Stanford football just refuses to make things easy on its fans.
While I certainly won’t try to draw up negative long-term implications of Saturday’s win against Oregon State coming down to the final seconds (there are none), it did teach me a valuable life lesson: My heart won’t be able to take being too emotionally attached to Stanford football for 50 years.
Somehow the Cardinal turned an 11-point lead with a spectacular defense playing perhaps its best football all season into a heart-attack-inducing last four plays. This time, it wasn’t due to play-calling errors; it was just a lack of execution.
Senior running back Tyler Gaffney had a spectacular night, but his fumble gave the Beavers new life. Then, with 3,000 pounds of bulk in the game, Stanford couldn’t pick up a yard against a defensive front that it had been abusing all game. Fortunately for Gaffney, the Cardinal offense and any Stanford fan looking forward to a potential BCS vacation again this January, the defense stepped up again to save the day.
So, now that we’ve all had some time to bring our heart rate back to normal, it’s time to reflect on what we learned from Saturday and what that means for the matchup with Oregon in 10 days.
To go back even earlier than the start of Stanford’s game at Oregon State, Oregon’s home win against UCLA about an hour down the road in Eugene had some interesting takeaways that could be very beneficial to the Cardinal’s chances.
Amazingly enough, the Ducks actually looked beatable for 30 minutes against the Bruins. UCLA dominated play for much of the first half and probably should have been winning by seven or more points. Poor play by UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley and a great fake punt by Oregon were the only things that kept the Ducks close.
After halftime, however, Oregon pulled away to win decisively. While some may think that is a bad sign, I think that actually is good for Stanford. Oregon still hasn’t won a close game in its last two seasons — its only close game came against Stanford in 2012 and we all know how that ended — so I’m not sure if the Ducks truly believe they can pull out a tough win. It’s better for the Cardinal that the Ducks couldn’t overcome that hurdle in advance.
In the hours following Oregon’s win against UCLA, Stanford’s defense reminded me why I predicted the Cardinal to go undefeated this season in the first place. Ever since the end of Stanford’s loss to Utah, the Cardinal defense has been spectacular in pretty much every way. Stanford has shut down a UCLA dual-threat attack and an explosive Oregon State passing game, and that’s while battling a lot of injuries up front.
If fifth-year senior defensive end Ben Gardner can heal enough to be a factor against Oregon, I really think Stanford’s defense can repeat what it did in 2012. In Saturday’s win against Oregon State, Stanford showed everything a great defense needs to do to stop a great offense: tackle well, get pressure on the quarterback with or without the blitz and play good coverage in the secondary. If not for Stanford’s abysmal offensive performance, the Cardinal probably would’ve kept OSU, one of the highest-scoring teams in the country, under 10 points. That is impressive.
And while, on offense, Stanford did not play well enough to beat Oregon, I’m not sure that is entirely a bad thing. Sitting in the postgame press conference with Gaffney, head coach David Shaw and junior quarterback Kevin Hogan, I was amazed at how angry Stanford’s offensive-minded players and coaches were after pulling out the win. Yes, they were thrilled to beat Oregon State, but Hogan and Gaffney were disgusted at themselves, with Shaw not much more positive.
Stanford didn’t need a confidence boost; I know for a fact that everyone in the locker room thinks that Stanford should beat Oregon. This sloppy offensive performance against Oregon State looks like it will instead provide a tremendous amount of motivation to Hogan and the offense to get better every single play leading up to next Thursday, and that certainly can’t hurt.
So while Stanford squandered an opportunity to let its fans fall asleep without heartburn, it did set itself up perfectly to have its best chance of knocking off the Ducks. The buildup is here. Let’s enjoy these 10 days.
Sam Fisher’s blood pressure reached 180 over 110 during Saturday night’s game. Recommend him a cardiologist at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu, and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.