Commentary

Stanford grinds way into driver's seat

The No. 5 Cardinal ruin the Ducks' perfect season again, holding off a late charge

Updated: November 8, 2013, 4:29 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

STANFORD, Calif. -- The Stanford offense at its best is as exciting as a school board meeting. The Cardinal move the chains, and move the chains again. The clock ticks and all 11 guys line up in the box and even coach David Shaw's 3-year-old son, Gavin, knows Kevin Hogan is going to hand the ball off to Tyler Gaffney. And the chains move again.

[+] EnlargeKevin Hogan
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsStanford quarterback Kevin Hogan said handing off the ball to Tyler Gaffney 45 times and watching him work Thursday against Oregon was "beautiful."

That's what Shaw's No. 5 Cardinal did Thursday night, and the only thing that made it spellbinding was the identity of the team that took the punishment. No. 3 Oregon spent the first eight games of the season reserving hotel rooms in Pasadena for Jan. 6, the date of the BCS National Championship. But, for the second consecutive season, the Ducks' hopes of an unbeaten record ended against the Cardinal.

Stanford spent the first three-plus quarters churning out a 26-0 lead, then hung on when the inevitable Oregon rally, late though it might have been, arrived, fueled by the fury of the embarrassed. The final score of 26-20 is a tribute to the Ducks' competitive fire and their special teams, which, in the final 5:08, scored a touchdown on a blocked field goal and set up another by recovering an onside kick. But the final score is not an accurate depiction of the one-sided nature of the Cardinal's victory.

With All-American David Yankey pulling from left guard and mowing down Ducks to his right, Gaffney, the senior tailback, set a school record with 45 carries for 157 yards and a touchdown. Among those 45 carries, Gaffney had exactly one run of more than 9 yards and exactly one rush that went backward -- for 1 yard.

"They did a great job of just grinding it and grinding it and grinding it," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said.

On defense, the Cardinal's front three held the advantage, as well. The typical offensive linemen outweigh the guys they are trying to block. The Stanford threesome of Josh Mauro, David Parry and Henry Anderson average 293 pounds, same as the Oregon offensive line, and the Cardinal controlled the game.

In the seven seasons since Chip Kelly arrived at Oregon as offensive coordinator, the Ducks and their up-tempo spread offense have rendered the conventional wisdom of the game obsolete. If you play fast and score, time of possession becomes irrelevant. You can leave your defense on the field all night.

Kelly rode his offense into the head-coaching job and took the Ducks to the top of the sport. And, when he left for the NFL and Helfrich, his offensive alter ego, took over, Oregon played just as well. The Ducks came into Stanford Stadium with Heisman Trophy favorite Marcus Mariota at quarterback. Then the Ducks proceeded to put on display all the frailties that ever made coaches wary of the up-tempo spread.

For three-and-a-half quarters, Oregon couldn't run the football between the tackles and eventually gave up. The Ducks left their defense on the field so long that, when the fourth quarter began, Shaw told his offense, "We're not going to pass it anymore. We're done. We're going to run the ball, and we're going to run them out of the stadium."

Yankey relayed that information with a huge grin on his face. Offensive linemen love when a game is put on their backs. As time wore on, Yankey said, "You know the whole defensive line, their will is right on the edge. They don't want to play anymore. They don't want to play the run. It's awesome."

That was fine with Hogan, who saved the best game of his up-and-down season for Thursday night. Hogan saw on video that the Ducks' defense liked to drop into coverage, so he seized on that to run eight times for 57 yards and a touchdown, in addition to throwing for a "whopping" 103 yards.

"With these guys, it's fun to run the ball," Hogan said. "I hand the ball off, and I watch. It's beautitful."

When the game ended, Stanford had held the ball for 42:34 and run 79 plays, 21 more than Oregon. In three trips to the red zone, the Ducks scored only once. They turned the ball over twice on fumbles deep in Cardinal territory.

Helfrich, like Kelly before him, has set a policy that no one is to discuss injuries. But, given the opportunity to knock down pregame reports that Mariota has a sprained left MCL, an Oregon official just shrugged and nodded. Mariota didn't start the UCLA game on Oct. 26 with a knee brace, but he ended the game wearing one. Nearly two weeks off didn't provide enough rest to heal him. He wore the brace again.

Mariota came into the game with 56 carries for 511 yards, an average of 9.1 yards per carry. But the redshirt sophomore didn't play like the Mariota of the first eight games. He rarely moved out of the pocket in the first half, and, when he tried to in the second half, with his team down 20 points, the Stanford defense made him pay with a crushing sack and fumble at the Cardinal 28.

Asked how much pain he was in, Mariota said, "I don't know. I tend to just not focus on the pain because you've got to play with it."

Mariota ran the ball three times and was sacked three times. He finished with minus-16 yards. Without his ability to run the ball, the Oregon offense got into a fistfight with only one fist.

Although it's still too early to say Stanford knocked Oregon out of the BCS championship race -- Alabama lost on this weekend a year ago -- the Ducks now must depend on others to propel them into the Pac-12 championship, an outcome that seemed improbable only hours ago.

"Any loss is disappointing," Helfrich said. "Where we've put ourselves and where our players have put ourselves, it's obviously magnified."

Where Stanford put itself is in the driver's seat for a return to the Rose Bowl.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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