The same vacuum that hovered over Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on October 6, 2007 returned. It sucked every bit of air -- and sound -- out of Autzen Stadium.
This time, though, the scent of roses was also present. The Stanford team bouncing on visiting turf wasn't reveling in a miraculous, turnover-fueled upset. Five years later, a football power was celebrating its lasting stay in national prominence. There was nothing fluky about it. In a match-up between the country's best offense and its best defense, the Farm Boys had mauled Oregon and made a compelling argument to be considered the best team in the country (post-Kevin Hogan switch, no team has looked or performed better), out-muscling and defeating the mighty Ducks 17-14 in their own house.
They say great things happen when they're least expected. Go figure: the year after Andrew Luck left to the NFL is the same year the Cardinal finally get over the Oregon hump. Seemingly overnight, Stanford has morphed into a defensive juggernaut, quite possibly the most powerful unit in all of college football on that side of the line of scrimmage.
The Quack Attack had been literally unstoppable at home during the Chip Kelly era. It had peaked here in 2012, averaging 54.8 points per game entering Saturday's contest, threatening Army's 1944 record of 56. Derek Mason's unit rendered those numbers irrelevant, holding Oregon to its lowest Autzen Stadium offensive output since 2006. Back then, Kelly was the offensive coordinator at New Hampshire, and USC was still capable of beating Stanford -- so that was obviously a long time ago.
Most remarkably, the Cardinal defense shut Oregon down despite the fact that its own offense was held scoreless for ten straight possessions during the meat of the game. In years past, such an offensive drought would have resulted in a 62-14 bloodbath. Not this time, though. Not with the Farm Boys' country-strong, two-deep brawn up front. The Cardinal's defensive linemen mauled the Ducks' hogs at the point of the attack. Before the game, Henry Anderson told me that the goal would be to relocate Oregon's line of scrimmage to the backfield.
Consider it moved -- to another zip code.
Anderson's six-tackle effort emulated Nick Fairley's domination in Auburn's 2010 BCS Title Game win over Oregon. His fellow defensive linemen, particularly nose tackles Terrence Stephens and David Parry, earned less statistical credit but were just as instrumental in the final outcome that limited Kenjon Barner to 3.1 yards per carry. (He came in averaging almost 7 per.) The two nose tackles registered only one tackle each, but both strained the offensive line with a punishing push that paved the road for a three-sack, nine-tackle for loss performance. Stanford has now tied a single season school record with 46 sacks with potentially three games left. Talk about Record Smashing City.
The Cardinal's linebackers flowed freely behind their formidable front, highlighted by Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week Shayne Skov's 10 tackles and A.J. Tarpley's disciplined play, which featured a key interception that extinguished Oregon's pre-halftime two-minute drill. No. 11's pre-injury explosiveness was on full display. He set the tone by stonewalling Marcus Mariota on an early fourth down inside the Stanford 10 and overtook Chase Thomas for the team lead with 58 tackles on the season.
At Long Last: An Athletic Match
Athletically, the Cardinal defense was Oregon's equal -- not a few steps too slow, as had been the case in years past. David Shaw credited improved Stanford speed on the back end as the primary reason that his club was able to dodge scoring bullets even when the Ducks did manage to squeak past the front seven. Devon Carrington's first quarter sprint caught Mariota 77 yards downfield and sent a clear message: these nerds have more going for them than blue-collar physicality up front.
Open-field tackling was a resulting benefit, with Alex Carter, Ed Reynolds, Jordan Richards, Terrence Brown, and even hulking Trent Murphy displaying brilliant form. Murphy recorded a fantastic sideline stop against Barner on the edge, learning from the past and avoiding the horrible angle he took against USC's Robert Woods on fourth and long back in September. This Stanford defense is enjoying immense improvement across the board, a phenomenon best embodied by the true freshman Carter, whose speed and physicality kept up -- and overwhelmed -- Oregon's track stars sideline to sideline.
The Hogan Effect
Of course, the insertion of Kevin Hogan at quarterback has buoyed Stanford's defense. In his third true game and first road start, the redshirt freshman was again effective -- all while running standard plays that avoided anything too complicated. Given his level of poise in perhaps college football's most hostile environment, it's hard to believe that he wasn't ready to make the easy throws the Cardinal so desperately needed earlier in the season. For Stanford's sake, though, it's better late than never as far as Hogan is concerned -- though never late would have been better.
Shaw's club rode his 12-of-13, 94-yard start to a 7-0, tone-setting lead. Michael Clay's crushing hit then knocked No. 8 out of his rhythm in the second quarter, as he completed only three of his next 10 passes. The Cardinal offense stalled after Hogan's poor throw to Ryan Hewitt's feet foiled Shaw's brilliant fourth down play-action call, but Luck's successor ultimately bounced back.
His fantastic rapport with Zach Ertz, who caught a career-high 11 catches for 106 yards following the passing of his grandmother, fueled two effective fourth quarter drives against Oregon's worn-down defense. In equal parts, it was Stepfan Taylor's 33-carry, 169-yard performance and an effective Stanford sideline screen game that stretched Oregon laterally that gassed the Ducks. With 1:35 left, the fade finally worked: instead of dialing the play up to Toilolo (an ineffective strategy in the past), Pep Hamilton set Hogan up with Ertz, and the Cardinal tied the game at 14.
The Polish Rifle: Difference Maker
Special teams, though, delivered the dagger. Stanford and Oregon were extremely evenly matched in total yardage: the Farm Boys outgained the Ducks 411-405; 200-198 in the rushing category and 211-207 in the passing game. Three seemingly devastating Cardinal turnovers broke this deadlock, however, (and a potential fourth was avoided when Khalil Wilkes miraculously recovered Hogan's fumble in overtime).
"You know what's funny," Shaw said afterward, "We cut down on turnovers, this might not be a close game."
The fantastic work of Stanford's specialists, particularly punter Daniel Zychlinksi, nullified any Ducks' post-turnover advantage. The Polish rifle delivered boots of 62 and 55 yards. His punts set the Cardinal defense up for its unprecedented success: five of six pinned Oregon inside its own 20-yard line.
Of course, Williamson delivered the actual kill, sending shockwaves through the entire BCS landscape with the game-clinching 37-yard boot that hit the mute button on Autzen Stadium. Stanford, in its trek to maintain elite college football glory, had shifted its reliance from the shoulders of Andrew Luck to a heroic defense. Fittingly, a man who had come full circle himself completed this journey. Aside from cementing the Cardinal's place in the top tier of college football, Williamson's kick exorcised the demons that had been haunting him ever since January's Fiesta Bowl.
Call it killing two birds -- and a few Ducks -- with one kick.
David Lombardi covers Stanford sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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