Lies, Damned Lies, and Stanford Narratives


Craig Strobeck

The Spread Offense will never work.  Stanford’s win over Oregon was clearly evidence of that.  “Power Football” will always trump speed and innovation.  So give up Ducks, old-school football has and will always prevail.

This is the narrative that emerges following seemingly every Oregon loss.  When Oregon loses, the argument never seems to be that Oregon with its quality athletes lined up against another team with quality athletes, and the other team prevailed by outplaying them in a particular game.  No, each loss has to serve as evidence that Oregon’s system is a gimmick, and that despite only five losses in the past four seasons, or the fact that over half the teams in college football use some variation of the Spread Offense, there is the prevailing sentiment that soon this will all pass.

I’ve never understood the obsession from those trying to “disprove” the effectiveness of an innovative brand of football as a means to validate a conventional method of play.  Why is it fun to advocate against innovation?  And how idiotic is it to assume that only one system can prevail as effective?

For whatever reason, Oregon has become the face of those who hate the Spread, or other offenses that use speed, and have their critics agendize every one of their losses to a team like Stanford as proof of the offense’s shortcomings, yet when Stanford loses to Spread teams like Utah or Washington, it is blamed on a multitude of reasons, none of which are ever the system it runs.

Yet that isn’t the only myth that has to be debunked following Oregon’s loss to Stanford.  Here are three more prevailing sentiments that have emerged, that need to be dispelled:

1)    Stanford is the Best Team in West

Brian Jackson tackles Tyler Gaffney

Craig Strobeck

Brian Jackson tackles Tyler Gaffney.

The Stanford “best in the west” narrative was the one most of the national writers chose to pull out of Thursday’s game.  It was a fun angle to take; no Pac-12 team had defeated Oregon two years in a row since Cal in 2007-08, the last of which coincided with the last season Oregon did not play in a BCS bowl game.

Yes, at present, Stanford appears to have Oregon’s number, but the “best in the west” narrative is a little thin.  This season alone, Stanford lost to Utah, needed help to beat Washington, didn’t close well against Arizona State (and for that matter, Oregon, too), and struggled against Oregon State and even Army.  That’s a lot of games to have suspect play to be dubbed “best in the west.”  Typically, elite teams aren’t struggling to win two-thirds of their games.

At present, the Cardinal are a bad matchup for one of the conference’s perennial powerhouses.  They’ve also  lost to a six-loss team for two consecutive seasons (we’ll pencil Utah in as one, which they will be if they lose to Oregon on Saturday), while the Ducks haven’t lost to a team that finished with six losses since 2007.

To be an elite program, a team needs to play well every week.  Instead, Stanford’s model is playing one-game seasons, saving their energy for their biggest matchups while playing to level of their competition during the remaining weeks.  This is best exemplified by Stanford’s quarterback Kevin Hogan, who was 8-of-18 for 88 yards passing against Oregon State, a defense that gave up 411 yards passing to an FCS quarterback, suddenly turning into an elite quarterback as soon as he sees the Ducks across the line from him.

Stanford is not an elite program; their success against Oregon has come by making the Ducks their sole focus, they lack the power to be relevant on a national level.  They remind me of another upstart program who was once regularly on the top of the conference a few years ago, who also made a rival the sole focus of their seasons . . .

2) Stanford is Here to Stay (Actually, 2010s Stanford is more like late-90s/early-00s WSU)

Kevin Hogan getting knocked around by the Derrick Malone

Craig Strobeck

Kevin Hogan getting knocked around by Derrick Malone.

While seemingly everyone wants to paint Stanford as a new brand of West Coast elite, evidence that “power football” trumps all, and evidence of the sustainability of Stanford’s program, there are many parallels to draw between Stanford’s current run and that of Washington State in the late-1990s/early-2000s.

Both programs are constantly hounded by questions of whether they could sustain their success given the natural obstacles to doing so.  For Washington State, geography; for Stanford, it was academic hurdles.

Yet the most evident parallels for the two programs are in how they approach their seasons.  For Washington State, whose rise coincided with a slide in rival Washington, the culture of their program never shifted beyond defining its success by a single game; whether or not they won the Apple Cup.  For Stanford, it approaches the season the same way – it lacks the focus to be great week-in and week-out, but it has talented enough players to focus on big games.

A program can win conference championships that way, it can be highly ranked that way, but it will never sustain itself without bigger dreams.

Two ingredients contributed to an eventual decline at WSU: the loss of coaches who helped the program rise, and shifting its recruiting focus from the two- and three-star recruits who built up the program, to swinging and missing on recruiting four- and five-star recruits instead.  Stanford has done the same with its recruiting, but will it be able to sustain that model?  It seems to think so, which we will find out the probability of, given that there are about 124 other schools that would like to recruit top-tier athletes with excellent academics as well.

As for the coaches, David Shaw has been inquired about by NFL teams (I’m sure a third-consecutive BCS bowl will quiet those rumblings) and defensive coordinator Derek “no, not the receiver for the Titans and Ravens” Mason, is one of the hottest names amongst assistant coaches in college football.  How much coaching attrition can Stanford sustain?  That will be the difference of whether or not the Cardinal go the way of the Cougars.

3)    This is a Program-Defining Loss for Oregon

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

Craig Strobeck

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu “intercepts,” in what should have been a huge momentum change.

I heard from many Duck fans that this was the toughest loss to watch since Boise State in 2009, which is fitting because what that game was to Chip Kelly, Thursday’s game was for Mark Helfrich.  While Helfrich’s experience came in his ninth game, and not his very first, it was still his first game against a top-five opponent, as a head coach.  (Even though Boise was ranked 14th at the time of the matchup, they would finish undefeated and ranked fourth in the nation.)

Both 2009 Boise State and 2013 Stanford were similar in that each time, the opponent managed to steal a win at Autzen Stadium as a heavy underdog the year previous, only to win the following year at home by dominating the game on both sides of the line.

Maybe all it takes is a punch in the mouth to realize what it takes to succeed.  Having a stocked cupboard is important, but learning to be a head coach isn’t an automatic process.  Chip Kelly would also lose his first game to Stanford, too; yet the following year, he led the Ducks to a big win over Stanford en route to an appearance in the National Championship Game.

Here’s hoping the same holds true for Helfrich and the Ducks.  This won’t be a loss that defines them, it will be one that strengthens them going forward.

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Nathan Roholt

Nathan Roholt

Nathan Roholt is a senior writer and managing editor emeritus for FishDuck. Follow him on Twitter @nathanroholt. Send questions/feedback/hatemail to

  • Harold Frishna

    sour grapes.

    • Jim

      Harry, you didn’t use that phrase correctly.

      None the less, I sense a smidge of author bitterness. We got got beat, time to move on

  • gt85

    Wow, a little bitter? I’m a Stanford fan, and I agree with everything you have to say about Oregon. The last two games were not an indictment of the Duck’s program, and I even think that if the teams played ten times this year, they would probably go about 5-5. (I’ll even admit last year it probably would have been something like 8-2 for Oregon). But your claims about Stanford are nothing more than an emotional explosion that flies in the face of all relevant evidence.

    “Stanford is not an elite program; their success against Oregon has come
    by making the Ducks their sole focus, they lack the power to be relevant
    on a national level.” Stanford rose to its current level of prominence in 2010. Here are the best records in college football since then: (1)(T) Alabama 44-5, (1)(T) Oregon 44-5, (3) Stanford 43-6, (4) Boise 41-7, (5) LSU 41-9. During that stretch Stanford is 9-4 vs top 15 teams and 16-4 vs ranked opponents. They’ve sent players to New York 3 times, had a large number of players
    drafted, and had multiple consensus all-americans each year. They won two BCS bowls and lost another by a missed FG. That doesn’t seem like a team that “makes the ducks their sole focus.” There are exactly two teams who have had comparable success in that time period, and Stanford has taken 3 of 5 from one of them (namely your ducks) during that program’s golden era. So Alabama trumps Stanford – I guess they aren’t an elite program, since there seems to only be one of those in your book.

    Your take on recruiting is also a bit funny. You point out that Washington State started “swinging and missing” on 4/5 star recruits – Stanford has swung and hit consistently, and the current class looks like it might shape up to be the best yet. Sorry to say it, but your ducks are going to face a talented Stanford squad each year moving forward.

    The fact is that there are two elite programs in the Pac 12. You are in denial.

    • oregon111

      uh, how about a little bit of ‘reality’…

      your Stanford O-line & front 7 on D are G R E A T,
      and that is why you beat us twice,
      but you lose all but 2 of those guys… (seniors)

      next year, you will be back to being stanford — a middle of the pack team with a hipster douche band who can have a great game

      I think this article was a bit harsh –> you guys are more like washington than washington state…

      but the reality is — year in and year out — you should not even be as good as Cal

      Boise St had its run and has since faded on the national scene as you will too next year — enjoy it while it lasts

      • Go Stanford

        We list our players by academic year and not eligibility like most schools. We aren’t losing what you think we are losing – beyond that we play up to 9 linemen on one play…you watched the game didn’t you? That is experience – that is depth.

  • Mark A.

    As a Duck fan, and one that has gone through puberty…I’d just like to say to all Stanford fans that your team is outstanding. Oregon fans want to the deal ‘what if’ but not grant you the same courtesy when it comes to the Utah game. You’re a fine team and you represent the Pac well. Go Ducks!

  • BF

    As a Stanford fan, I was looking forward to the possibility of a Stanford Rose Bowl and Oregon National Championship series in January, as forecast by Bleacher Report. The part of that scenario I had the least confidence in was the Stanford Rose Bowl appearance (even Stanford fans were drinking the OR Kool-aid). But Oregon is not and never has been Stanford’s sole focus. USC has always been a big rivalry, and then there is the Big Game. UCLA and WA are high on the list as well. We’ve got a great conference. No one team will ever dominate for long. My only regret is that because of the unfortunate political move that put Stanford in the Northern Division, instead of its logical place in the South, there can be no rematch between OR and Stanford this year. That would be a great game.

  • oregon111

    Alright.. I watched the replay => now check this out..

    i got a should-uv been score of Ducks 36, Stan 16 — here’s how

    picky call on the int, should not have been called,
    third duck knocks other 2 ducks off of stan QB — would be 4th down deep inside their own territory

    Ok, that takes 10 off the Stanford scoreboard

    MM should have thrown the ball a little deeper (maybe 2 inches?) and Ducks get a TD — Ducks + 7 or +3

    DAT fumble — take that off for another Ducks TD + 7 or +3

    dumby 4th and goal (2nd possession) kick the FG + 3

    MM fumble (the one with 5 guys on his back) — toss it incomplete & kick a fg + 3

    so I will average out 1 extra td and 3 extra fg for + 16 points

    which makes my score ducks 36 and stanford 16

    people: only a handful plays in that long game turned it from 36 – 16 win to a 26 – 20 loss

    bottom line: refs helped ST, but ST played like they wanted it more, Ducks played a little too timid


    Well I will admit I was really ticked off, and NO excuses from the Duck’s, they lost, but there was some good reasons for the Loss, 1st Coach’s had a week and a half to prepare and they really didn’t do anything different when they new this would be their Biggest Test on their schedule and I find this quite disturbing by Oregon’s staff. This should of been the year Oregon actually beat Stanford with our Defense having the Superior Line Play and Our backfield play and not to mention Stanford is 1 Dimensional on Offense, they are then and they still are now. Yet Nic Aliotti refused to come out with a 4 man or even a 5 man defensive front and play straight up man coverage with two of the BEST in IFO and Mitchell on the Corners, something that Aliotti used to regularly ask his corners to do for many years at Oregon and here he had his BEST 2, and He played that 3-4 Defense the whole Game and refused to even change up at the Half. Coaching Cost this Team this Game period, even though the Line SUCKED again, the Offense still was in the RED ZONE 3 times yet failed to come away with points, and If Helfrich just kicks 3 times and these were Chip shots even if it was Maldonado he probably makes them because the ones he’s missed were from 30 yards or further, and we lost by 6, we lost to Auburn by 2 and If everyone remembers Chip on 1st and Goal kept running right at Nic Fairly, and when it was 4th and Goal, instead of just taking the points, He went for it and lost, or we’d already have that stinking trophy and History is different at Oregon, So I ask why are Oregon’s Coach’s so against taking easy points that win Games, because I said Marc would be different, well I was wrong and its not like Stanford has ever just Blown us out, So please tell your players such as Huff and Dat that the Rose Bowl are very Important Games and all Players from here on out are not allowed to talk to the Media.