Stanford football has made a number of new enemies over the last decade. Back-and-forths with USC, Washington and now even Arizona State have often made older rivalries like the Big Game seem almost quaint by comparison.
Of these young matchups, however, none have been more nationally significant than Stanford’s annual game against Oregon. The competition has ended national championship aspirations for both sides, and has frequently determined which program will play in the Pac-12 Championship and even the Rose Bowl.
With Stanford clinging to the hope of defending its Pac-12 title and Oregon eyeing the inaugural College Football Playoff, the stage is set for this year’s competition to be one of the best ever. Let’s take a look at the most recent clashes between these teams as we prepare for yet another chapter in this classic series:
2011: The Oregon problem
When Oregon came to Stanford Stadium in 2011, the No. 3 Cardinal were arguably as good as they’ve been in the last 15 years. Junior quarterback Andrew Luck had a solid lead in the Heisman race, and the team was in the midst of a nation-leading 17 game winning streak. Stanford had been tested many times and had always come out on top. What could possibly go wrong?
Short answer: LaMichael James. Oregon’s all-time rushing leader was coming off the best sophomore season of any running back in the history of the Pac-10, and the Cardinal simply had no answer for him as he blasted his way to 146 yards and three touchdowns. James helped take the pressure off of Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas, who then threw for 155 yards and three more touchdowns as the Ducks put the game away.
On the other sideline, Luck looked like the second-best quarterback on the field for perhaps the only time all season. The future first-overall draft pick did manage to match Thomas’s three touchdown passes and exceeded him in yards, but he also threw two interceptions and lost a critical fumble that gave Oregon a big advantage in field position.
These mistakes would end up costing the Cardinal, which nearly matched Oregon’s offensive output but failed to keep pace in total points. In the end, Stanford’s win streak and national title hopes both fell as they were thoroughly beaten 53-30.
2012: Inching to victory
If there was one good thing Stanford fans could take away from the 2011 competition, it was that Stanford head coach David Shaw did not fail to learn from his defeat. When the Cardinal rode into Eugene one year later, Shaw had tuned his defense and was ready to make the No. 2 Ducks fight for every yard.
Both teams had a considerably new look, with Oregon trading in James and Thomas for the arguably even more prolific paring of running back De’Anthony Thomas and quarterback Marcus Mariota and Stanford replacing Andrew Luck with sophomore Kevin Hogan. The Cardinal defense had also emerged as a force to be reckoned with under coordinator Derek Mason, and Stanford planned to rely on it to keep the team in the game.
This strategy seemed to get off to a disastrous start. In the first quarter, Stanford had pinned Oregon inside its own 10, but the scrambling Mariota broke containment and was off to the races with Thomas in position to block. Then, inexplicably, Thomas opted not to deal with Devon Carrington, the only Stanford defender who was anywhere near his quarterback, and Mariota was tackled to end the play prematurely. At first it seemed like this tackle had just prolonged the inevitable, but four plays later, Oregon turned the ball over on downs just barely outside their end zone. The defensive battle had begun.
Stanford ended up putting the first points on the board, but Oregon responded in kind after Hogan missed a wide-open Ryan Hewitt on a fourth-down conversion to set up the Ducks in good field position. The home team then took the lead in the third quarter on an impressive 95-yard Mariota-led drive. Hogan wasn’t about to admit defeat, however, and he found tight end Zach Ertz, who made an incredible catch in Oregon’s end zone to tie the game and force overtime.
The Ducks got possession first as they attempted to break the tie, but Stanford’s defense held yet again and forced them to try a field goal. Underutilized kicker Alejandro Maldonado hit the left post in his effort, meaning the Cardinal could win with any score. Jordan Williamson then came through for Stanford, nailing a 37-yard field goal in the Cardinal’s overtime possession after a harrowing fumble by Hogan. Stanford had earned an extremely hard-fought 17-14 win, disrupting the Ducks’ championship aspirations and all but punching their own ticket to the Rose Bowl.
2013: Ugly ducklings
Oregon came into the next season hoping to extract revenge. Both Mariota and Thomas were still with the team, and the No. 3 Ducks yet again had their eyes on the national championship as they headed down to Palo Alto.
It seemed once again as if the Ducks’ offense had the run of things early, but once again, they were utterly locked down by Stanford’s defense. On their first red zone attempt, Mariota missed wideout Bralon Addison on fourth-and-goal, turning the ball over on downs. Then, on their second attempt, Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov ran down Thomas and stripped the ball from him at the 2-yard line.
It seemed impossible that it could have been a legitimate fumble, and the announcers, referees and most onlookers wrote off Skov’s indications that he had recovered possession. But upon review, it became clear that Thomas had lost the football before he had gone down and that Skov had outmuscled him in the recovery.
In the meantime, Stanford’s offense started rolling on all cylinders. Running back Tyler Gaffney carried the ball an almost-unheard-of 45 times over the course of the game as the Cardinal started the game with 26 unanswered points.
The Ducks did put together an admirable fourth-quarter comeback, blocking a Stanford field goal and recovering an onside kick to bring the game down to a single possession. On a second onside kick attempt, however, Stanford’s Jeff Trojan pulled the ball in to ensure a 26-20 Cardinal win and yet another Rose Bowl berth.
Contact Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.