As the football hurtled end-over-end through the damp, chilly Oregon
nighttime sky, it seemed as if someone had hit the television mute
button -- but in real life. The ball knifed through the goalposts.
Stanford road stormtrooper white spilled from the sidelines. It
flooded the heart of green and yellow territory. There was delirium,
and there was absolute silence -- simultaneously.
The same vacuum that hovered over Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on
October 6, 2007 returned. It sucked every bit of air -- and sound --
out of Autzen Stadium.
This time, though, the scent of roses was also present. The Stanford
team bouncing on visiting turf wasn't reveling in a miraculous,
turnover-fueled upset. Five years later, a football power was
celebrating its lasting stay in national prominence. There was
nothing fluky about it. In a match-up between the country's best
offense and its best defense, the Farm Boys had mauled Oregon and
made a compelling argument to be considered the best team in the
country (post-Kevin Hogan switch, no team has looked or performed better),
out-muscling and defeating the mighty Ducks 17-14 in their own
They say great things happen when they're least expected. Go figure:
the year after Andrew Luck left to the NFL is the same year the
Cardinal finally get over the Oregon hump. Seemingly overnight,
Stanford has morphed into a defensive juggernaut, quite possibly the
most powerful unit in all of college football on that side of the
line of scrimmage.
The Quack Attack had been literally unstoppable at home during the
Chip Kelly era. It had peaked here in 2012, averaging 54.8 points
per game entering Saturday's contest, threatening Army's 1944 record
of 56. Derek Mason's unit rendered those numbers irrelevant, holding
Oregon to its lowest Autzen Stadium offensive output since 2006.
Back then, Kelly was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, and
USC was still capable of beating Stanford -- so that was obviously a
long time ago.
Most remarkably, the Cardinal defense shut Oregon down despite the
fact that its own offense was held scoreless for ten straight
possessions during the meat of the game. In years past, such an
offensive drought would have resulted in a 62-14 bloodbath. Not this
time, though. Not with the Farm Boys' country-strong, two-deep brawn
up front. The Cardinal's defensive linemen mauled the Ducks' hogs at
the point of the attack. Before the game, Henry Anderson told me
that the goal would be to relocate Oregon's line of scrimmage to the
Consider it moved -- to another zip code.
Anderson's six-tackle effort emulated Nick Fairley's domination in
Auburn's 2010 BCS Title Game win over Oregon. His fellow defensive
linemen, particularly nose tackles Terrence Stephens and David Parry, earned less statistical credit but were just as instrumental
in the final outcome that limited Kenjon Barner to 3.1 yards per
carry. (He came in averaging almost 7 per.) The two nose tackles
registered only one tackle each, but both strained the offensive
line with a punishing push that paved the road for a three-sack,
nine-tackle for loss performance. Stanford has now tied a single
season school record with 46 sacks with potentially three games left. Talk about Record Smashing City.
The Cardinal's linebackers flowed freely behind their formidable
front, highlighted by Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the
Week Shayne Skov's 10 tackles and A.J. Tarpley's disciplined play,
which featured a key interception that extinguished Oregon's
pre-halftime two-minute drill. No. 11's pre-injury explosiveness was
on full display. He set the tone by stonewalling Marcus Mariota on
an early fourth down inside the Stanford 10 and overtook Chase Thomas for the team lead with 58 tackles on the season.
At Long Last: An Athletic Match
Athletically, the Cardinal defense was Oregon's equal -- not a few
steps too slow, as had been the case in years past. David Shaw
credited improved Stanford speed on the back end as the primary
reason that his club was able to dodge scoring bullets even when the
Ducks did manage to squeak past the front seven. Devon Carrington's
first quarter sprint caught Mariota 77 yards downfield and sent a
clear message: these nerds have more going for them than blue-collar physicality up front.
Open-field tackling was a resulting benefit, with Alex Carter, Ed Reynolds, Jordan Richards,
Terrence Brown, and even hulking Trent Murphy displaying brilliant form. Murphy recorded a
fantastic sideline stop against Barner on the edge, learning from
the past and avoiding the horrible angle he took against USC's
Robert Woods on fourth and long back in September. This Stanford
defense is enjoying immense improvement across the board, a
phenomenon best embodied by the true freshman Carter, whose speed
and physicality kept up -- and overwhelmed -- Oregon's track stars
sideline to sideline.
The Hogan Effect
Of course, the insertion
of Kevin Hogan at quarterback has buoyed Stanford's defense. In his third true game
and first road start, the redshirt freshman was again effective --
all while running standard plays that avoided anything too
complicated. Given his level of poise in perhaps college football's
most hostile environment, it's hard to believe that he wasn't ready
to make the easy throws the Cardinal so desperately needed earlier
in the season. For Stanford's sake, though, it's better late than never as far as
Hogan is concerned -- though never late would have been better.
Shaw's club rode his 12-of-13, 94-yard start to a 7-0, tone-setting
lead. Michael Clay's crushing hit then knocked No. 8 out of his
rhythm in the second quarter, as he completed only three of his next
10 passes. The Cardinal offense stalled after Hogan's poor throw to
Ryan Hewitt's feet foiled Shaw's brilliant
fourth down play-action call, but Luck's successor ultimately bounced back.
His fantastic rapport with Zach Ertz, who caught a career-high 11
catches for 106 yards following the passing of his grandmother,
fueled two effective fourth quarter drives against Oregon's
worn-down defense. In equal parts, it was Stepfan Taylor's
33-carry, 169-yard performance and an effective Stanford sideline
screen game that stretched Oregon laterally that gassed the Ducks. With 1:35 left, the
fade finally worked: instead of dialing the play up to Toilolo (an
ineffective strategy in the past), Pep Hamilton set Hogan up with
Ertz, and the Cardinal tied the game at 14.
The Polish Rifle: Difference Maker
Special teams, though, delivered the dagger. Stanford and Oregon
were extremely evenly matched in total yardage: the Farm Boys
outgained the Ducks 411-405; 200-198 in the rushing category and
211-207 in the passing game.
Three seemingly devastating Cardinal turnovers broke this deadlock, however, (and a potential fourth
was avoided when Khalil Wilkes miraculously recovered Hogan's fumble
"You know what's funny," Shaw said afterward, "We cut down on
turnovers, this might not be a close game."
work of Stanford's specialists, particularly punter Daniel
Zychlinksi, nullified any Ducks' post-turnover advantage. The Polish rifle delivered boots of 62 and 55 yards. His
punts set the Cardinal defense up for its unprecedented success:
five of six pinned Oregon inside its own 20-yard line.
Of course, Williamson delivered the actual kill, sending
shockwaves through the entire BCS landscape with the game-clinching
37-yard boot that hit the mute button on Autzen Stadium. Stanford,
in its trek to maintain elite college football glory, had
shifted its reliance from the shoulders of Andrew Luck to a heroic
defense. Fittingly, a man
who had come full circle himself completed this journey. Aside from cementing the
Cardinal's place in the top tier of college football, Williamson's
kick exorcised the demons that had been haunting him ever since
January's Fiesta Bowl.
Call it killing two birds -- and a few Ducks -- with one kick.
David Lombardi covers Stanford
sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard
on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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