May 8, 2016
If you have been following my attempt to document my favorite Stanford football games of the last four years (and thanks for reading!), you probably noticed that one particular opponent has remained conspicuously absent thus far. In this final installment of the three-part series, I’ll try to remedy this gaping, duck-shaped hole in the top 10 list by focusing on two of the most remarkable games in the program’s history.
When the Class of 2016 first came to campus back in the fall of 2012, Stanford was in the midst of an Oregon crisis. In each of the previous two years, the Cardinal had fallen one game short of a perfect regular season at the hands of two dominating Oregon performances. Headlined by Andrew Luck and a number of other NFL regulars, those 2010 and 2011 Stanford teams were legitimate threats to play in the national championship game, and they probably would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for that meddling Chip Kelly and his army of neon-green blurs.
For as good as they had been since the turn of the decade, the Cardinal had a legitimacy problem. Was Oregon proof that there was a ceiling on how good Stanford football could be? With Luck gone and the influence of Jim Harbaugh rapidly fading, was Stanford’s brush with the big boys officially done?
With those questions in mind, we set the stage for the two cataclysmic tilts between Stanford and Oregon that shaped the balance of power in the Pac-12, the national title chase and the very course of football on The Farm.
2. Stanford 17, Oregon 14 (2012)
When it comes to predicting major Stanford football games, I tend to be quite pessimistic, but there’s a major difference between feeling uneasy about a game and not being able to envision a scenario in which Stanford could win that doesn’t involve natural disasters or unicorns. Heading into a pivotal road matchup with No. 2 Oregon in Autzen Stadium, a venue that had grown accustomed to public slaughterings of helpless Pac-12 opponents for amusement, I gave Stanford absolutely no chance of competing.
If playing against what many considered the best team in college football wasn’t enough of a deterrent to optimism, there was also the fact that David Shaw was throwing out a quarterback (by the name of Kevin Hogan) who had never started a road game right into the teeth of the beast. To my credit, I did make a (somewhat morbid) version of the game “Hangman” for a computer science class that featured Puddles the Duck on the noose. But, if I’m being honest, that was more wishful thinking than a prediction with any sort of conviction.
The game itself was a defensive masterpiece. After two years of being steamrolled, many openly wondered if the Cardinal were fast enough to keep up with Oregon’s track stars, schematically sound enough to stop the zone read or deep enough to do it again and again for four quarters.
But on that rainy day in Autzen Stadium, defensive coordinator Derek Mason and his boys put it all together in what has to be the best defensive performance I’ve ever seen. Future Heisman winner Marcus Mariota was rendered a mere mortal; Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas were equally stymied. When it was all said and done, the Cardinal held an offense that averaged nearly 50 points per game that season to 14. From front to back, the Stanford defense pitched a perfect game and tackled and tackled. Then tackled some more.
When looking back on that rainy night in Eugene, it’s the individual plays decided on the narrowest of margins that will always stand out the most to me. This game saw Stanford get the Oregon monkey off its back and build valuable momentum that still fuels the program in part. All of it could have easily never happened, though, if Devon Carrington hadn’t chased down Mariota to save a touchdown, Zach Ertz hadn’t stayed in bounds while juggling the eventual game-tying catch, Hogan’s overtime fumble hadn’t bounced just the right way or if Jordan Williamson’s game-winning kick for redemption hadn’t snuck inside the left upright.
That’s what makes the 2012 version of Stanford-Oregon so compelling. In addition to the heroic performances by the defense and Ertz and Stepfan Taylor on the offensive side, there were these handful of moments that turned the tide of not just the game, but maybe even the complexion of the Pac-12. The Cardinal were both thoroughly dominant and fortunate to get out of town with a win, and that interplay makes this game both one of my favorites to rewatch and easily one of the most significant moments in legitimizing this new era of Stanford football.
1. Stanford 26, Oregon 20 (2013)
Sometimes, the best movies are made even better thanks to the presence of top-notch sequels. “Star Wars” wouldn’t be the same without “The Empire Strikes Back”; likewise for “The Godfather,” “Terminator” and “Batman Begins.”
In that spirit, as good as the 2012 Stanford-Oregon game was, that game looks even more special in hindsight due to the even more thrilling rematch at Stanford Stadium the following year.
With so many things happening at any single moment on a college campus like Stanford, it’s rare for a single event to dominate the collective consciousness of the entire University, let alone a football game. However, that’s precisely what happened on that Thursday in November as SportsCenter rolled into White Plaza for the day and all anyone could think about was the impending football apocalypse between a one-loss Cardinal team and the undefeated Ducks.
Once again, I didn’t give Stanford much of a chance in this one (this time on the record), and I wasn’t alone. After filming a live segment for a morning SportsCenter show, ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt descended from the set and chatted with some students in the crowd, telling us: “I don’t see any way you stop Mariota, man.”
Defying the critics once again, the Stanford defense stopped the Ducks in their tracks while Tyler Gaffney carried the ball 45 times to help the Cardinal put a chokehold on the clock. Hogan, while only completing seven passes, proved to be more consistent than his Oregon counterpart that night.
There was a lot to take away from this high-stakes showdown: Stanford’s early domination, Oregon’s furious comeback sparked by a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, receiver Jeff Trojan recovering an onside kick in the final minutes. But there’s one play that will always emerge amongst the rest, the single best play I’ve witnessed in four years of watching Stanford football: the famous “Strip Sack Fumble” on Mariota in the second half that caused the Stadium to explode.
I remember talking to several players in the days after the game, and they all said that they could feel the ground shaking at the moment when three Stanford defenders converged on the Ducks’ quarterback and knocked the ball loose.
Stanford football had arrived long before that moment where Stanford Stadium erupted to earth-shattering levels, but this game very well might have been the Cardinal’s Big Bang in announcing its staying power to the rest of college football.
At the very least, it reminded me that the game we were watching at that very moment was one for the absolute ages, a reminder of just how lucky we’ve been to watch some of the best football in the country right here on campus.
Feel like Vihan Lakshman left any of your favorite games off his list? Bug him about it at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.