There are losses, there are bad losses, and then there’s this.
This was like having your soul sucked out through a straw and run through a blender. Or losing your job, getting your email hacked and passing a kidney stone in the same day.
This was every bad thing that could happen, cued up and condensed into a slow-motion horror show. Like any good horror story, it started so perfectly: with Oregon running all over Stanford, looking once again like a team to be feared.
And like any good horror story, it ended with a gory twist. The Ducks fumbled while trying to run out the clock, allowing Stanford to drive for a game-tying field goal. In overtime, the Cardinal intercepted Justin Herbert’s fourth-down pass to seal a 38-31 victory.
“We kind of did everything we could to just give Stanford the game,” Herbert said.
As fans rained boos and debris from the stands and the Cardinal rushed the field in a delirious mob, the Ducks stood with vacant stares, their disbelief best summarized by an anguished question from an unnamed player.
“What the (heck) just happened?”
If you want to torture a football coach, tie him to a chair and force him to watch Oregon’s collapse. Force him to watch the overturned touchdown that would have put the Ducks on top 31-7, followed by Stanford’s 80-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
Force him to watch CJ Verdell straining for extra yards with 51 seconds remaining, the ball hanging precariously from his arm. Force him to watch the totally predictable collapse that followed: the Stanford field goal with no time on the clock, the touchdown pass on the second play of overtime, the tipped ball that settled in the arms of Stanford’s Alameen Murphy to end the game.
For Mario Cristobal, it adds up to a defining moment five games into his tenure as Oregon’s head coach. There’s no doubt Cristobal has made Oregon a tougher football team in a physical sense. That was apparent on multiple occasions Saturday night, as the Ducks outdid Stanford at many of the things Stanford does best.
The toughness Oregon needs now is all between the ears. We know the Ducks can get a fourth-down stop and pile-drive a defensive line. We don’t know if they can recover from a loss like this.
Responding to adversity is a fundamental part of football, just like blocking and tackling. The Ducks thought they were ready for that, but they weren’t.
“All week long we stressed the fact that we were prepared to take on any difficult situation, that we had worked hard enough to overcome any bad play,” Cristobal said.
If it had been one bad play, the Ducks could have survived it. But they couldn’t overcome what happened Saturday night, which was a cascade of errors leading to a devastating loss.
You can start with Jaylon Redd appearing to put the game out reach with a touchdown run late in the third quarter. Officials reviewed the play, however, and ruled the ball was short of the goal line when Redd’s foot hit the pylon, resulting in first-and-goal at the 1-yard line.
For those unfamiliar with Section 2, Article 1(c) of the college football rulebook, apparently the pylon is out of bounds. That rule isn’t common knowledge for the average fan, but with Oregon’s help, that technicality turned a blowout into a white-knuckle struggle for survival.
Cristobal will be criticized for not taking a knee in the final minute, when Stanford was down to a final timeout and the Ducks had second-and-3 near midfield. I get the frustration, but his rationale — that Oregon wanted to end the game with a first down rather than risk something going wrong with a punt — isn’t unreasonable.
The bigger failure was in not preparing Verdell for the situation. With 51 seconds remaining, there was no need to push through the pile for extra yards. Ball-security should have been the top priority, not the first down.
The Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, usually buzzing after a game, felt like a morgue Saturday night. Everything was dead quiet except for the occasional sound of slamming doors and shouted profanities.
You don’t walk away from a loss like this without some psychological scars. The closest parallel I can draw is the 2015 Alamo Bowl, a game Oregon led 31-0 at halftime before losing to TCU in triple overtime.
I remember wondering then if Mark Helfrich’s program would recover. It seemed like a crazy question — the Ducks had played for a national title the previous year — but it became weirdly prophetic when the program unraveled in 2016.
I’m not saying Saturday’s loss will have the same consequences for Cristobal, but it’s the kind of collapse that’s hard to scrub away. We’re going to find out pretty quickly what the Ducks are made of, and whether Cristobal has what it takes to rally a heartbroken team.
All this time we were talking about toughness, thinking Stanford would be the ultimate test. It turns out the real test is what happens next.