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Chen: Tough loss does not diminish previous seasons

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On Saturday night, Oregon breezed though its Stanford problem set, made a solution key and then posted it for everyone in college football to see. All in a matter of minutes.

Was there any doubt that annihilation was inevitable? Was the first drive of the game convincing enough, or did it take until the third quarter for Cardinal fans to realize that the Ducks were just flat-out better? The Ducks dominated the Cardinal at Autzen Stadium, and it wasn’t even close. Oregon’s superiority shone on Saturday night, but if Stanford played Oregon 12 times this year, the Ducks would have won all 12 of them.

The 45-16 score didn’t prove that Oregon was playing at a completely different level. Nor did the statistics, which favored the Ducks in almost every way.  The proof came in the trenches, where Oregon beat Stanford in the Cardinal’s own game. The Ducks offensive line pushed around a battered Cardinal front missing their most important player, David Parry, while Royce Freeman looked as good as advertised by breaking tackle after tackle. It wasn’t just Freeman who was delivering the body blows, though. There were plays where Mariota broke tackles not with his speed, but simply by running through defenders. That’s without even mentioning the busted coverage in the secondary or the fact that Stanford’s linebackers just couldn’t keep up with Oregon’s speedy backs. Yes, the Cardinal defense missed some big tackles, but that didn’t matter. Mariota and the Ducks offense were just too good.

Stanford’s defense had its worst game in three seasons, but its offensive counterpart didn’t fare much better. The offense played like it did against USC — moving the ball well but stalling in the red zone — with Jordan Williamson’s inexplicably clutch performance in Autzen proving to be the main difference. The narrative took a 180-flip from last year’s outright dominance, when Tyler Gaffney churned out yard after yard and the Cardinal offensive line made Oregon’s front look laughable. The O-line pass-protected well on Saturday, but when it came to run-blocking, it was the same inconsistent unit that we’ve seen all season — Remound Wright rushed for 33 yards on 11 carries, and Barry J. Sanders gained just 2 yards on 6 carries. Hogan actually led the team in rushing yardage. The running game was dismal, but was it really all that surprising, considering that Stanford had been manhandled by Arizona State’s defense two weeks ago?

Stanford loss wasn’t shocking, but the extent to which Oregon was able to impose their will on both sides of the ball was certainly surprising. The fact that Oregon scored 45 points, with Thomas Tyner putting a ridiculous spin move on Jordan Richards and Marcus Mariota running for 20-plus yards to his heart’s content, was only insult to injury.

So what’s left for Stanford football this season? A bowl berth is far from a guaranteed with Utah, Cal and UCLA left, and Big Game this year will actually be a big game. If Cardinal fans didn’t realize a month ago that Stanford was going through a rebuilding year, then surely they must realize it now. But I’m not here to analyze the reasons for why Stanford isn’t elite this year — those points have been discussed already.

In fact, as I watched Oregon pour it on in the fourth quarter at Autzen Stadium, I wasn’t even thinking about this season. My mind took me two years back.

My biggest takeaway from Saturday night — and from this whole season — is marveling in the greatness of Stanford’s run in 2012. How did the Cardinal win the Pac-12 title with a rookie quarterback and no legitimate weapons at wide receiver, one year removed from losing its most important coach in school history? How did Stanford’s defense go into Autzen Stadium and hold Oregon to 14 points? How was that possible?

Some say that Stanford’s performance against Oregon in 2013 was the more impressive, but to me, 2012 was more special. In 2013, the Cardinal needed to force critical turnovers and an injured Mariota to pull off the victory — and let’s not forget that Oregon put up a fight in the fourth quarter. But outside of its two touchdowns in 2012, Oregon couldn’t even move the ball. Even when the Ducks pulled ahead 14-7 in the third quarter, the game still felt within Stanford’s grasp because its defense was playing that well.  It was very different from last night, when Oregon’s 8-point lead in the third quarter felt unconquerable. Stanford shattered Oregon’s invincibility in 2012 despite playing on the road, and I’m not sure if something that special can happen again, at least not for a while.

Saturday’s tough loss in Eugene made the upset in 2012 all the more impressive, and I hope that’s a perspective that Cardinal fans can carry despite how this season has panned out.

Despite driving a total of 20 hours this weekend with the rest of The Daily staffers to watch the Card get destroyed, George Chen isn’t bitter because the side trip to Crater Lake made up for the loss. If you made the trip to the game, share with him your road trip stories at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

George Chen is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily who writes football, football and more football. Previously he worked at The Daily as the President and Editor in Chief, Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Sports, the football beat reporter and a sports desk editor. George also co-authored The Daily's recent book documenting the rise of Stanford football, "Rags to Roses." He is a senior from Painted Post, NY majoring in Biology. To contact him, please email at [email protected]