There are a few jaw-dropping defensive performances in the history of college football that aren’t meant to be emulated, much less topped.
On Thursday night, it became clear that Stanford’s 17-14 overtime victory against Oregon last year just wasn’t one of them.
In one of the most electric atmospheres at Stanford Stadium in recent memory, No. 5 Stanford (8-1, 6-1 Pac-12) shocked the college football world for the second year in a row by upending mighty No. 3 Oregon (8-1, 5-1) 26-20. The deceivingly close score didn’t do justice to the fact that the Cardinal utterly dominated in all three phases of the game for over three-and-half quarters, before the Ducks stormed back in the last five minutes of the game — thanks to a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown and a quick score following an onside kick recovery — to cap the night off in dramatic fashion.
The victory marked Stanford’s fourth consecutive home win over a ranked opponent in a single season, the first time that’s happened in school history.
“It’s November,” said head coach David Shaw. “We talked as a team about, ‘It’s time to play our best football.’ No one has seen our best football, and that’s including us. Tonight was about three-and-three-quarters of it.”
Led by fifth-year senior linebacker Shayne Skov’s nine-tackle performance, the Cardinal defense held the Ducks scoreless for over three quarters while holding their potent rushing attack — which averaged 331.5 yards per game coming into Thursday night — to just 62 yards. At the end of the third quarter, a baffled Ducks offense had only mustered 185 total yards and was further plagued by two turnovers.
Sharing a fate also suffered by fellow Pac-12 signal-callers Brett Hundley and Sean Mannion, Oregon star quarterback Marcus Mariota saw his once-promising Heisman campaign derailed by a Cardinal defense that somehow played even more dominantly than it did in the 2012 game against the Ducks.
“We don’t concede points,” Skov said. “People can write what they want and say what they want, but what counts are the guys who take that field…What happens between the lines is dictated by us.”
But while Stanford’s defense stifled Oregon drive after drive, it was senior running back Tyler Gaffney who pounded out 157 yards on 45 carries — a single-game school record — behind a bulldozing offensive line that played by far its best game of the season.
“Tyler Gaffney ran the ball tonight the way running backs are supposed to run the ball in this game of football,” Shaw said. “When you walk into our new [football] facility — the players-only entrance — to the left is the offensive line, to the right is the picture of the defensive line. That is what football is about.”
The Cardinal defense first brought back memories of 2012 when it made a big goal-line stand during Oregon’s second possession of the game. The front seven stuffed running back Byron Marshall at the line of scrimmage two consecutive times before great coverage by the Cardinal secondary thwarted Mariota’s third- and fourth-down pass attempts.
Despite being pinned in its own territory, the Cardinal offense immediately went on a 96-yard touchdown drive catalyzed by a 47-yard hookup between junior quarterback Kevin Hogan and sophomore wideout Michael Rector. In a start that was eerily similar to that of the 2012 Stanford-Oregon game, the Cardinal led the Ducks 7-0 early on.
“We knew going into this game, [it] was going to be a test of wills,” Skov said. “Two different approaches, two very different tempos. One team was going to decide the way it was going to go.”
“We go into every game with the same mentality that we are going to shut people down,” said senior inside linebacker A.J. Tarpley.
Unlike in the 2012 game, Stanford took control of the game offensively in the second quarter. Though Hogan’s overall passing numbers — seven-of-13 for 103 yards — weren’t impressive, the junior signal-caller made big runs at critical times. One of the biggest plays came early in the second quarter, when Hogan tucked the ball on a zone read to score an 11-yard touchdown and give Stanford a 14-0 lead.
Perhaps most importantly, Oregon’s offense was only on the field for one drive the entire second quarter — and it resulted in no points, thanks to a tremendous effort by Skov to wrestle the ball out of running back De’Anthony Thomas’ hands and then recover the fumble.
The Cardinal offense used the momentum to fuel a 20-play, 96-yard field-goal-scoring drive that ate up 8:26 off the clock. Though the Cardinal failed to find the end zone, it asserted its running game against an overmatched Ducks front that could not stop Gaffney even when it loaded the box. Gaffney carried the ball 24 times — nine times on that 20-play drive — in the first half as Stanford jumped out to a shocking 17-0 lead at halftime.
“We made the holes,” Gaffney said. “[The offensive linemen did] their job. They’re moving guys back yards and yards. I’m taking some credit, I guess, but this is for them.”
The Cardinal offense didn’t find the end zone again for the rest of the game, but it managed to tack on two field goals in the third quarter. Meanwhile, the Ducks offense kept on unraveling with its first two second-half possessions ending in a turnover — a fumble by Mariota, this time — and a three-and-out.
While Skov had the best stat line defensively, sophomore cornerback Alex Carter sealed the edges time after time to stifle Oregon’s running game, and senior defensive end Henry Anderson looked sharp despite being sidelined for almost two months by a knee injury.
“We weren’t nervous about [Anderson’s] conditioning,” Shaw said. “That was the one thing we felt really good about, but you never know until they start playing football, and he played a lot.”
But just when it appeared that the Cardinal was about to run away with a blowout victory, the Ducks mounted a furious fourth-quarter rally. A 23-yard touchdown pass from Mariota to wide receiver Daryle Hawkins pulled the Ducks with 19, but the Cardinal had no reason to worry — at least, not until Williamson’s 40-yard field goal attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown with 5:08 left in the game.
The Cardinal held its ground on the Ducks’ two-point conversion attempt to keep its lead at 13, but Oregon managed to recover the onside kick after the ball bounced out of senior Jeff Trojan’s hands when he was hit.
The Ducks moved downfield in a hurry, but as the game came down to the wire, the Cardinal slowed down the Oregon offense just enough near the goal line to take valuable time off the clock. Eventually, though, Mariota connected with tight end Pharaoh Brown for a touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal at the Cardinal 12-yard line to bring the Ducks within six points.
But after giving up 20 unanswered points in just under eight minutes, the Cardinal stopped the bleeding.
Trojan came through by securing Oregon’s third and final onside kick, and with the Ducks out of timeouts, Stanford ran out the clock with three straight run plays.
“The fact that we’ve won two in a row against [Oregon], credit [goes] to our players, the coaches and preparation,” Shaw said. “[Oregon] didn’t give it to us. We had to play our game and finish the game at the end, and we did.”
Next up for Stanford is a trip to the Coliseum, where the Cardinal will try to defeat USC for the fifth straight year and fourth consecutive time on the road.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.