Something strange happened to Stanford on the way to flexing its muscle and piling up 246 yards of total offense in the first half Saturday night against Oregon.
The Cardinal never held the lead.
That’s a problem against the Ducks.
A very bad problem.
Trail for long and the chances of catching up are about as good as keeping Phil Knight out of the Duck locker room.
And so it went Saturday night as No. 6-ranked Oregon clobbered No. 3 Stanford 53-30, inching closer to a third consecutive Pac-12 championship and re-establishing itself as a BCS title contender in the process.
And, oh, giving a nod to speed over brawn on the football field.
“With a team like Oregon, when they get a lead, that’s what they’re built for,” a subdued Stanford head coach David Shaw told reporters.
“If Oregon doesn’t turn the ball over against LSU, maybe they’re ranked No. 1 right now.”
It’s hard not to feel a bit for Shaw. By all accounts, he’s a nice guy and a good coach. He had dreams — as his players and staff did — of winning the league title in his first season on the Farm and reaching the national championship game.
Then Oregon showed up and reminded everyone who the real king is in the Pac-12.
You knew going into Saturday’s showdown that was a source of motivation for the Ducks.
Though Stanford came in just a three-point favorite, many expected the night in Palo Alto to end with quarterback Andrew Luck locking up the Heisman Trophy and the Cardinal extending their nationwide winning streak to 18 games while making a strong case for a BCS title shot. The Ducks and their speedy skill players would put up a fight, the thinking went, but Stanford’s was too beefy and too powerful and would eventually wear down the visitors from Eugene.
The fact Oregon had reeled off eight straight victories after losing the season opener to No. 1 LSU and was riding its own 19-game conference win streak was seemingly lost in all the hoopla.
So, too, was the Ducks’ 52-31 triumph over the Cardinal last season at Autzen.
“They always look down on us and then we come out and just play our game,” a beaming Oregon defensive end Terrell Turner said afterwards.
As so often happens with Duck opponents, Stanford’s ultimate undoing came early.
They fell behind.
Under pressure from the UO defense — as he would be for much of the game — Luck threw an ill-advised pass that linebacker Dewitt Stuckey intercepted and returned to the Stanford 20.
Five plays later, Oregon was in the end zone on a 4-yard pass from Darron Thomas to Lavasier Tuinei. When a successful trick two-point conversion followed to make the score 8-0 — a lead the Ducks would never relinquish — one could sense the Ducks were dialed in and unlikely to let up.
Over the next six minutes or so, the Cardinal did what they do best: Play smash-mouth football. Behind their mammoth line and running back Stepfan Taylor, they marched 78 yards in 13 plays, scoring on a Luck-to-Griff Whalen pass but missing the extra point.
But the drive also provided a glimpse at why Stanford was doomed on this night. It could score but it wasn’t explosive enough, quick enough, to keep within range of the fast-striking Ducks.
Just two minutes, 2 seconds after the Cardinal score, Oregon’s LaMichael James took a handoff from Thomas and bolted untouched 58 yards for a TD and a 15-6 lead.
While it was James who scored on the play, it could have been De’Anthony Thomas or Kenjon Barner or Josh Huff or David Paulson or Darron Thomas or any of Oregon’s other skill players.
It didn’t much matter.
By the middle of the second quarter, untracked and in rhythm, the Ducks’ no-huddle spread offense was getting its athletes in space where they could do serious damage against the slower Cardinal.
At the same time, an aggressive Oregon defense was disrupting Luck’s timing and reads. He would throw two interceptions and fumble the ball away — the Cardinal had five turnovers — and get sacked three times.
Stanford stayed within reach for awhile, answering the James’ TD with a field goal and a De’Anthony Thomas 41-yard pass reception for a score with another long drive and a TD. At half, it was 22-16 Ducks.
But it was clear Luck and Co., barring a flurry of turnovers by Oregon, was in deep trouble.
Both James, on the way to his own Heisman-like night with 146 yards rushing on 20 carries, and Darron Thomas had found their comfort levels.
When Huff hauled in a Thomas throw early in the third and weaved his way to the end zone to put Oregon up 29-16, the Cardinal faithful fell silent and reflective.
They knew what was at hand.
It wasn’t their game.
They would never catch up.