Get something straight: Oregon losing at Stanford is not an indictment of the Ducks program or the Pac-12 as a whole.
This Oregon team isn’t suddenly a smoke-and-mirrors offense simply because the Cardinal – which boasts one of the elite defenses in the country – roughed it up on Thursday night.
Everybody who watched the primetime game saw the same thing. Namely, they watched Stanford dismantle the Ducks for three quarters to seize control of the Pac-12 North.
Yes, Oregon moved the ball into scoring position a couple times through the first three quarters. It also came up short, be it on fourth down or, in the case of RB De’Anthony Thomas, with a costly turnover.
And no, the furious fourth-quarter rally doesn’t change the fact that Stanford spanked the former No. 2 team in the country. If not for a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, the game’s final margin would have been more indicative of how one-sided the game truly was.
However, coach Mark Helfrich still runs a program at Oregon that is among the best in the nation. No one-game result changes that fact considering the multiple impressive seasons it has strung together.
Forget a letdown. What unfolded Thursday night was simple: Oregon ran into a buzzsaw known as Stanford that is simply designed as Duck Kryptonite. The Cardinal proved for a second consecutive season it’s the Seattle Seahawks to the Ducks’ San Francisco 49ers.
Whatever stance fans have about their teams, conferences or regions, football still comes down to matchups. Even with Oregon’s triggerman, QB Marcus Mariota, at full strength, Stanford’s attacking, confounding defense is a tough matchup for the Ducks.
Add to it Mariota’s knee, which obviously precluded him from running the way he did for the first two months of the season, and Thursday night’s outcome becomes easily explained.
Mariota was a shell of his unbelievably mobile, shifty self – a side many college football fans watching Oregon for the first time this season hadn’t seen.
The quarterback’s limitations don’t provide much cover for the Ducks, who should boast enough firepower in the run game to make up for Mariota. Especially early, Stanford had no real way of knowing Mariota was limited. Even when it respected him, the tailbacks couldn’t take advantage.
Instead, RBs Byron Marshall and De’Anthony Thomas combined for just 76 yards on 17 carries.
Natural tendency for other conferences is to point and laugh – Nelson Muntz-style – at Oregon and the Pac-12.
A better idea would be to credit Stanford’s astounding defense, led by under-heralded LB Shayne Skov. Or to take notice of the Cardinal’s brutally tough run game, led by hard-nosed RB Tyler Gaffney, who carried the ball 45 times for 157 yards and a TD.
Behind Gaffney, and QB Kevin Hogan, who picked up several first downs with his arm or feet, the Cardinal converted 14 of 21 third downs and held onto the ball for 42:34. The ground-and-pound strategy kept the ball away from the potent Ducks, who never got into a rhythm until the fourth quarter.
By then, it was too late – and the Pac-12 fell well behind in the BCS national championship race as a result.
Even with a loss to Utah on its resume, Stanford proved it belongs to hang around the national title conversation.
Whether it maintains a spot above a potential one-loss SEC champion or even out-ranking an undefeated team from a major conference is a matter of debate.
Just don’t make the mistake of thinking Oregon is somehow a second-rate program. Doing so does nothing but expose fans as being unable to shelf their own agendas.