loss for Stanford. The Cardinal wouldn’t lose for the rest of the season, beating most opponents by more than two scores. Both Washington and Oregon State were shut out and the Cardinal beat Cal by 34. Stanford was selected to play ACC Champion Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. The 11-2 Hokies were a fixture of the postseason in the 2000’s and were riding high, having won 11 straight games despite starting the season 0-2. The Cardinal crushed VA Tech 40-12, an exclamation point on a 12-1 season. All in all, it was a landmark accomplishment and Jim Harbaugh’s crowning achievement. He had turned Stanford from an afterthought into a world-beater in just four seasons. However, the loss to Oregon still stains the memory of that great year.
Oregon was on fire after their win against Stanford. The Ducks crushed every other team in their way (save for a scare in Berkeley near the end of the season) en route to a 12-0 record with a spotless 9-0 mark in PAC-10 play. Oregon was matched up with the SEC Champions, 13-0 Auburn led by Cam Newton, who had beaten out Andrew Luck for the Heisman. LaMichael James finished third in the balloting. The Ducks fell 22-19, but a controversial call that went the Tigers’ way will forever haunt Oregon fans, who watched their team lose a national championship game that they just as well could have won.
Stanford fans look back at the 2010 season and wonder what would have been different if it had been Andrew Luck facing off against Cam Newton. Whether the Cardinal would have had any better chance to beat Auburn. It’s unknown, all three teams were immensely talented, but the fact remains that Oregon was good enough to win that game and Stanford was good enough to beat Oregon that year. The loss at Autzen was the result of blown opportunities and bad turnovers by the Cardinal as much as it was about the Ducks playing nearly perfect in the second half.
The real shame about 2010 is that it very may well have been the high water mark for both Stanford and Oregon and neither team has a national championship to show for it. The best football the West Coast has produced since the Pete Carroll’s USC dynasty has been from Eugene, Oregon and Stanford, California. Both schools put out great teams from 2011 to 2016, but they always had blemishes that kept them from gaining the ultimate prize. That neither team won a national championship is dispiriting for both fan bases, and a shadow on West Coast football, as all of the PAC-10 championships going back to Washington in 1991 were either disputed or vacated.
Since 2010, no PAC-12 team has gone undefeated in conference play.
Stanford hosts Oregon this Saturday. The stakes aren’t as high, but the memories of the past decade, the best in the history of both programs, keeps this game alive in the minds of the fans.