Every few seasons, in every conference, a changing of the guard occurs. For every conference dynasty, disaster always lurks just around the corner. There is always another team waiting to stab Ceaser in the back. Always a disgruntled little brother. Always a rising star.
This reign may last the tenure of an exceptional quarterback, the stay of an excellent recruiting class or the dynasty of a brilliant coach. However the regime is installed, the consistent variable is it will always change. The only question: how long will it last?
This is the story of how Stanford changed the landscape of the conference and marked the end of a dynasty in one game.
A history lesson -
USC ruled the PAC-12 for the majority of the 2000’s, guided by stars like quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart or running back Reggie Bush, all under the guidance of head coach Pete Carroll. Following seven seasons (2002-2008) of double-digit wins, change in the form of new Oregon Ducks head coach Chip Kelly was about to rock the conference. Kelly took the PAC-12 by storm with his combination of a spread offense and the run-pass option, all implemented into a system built on insane speed; it was a combination that chewed up opposing defenses. From 2009 to 2012, Kelly and his high flying Ducks were the PAC-12’s team to beat. Then, in 2013, Kelly headed to the NFL to coach the Philadelphia Eagles. The head of the snake was lopped off, the top spot open for the taking.
But who would take it?
For over a decade to this point, Stanford had found themselves floundering against the respective best team in their conference, despite the rising stardom of head coach Jim Harbaugh. Flying through three coaches from 2000 to 2006, Harbaugh was supposed to mark the changing of the guard, someone who could go toe to toe with Carroll. Instead, Kelly stole his thunder, snatching the conference mantel from Carroll on his way out. Stanford was forced to play second fiddle, lurking in the back as a contentious number two.
All that changed on November 7th, 2013. Once again the door was open, a new coach (David Shaw) had already proved he could be the Ducks in his first season and now had the chance to topple the three-year giant.
Leading up to the game -
Despite new head coach Mark Helfrich’s unproven status in 2013, Oregon was still considered to be in the PAC-12 driver’s seat considering their returning cast. Of 22 starters, the Ducks brought back 15, including their entire secondary, quarterback Marcus Mariota and his whole receiving corps. Special teams and running back ace, De’Anthony Thomas, also returned for the 2013 campaign. This juggernaut backed up expectations from the jump, averaging 55.6 points in each of their first eight outings (yes, that is a real number look it up). The number three team in the country seemingly had an offense that could do no wrong as they prepared for Stanford. The Cardinal, a team averaging just 32.6 per game, seemed incapable of keeping up with the high powered Ducks offense, despite the home advantage. The Ducks had a Heisman favorite in Mariota, the Cardinal entered without quarterback Andrew Luck from two seasons ago and running back Stepfan Taylor from last season. Another low-scoring upset like 2012’s 17-14 affair seemed out of the question.
But the crafty Shaw, in year two at Stanford, held plenty up his sleeve.
Something new -
Stanford started the game by doing something no one else accomplished to that point: they held the Ducks scoreless through the opening quarter. But the drought proved to be more than first quarter jitters for the Ducks, as they remained scoreless for the subsequent two quarters, failing to find the end zone till the final quarter.
Only three times leading up to November 7th, the Ducks trailed opponents, every time it was for a few, fleeting possessions. But Stanford, packing the box, bullying receivers at the line and swarming the football, kept the Ducks from finding any rhythm at all.
Grinding the ball out, the Cardinal asked quarterback Kevin Hogan to throw the ball a mere 13 times against a team that averaged 31.2 per game! Tyler Gaffney owned the night, rushing for 157 yards out of the Stanford backfield and scoring the first points of the game.
The hype around the game centered around the offenses, but the three most significant plays of the evening came from the Cardinal defense.
1 - On Oregon’s second drive, the Ducks took the ball the length of the field, before failing four times inside the Stanford 10-yard line. As Mariota’s pass fell incomplete on fourth down at the Stanford four, a shift started. The momentum was on the move, the reigning contender beginning to bleed, weakness detected.
2 - Down 14-0, the Ducks went on another drive deep into Stanford territory, only to have Thomas fumble at the 2-yard line. As linebacker Shayne Skov rose triumphantly with the ball, the stadium was rolling, and change seemed to fill the air like a fog.
3 - After Stanford took a 20-0 lead, the Ducks drove into Stanford territory, again, the Cardinal had an answer. The pressure Stanford’s defense brought all game long forced Mariota to roll out, where A.J. Tarpley lept on Mariota and forced another turnover.
Just like that, it was over. The Ducks had been broken. It did not matter that Mariota led a 20-point fourth quarter, nor did it matter that the next season, the Ducks went to the college football playoff. For the first time since 1997, the Cardinal beat Oregon two consecutive seasons.
The transfer of power was complete. The Ducks no longer ran the PAC-12 conference. As Stanford forced the Ducks out, the window for conference dominance widened to anyone able to grab it. Season after season, more of Kelly’s recruits left under a weak coaching staff while Shaw continued to build on his program to the south. Done were the days of one team assured the mantle of conference champion.
Following the conclusion of 2014 and the departure of Mariota, left the PAC-12 to the Stanford’s and Washington’s of the conference. The throne may not have fallen solely to Stanford and even headed into 2018, there is still no clear No. 1 team, but the Cardinal killed the king. They are the ones who gave themselves a chance every year for the past six seasons, and they are the ones that helped make the PAC-12 such a race to the title every season.
All that, because of one, tremendous game on November 7th.