After a game like Saturday night’s, it’s really easy to beat up on yourself and think about what could have been — or what should have been. But that game’s in the past. Oregon won. Stanford has been eliminated from College Football Playoff consideration. We can’t change that.
That doesn’t mean the loss last night doesn’t hurt — especially since Stanford was in control of its own national championship destiny and had a clean shot to win out with a favorable schedule, it’s going to sting for a while, particularly when Stanford fans see the second annual College Football Playoff proceed without the Pac-12 invited to the proceedings.
Stanford’s defense has had its issues all season — especially in the secondary — and for the first time, the Cardinal finally faced an offense talented and athletic enough to exploit the lack of size and depth in the defensive line and in the secondary for four quarters. Stanford just lacked the gap integrity up front to deal with Oregon’s bruising offensive line and human bowling ball Royce Freeman, and I remember seeing Kodi Whitfield and Justin Reid getting lost in coverage to give up two big touchdowns. That was enough.
Oregon just outplayed Stanford on that side of the ball, and because of that, I find it hard to be angry about the loss — if it’s a fluky loss, it’s one thing, but if Stanford was just outplayed, I can accept that.
And for the first time in recent memory, the defense failed to do its part while the offense had a spectacular day (506 yards of offense, 12-of-17 on third downs) — a very different kind of loss from your “prototypical Stanford loss” of years old. This game brought back ugly shades of 2011 — and I don’t feel that I need to mention the parallels there.
But Saturday’s crushing loss aside, I find it hard to treat it as if the world is crashing down — even considering that Stanford had a very clean look at the Playoff this year — because this isn’t going to be the only shot that Stanford has at a Playoff berth in the coming years. Not by a long shot.
Even though this is Kevin Hogan’s last season and Stanford will be in flux at several offensive positions next season, the Cardinal are recruiting better than they ever have in program history and, more importantly, are building a name brand that is winning respect from coaches, media members and players alike — all around the country.
David Shaw has shown that he has the ability to adapt his coaching to the athletes that he has on his team, and the individual talent of all the key pieces operating Stanford’s system is only increasing. Where Stanford had two- and three-star recruits a few seasons ago, Stanford now has a steady stream of three- and four-star guys filling the gaps.
And more than anything, the Cardinal have shown that even in the era of bells-and-whistles, spread football, their traditional style works — and will continue to work. Last night was the epic culmination of that clash of styles: two of the best teams in the country in their respective styles, going blow-for-blow in a clash of titans that has not failed to disappoint in the last several years. And boy, was it a spectacle.
The number-one goal of the team coming into the season was to win the Pac-12 and let nature take its course regarding the College Football Playoff, and that goal is still in play. Stanford only needs to beat Cal — or for Oregon to take a loss to USC or Oregon State — in order to punch its ticket to the Pac-12 Championship.
The Rose Bowl is not the College Football Playoff, but that doesn’t make it any less special. I’m never one for “moral victories,” but as I’ve mentioned earlier this year, Stanford fans can’t take winning for granted — we’re not Oregon. We’re not going to complain about “just” going to a Rose Bowl. Let’s put this disappointment behind us and look ahead to make sure that dream, too, doesn’t elude us.
Tell Do-Hyoung Park that he’s taking the loss too lightly/rationally by emailing him at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.