STANFORD, Calif. – For obvious reasons, there was no talk of titles -- national, Pac-12 or otherwise -- from the Oregon side following Stanford’s 26-20 victory over the Ducks Thursday night.
That Stanford won isn’t/shouldn’t be considered shocking. That Oregon was scoreless through three quarters might be. That the Ducks stormed back for 20 points in the fourth quarter in only an eight-minute span makes perfect sense.
And the Pac-12 has again dragged itself into November chaos. That's par for the course.
Heading into Thursday night’s showdown, the No. 3 Ducks represented the Pac-12’s best chance for a national championship. A victory over No. 5 Stanford would have almost guaranteed they’d jump Florida State in the BCS standings and put them back in the No. 2 spot. From there, it was as simple case of winning out and advancing to the title game.
But for the second year in a row, the Ducks' BCS title hopes were severely wounded at the hands of a Stanford defense that was dominant on the line of scrimmage and an offense that jack-hammered its way up and down the field.
“Any loss is disappointing,” said Oregon first-year coach Mark Helfrich. “Where we’ve put ourselves and where our players have put ourselves, it’s obviously magnified. … We don’t hold the cards anymore, but we never hold the cards. We have to come back, prepare and get ready for whoever is next.”
And next is Utah -- the team that could ultimately go down as the fly in the Pac-12’s title ointment after it knocked off Stanford in Salt Lake City last month.
The Cardinal seized control of the Pac-12 North. With victories over USC and California, the Cardinals would again represent the North Division in the Pac-12 championship game. Their regular-season finale against Notre Dame also takes on a greater importance when considering the BCS landscape.
The Cardinal still need some help if they hope to get into one of the top two spots in the BCS rankings. Florida State, Alabama and Ohio State are all undefeated. And the chances of a one-loss team -- even one with a résumé as impressive as Stanford’s -- making that kind of jump seems improbable. There is obviously much football to be played. But for now, 2013 projects to play out much like 2012. If the Cardinal win out, they’ll likely go to another Rose Bowl and a one-loss Oregon team should find its way into a BCS game as an at-large team.
But that’s a lot of ifs.
“You know, it’s November. It’s November,” said Stanford coach David Shaw. “We talked as a team about [how] it’s time to play our best football. No one has seen our best football, and that’s including us. Tonight was about three and three quarters of it, and that’s what we talk about. We can’t be satisfied. We can’t be satisfied with how we finished the game. I’m not happy about it one bit. We can’t be satisfied with one win. We’ve got to win in November. We’ve got a tough game next week against an outstanding USC team that’s playing great and we’ve got to be ready to roll.”
For the Ducks, there is plenty to lament in a game accented by turnovers and missed opportunities. Twice Oregon advanced inside the Stanford 5-yard line and twice they were turned away. Both failures led to 96-yard scoring drives by the Cardinal.
And then there was the issue of Marcus Mariota’s injured knee. Reports started to circulate just before kickoff that he had a sprained MCL, and the coach and quarterback tip-toed around the issue during the postgame non-festivities.
“It is what it is,” Mariota said. “It’s a little banged up, but it’s nothing too extraordinary. We’re just going to take it and get healthy and I’ll be ready next week.”
Asked if he thought Mariota’s knee was bothering him, Helfrich said: “I don’t know. Everybody’s banged up this time of the year.”
“We don’t concede points,” said Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov, who made 10 tackles and forced a pair of fumbles. “People can write what they want to and say what they want. But what counts is the guys that take that field. Eleven guys on offense take the field and 11 guys on defense. What happens between the lines is dictated by us. That’s the only thing we can control and that’s how we play.”
In the national picture, Oregon’s loss feels more significant than Stanford’s win because it takes another undefeated team off the board. But in the Stanford locker room, where things were far more festive, this victory sends a message that Stanford’s sustained success is not by coincidence.
“It’s huge,” said running back Tyler Gaffney, who rushed for 157 yards and a touchdown on a school-record 45 carries. “I think the whole nation knows, and us especially, that this is a play-in game for the Pac-12 North. To be able to win the Pac-12 championship, you have to go through Oregon or you have to go through us. That is the mentality.”