Overcoming a brilliant performance by quarterback Justin Herbert, Stanford hung around long enough for Oregon to shoot itself in the foot and give up a huge lead in the second half, allowing the Cardinal to get a field goal at the gun to tie the game and send it to overtime when they won the football game 38-31.
All that seemed easy for Stanford compared to the rest of the game.
The Pac-12 officials had a heavy police escort leaving the field, and were thoroughly acknowledged by outraged fans. We can argue about bad officiating but, in this case, the biggest issue seemed to be inconsistency. Such as whether to call pass interference on the hand fighting that goes on between receivers and defensive backs.
At least Duck fans were able to see that their team may be a worthy contender in the Pac-12 Northern Division except for an inability to get pressure on the quarterback when needed, and a porous pass defense, particularly on long passes, just like in the San Jose State game last week.
Oregon coach Mario Cristobal was guilty of some clock mismanagement late that very well may have cost the Ducks the game, so everyone had a hand in this setback.
It looked like the defensive front wore out in the second half and was shocked when the offense handed the Cardinal the ball and six points after a bad snap on a play from Stanford’s 1-yard line. It was high and hard, over Herbert’s head. He got his hands on it, but deflected it backward where a hustling Cardinal defender scooped it up and ran 80 yards for a score. It brings up the concept that maybe the quarterback should be taking a snap from under center on the goal line.
The game went from a review reversal of a touchdown by the Ducks the play before, which would have made the score 31-7, and instead it was 24-14 and the Cardinal quarterback got hot against an outmatched secondary. Oregon simply did not have a big-play player in the secondary, corner or safety.
Later, Oregon coaches made an adjustment, going to a two-deep, which put two safeties in position to help their bewildered corners on deep routes. Trouble was, Stanford’s receivers and passing game were better than the shaky defense the Ducks put on the field.
The pass rush, which was strong in the first half, was nullified as the game wore on, when they needed to make a play because it wasn’t going to be made by a defensive back. The d-backs stay in their back-pedal too long and can’t make the transition when the receiver goes deep. Both corners do it, so the suspicion is that it is being taught.
On the first play of the game, Herbert dropped to pass and hit Dillon Mitchell for eight yards. The crowd went wild; it was the first game in four that a receiver didn’t drop the first pass of the game. Then followed a fusillade of completed passes: 12 for 13, 170 yards and a touchdown, sparking the Ducks to a 24-7 halftime lead.
Oregon’s defense, playing disciplined gap control, dominated Stanford. It allowed only 22 yards rushing and a mere 41 first-half yards to Stanford’s great running back, Bryce Love. His his longest gain was 11 yards.
Cristobal’s offensive line finally looked physical, pushing the Cardinal defense back several times in gaining 134 yards in the first two quarters. The scoreboard showed the Ducks with a shocking 304 yards total offense and the Cardinal with only 136.
Oregon’s front seven held Love to only 87 yards on 18 carries for the game, certainly good enough to beat the Cardinal if everyone else did their job. Unfortunately, the defensive secondary was outplayed by quarterback KJ Costello and his variety of receivers, both big and huge, who held a definite physical advantage over the Ducks.
The Oregon offense looked incredibly sharp in the first half, scoring on every one of five possessions. In the second half, there were two fumbles, including one with less than a minute to go. Stanford hit three passes and successfully tied the game as the gun went off. The crowd that was loud and raucous the whole game was suddenly shocked. The Ducks had a 31-21 lead with 4:39 to go in the game and choked it away.
The fumble on the 1-yard line should start the debate about having the quarterback under center and not in the shotgun so close to the goal line. Actually, the quarterback is five yards behind the center, so the start of the play is not the 1-yard line but the 6-yard line. The Ducks’ failure was pathetic and undermined an effort that was inspired and fierce.
Cristobal had to be satisfied with some of the physical play of his offensive line as the Ducks were able to outrush a very physical Stanford team, 178 yards to 69. The defense also had a couple of great physical performances stopping Love and Stanford on two fourth-and-1 run situations — there was some great pursuit and tackling put on the Cardinal, from a very good run defense.
Fans should be disappointed in the outcome, but can appreciate an excellent effort from the Duck receivers and Herbert’s performance, which until the very end was outstanding. Dillon Mitchell, wide receiver, had a great day, hauling in 14 catches for 239 yards, with a long of 53 yards. All Duck receivers were markedly more focused than in the previous three games.
Freshman CJ Verdell was the outstanding rusher for the Ducks gaining 115 yards, a long of 48 and you had to wonder where he went in the second half as frosh Travis Dye came in when it seemed that a bigger, more physical back was needed. Tony Brooks-James had only six carries for 27 yards.
So the Ducks looked like true contenders in the first half. In the second, they played like a lower-tier team. There are bright spots to be sure, but there are also some obvious weaknesses that may or may not be able to be corrected. But no one can bemoan the effort of Cristobal’s team, they left it all on the field.
Next week, Oregon plays the Cal Bears in the Bay. Don’t be surprised if the Bears are favored, it’s nothing personal.