In the game of football, it only takes a few seconds for euphoria to turn into tragedy. Just ask Oregon, who experienced this firsthand last Saturday in an instant classic.
With 2:22 left in a wild fourth quarter against Stanford, the Ducks were reeling. After Oregon surrendered a 17-point lead that should have been even greater, the Cardinal were firing on all cylinders. KJ Costello looked like a young Peyton Manning, firing strikes all over the field to his super-sized squad of receivers. On the flip side, the Ducks’ offense began to shrink under the bright lights, and the once gaping holes in the Cardinal defense were replaced by smothering coverage and overwhelming penetration.
Oregon was left clinging to a three-point lead that assuredly wouldn’t hold up against the charging Cardinal. With an impending third down and way too much time on the clock for another Stanford scoring drive, there was an angst in Autzen Stadium that hadn’t been felt all game.
But then, with their backs against the wall, the Ducks threw what looked to be a knockout punch.
Offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo made a play call for the ages, as Justin Herbert faked a handoff and dealt a punishing blow to an overly aggressive Cardinal defense. The result was a seven-yard rush that all but assured the Ducks would complete the upset. The stadium roared in exuberance, the Ducks’ bench came alive, and even the mild-mannered Herbert couldn’t help but display his excitement at the apparent nail in the coffin.
That joy soon faded into anguish.
By now, everyone knows the story. With less than a minute to go, the Ducks fumbled and the Cardinal scored a tying field goal. The Cardinal then stunned the Ducks with a 38-31 overtime win. It was an improbable victory that at times rivaled the impossible, but the Cardinal once again managed to defeat the Ducks in dramatic fashion.
Of all the losses the Ducks have suffered over the years, this one is particularly difficult to swallow. The Ducks not only outplayed the favored Cardinal, but the vast majority of the game wasn’t even competitive. Stanford was in danger of getting run out of the stadium, as the Ducks moved the ball up and down the field with ease and smothered highly decorated running back Bryce Love all game long.
What initially looked to be a statement win for the Ducks ended up as one of the biggest collapses in recent memory.
Such a heartbreaking performance can absolutely devastate a team, especially in a game of this magnitude. It’s clear that the Ducks had been gearing up all off-season for this game, and to play as well as they did and still fall flat is undoubtedly discouraging.
Unfortunately, 24th-ranked Cal won’t be sending them sympathy cards any time soon. The Ducks will need to take their medicine and move on, because their next opponent is in the perfect position to knock off the former conference heavyweights.
Cal is Ready to Spring the Upset
If there were a prototype for the worst possible opponent to face after a physically and mentally draining performance, the Golden Bears would be it. Cal is a hungry, disciplined and laser-focused team. In the process of their own pushover-to-powerhouse transformation, the Golden Bears are building a foundation that leads to sustained success.
That success starts with defense-minded head coach Justin Wilcox. During his time in Madison as a defensive coordinator, Wilcox helped the Wisconsin defense become one of the most fearsome units in the country. Unsurprisingly, under Wilcox, the Cal defense has morphed from the worst defense in the conference to one of the country’s stingiest. Now, the Golden Bears have the 16th-ranked unit in yards allowed, holding opponents to just over 300 per game.
They’re not pretty, but the Golden Bears are a well-coached team that drags each opponent into a dogfight, in keeping with their gritty style. They’ve already won a big-time game on the road against BYU, who went on to beat Wilcox’s former team in one of the biggest upsets of the season.
Now with the Ducks in their sights, and vaulting into the AP poll, the Golden Bears have their own opportunity to earn a program-defining win in front of their home crowd. Furthermore, the Ducks spoiled Wilcox’s trip to Autzen last season with a 45-24 trouncing, in which the Ducks ran wild on the overmatched Cal defense.
With a capable offense and much improved defense, as well as revenge and a statement win in mind, Cal could make it tricky to pull off a win.
All is Not Lost For the Ducks
It’s always difficult to get off the mat after an emotional loss, but the Ducks are going have to pick themselves up and bounce back tomorrow night. As tough a loss as last Saturday’s defeat was, they still have a lot to play for. They have a legitimate shot at a division title, as their primary challengers look far from unbeatable.
Couple that with another chance at a signature win in a couple of weeks against Washington, and all of the Ducks’ goals are still very much attainable.
More importantly, the Ducks showed, even in their loss, that they are well equipped to compete with the best the country has to offer. If anything, their performance against Stanford raised expectations, and with those expectations comes pressure to perform week in and week out.
Ultimately, the Ducks won’t be defined by their loss to the Cardinal, but rather by their response to it. This week’s game is the perfect opportunity for them to learn from their mistakes and win in a difficult road environment against a ranked team.
But if they let the sting of their defeat linger, they could find themselves staring at an 0-2 conference record and a restless fan base.
It’s clear that the Ducks were ready to perform in their biggest game of the season so far. But can they follow it up, and this time, finish with a win? Tomorrow night, we’ll have our answer.
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by Kevin Cline
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