The nascent Stanford-Oregon rivalry has been marked primarily by its last three installments, each of them between a pair of top-15 teams that would both eventually end up playing in BCS bowls. But there’s another recent Cardinal-Ducks showdown that foreshadowed the two programs’ rise, and like tonight’s game, it was played at Stanford Stadium on a Nov. 7.
That 51-42 Stanford win in 2009, which clinched the team’s first bowl berth in eight years, resonates deeply with recent Cardinal football alums; tailback Toby Gerhart ‘10 has referred to it as the moment when Stanford football truly “arrived,” while quarterback Andrew Luck ‘12 has called it “as close to a perfect game as we played offensively in my career.”
Several current Cardinal players and coaches — including then-freshmen running back Tyler Gaffney and linebacker Shayne Skov — were also on hand for the upset, which marked Stanford’s last home win against its perennial Pac-12 rival.
“I have the same euphoria after every victory,” remembered head coach David Shaw, Stanford’s offensive coordinator in 2009, “but that was a fun one.”
Fond memories aren’t all the Cardinal can take from the 2009 win. Though Stanford held Oregon to just 14 points last season, there’s a good chance that the always-improving Ducks offense will have more success this time around, leaving a bit more of the burden to the Cardinal’s own offensive attack.
And when unranked Stanford won its shootout against No. 7 Oregon in 2009, it did so with a physical running game, an opportunistic passing attack and a solid special teams performance — exactly the offensive formula the Cardinal will have to follow tonight.
Stanford came into the 2009 game feeling that it had to score on every possession to keep up with the quick-strike Ducks, and though the Cardinal’s offense has often lacked that consistency this season, it still feels the same pressure.
“That’s the feeling when you play a good team, especially a team with an offense like theirs,” said running backs coach Tavita Pritchard, who was Luck’s backup as a fifth-year senior in 2009. “You have to execute. You have to make plays when they’re there to be made.”
“There’s no room for error against Oregon,” Gaffney noted.
Stanford nearly found that out the hard way in 2009. After the Cardinal jumped out to a 24-7 first-half lead, cornerback Kris Evans ‘09 forced a red-zone fumble to halt a promising Ducks drive, but on the very next play, Gerhart fumbled it right back to Oregon. One snap later, the Ducks made it 24-14, setting the tone for a back-and-forth game.
Oregon kept on scoring, but Stanford matched every Ducks blow, with Gerhart piling up 223 yards and Luck throwing for 251 on just 20 attempts.
Stanford was able to extend its lead to 48-28 early in the fourth quarter, but the Ducks still battled back, sandwiching a Cardinal missed field goal with two long touchdown drives that narrowed the Stanford advantage to just six in the final minutes. The Cardinal recovered the ensuing onside kick, however, and sealed the win with a late field goal.
“I think just to see two fast-paced offensive teams take advantage and never give up; it was a good opening to college football my freshman year,” Gaffney said. “It makes you excited for the rest of your career…I was a freshman, just watching a Heisman candidate, Toby Gerhart, run his ass off.”
The Cardinal might need Gaffney to do the same thing tonight if it wants to beat Oregon, but in four fateful years, the matchup’s flavor has changed somewhat. Stanford’s offense probably doesn’t need to put up 51 points — its defense has improved by leaps and bounds since 2009; but more importantly, a win wouldn’t put the Cardinal on the college football landscape. It would reassert Stanford’s place among the elite.
“It feels different because we’ve won around here and we’ve made that a habit, you know, and now it’s about maintaining that,” Pritchard said. “I think back [in 2009]…we were both trying to find our own ways as a program, and trying to find our character, our themes. And I think we’re pretty well ingrained. We’re always trying to evolve and get better, but I think we are somewhat set, and I think it is a matchup of two really good programs and two differing styles in one way.
“But it’s two similar styles in that they’re two programs that want to do everything at a high, high level, all the time. And I think that’s why it’s going to be a great football game.”
Contact Joseph Beyda at email@example.com.