Those who closely scrutinized Stanford's 53-30 loss to Oregon last year knew that -- despite hype suggesting the opposite -- Cardinal defensive success actually was possible this year. The Ducks' final point total in that 2011 game was deceptive: Chip Kelly's squad was held to negative six offensive yards in the first quarter, while the Quack Attack accrued just 387 total yards. A considerable chunk of Oregon's 53-point output in 2011 was a byproduct of Stanford turnovers and short fields. There was reason to be cautiously optimistic entering 2012, especially since Shayne Skov was back and the Stanford safety position was again 100 percent healthy.
This time around, the Farm Boys became the first team to blank Oregon through 15 minutes. They replicated 2011's opening effort, and then they shocked the college football world by maintaining it the rest of the way. The Ducks, so accustomed to scoring quickly, have engineered 22 touchdown drives in under a minute this season (entering Saturday's game, six FBS teams hadn't scored 22 touchdowns, total). But against the Cardinal, nothing came easily. Even the Ducks' 16-play, 95-yard success in the third quarter was an absolute grinder. Stanford held steady, giving nothing away for free.
Henry Anderson has developed into a legitimate NFL prospect, and his six-tackle physical dominance on the line brought back memories of the way Auburn's Nick Fairley terrorized Oregon in the 2010 BCS title game. Overall, the Cardinal racked up nine tackles for loss. They showed discipline in pursuit, coupled with raw muscle and depth up front that is rivaled by no other college football team. Most of all, they refused to budge: Stanford would not allow the Ducks to break open the dam's floodgates and establish their usually irreversible momentum. After Marcus Mariota's 77-yard first quarter run, nullified shortly thereafter by Skov's textbook discipline fourth down stop, an Oregon team that feeds off of big plays couldn't find one to save its undefeated season.
Here's a testament to Stanford's defensive discipline: the Ducks' longest rush beyond that point was 16 yards, while Kenjon Barner averaged only 3.1 yards per carry. He was racking up nearly seven per rush entering the contest.
Despite the Cardinal's heroic play, Oregon did accumulate over 400 yards of total offense, a testament to just how fast, precise, and lethal Chip Kelly's attack is. But points are the crucial barometer of success. The Ducks cowered in the face of Stanford's physicality and retreated as their fatigue revealed a game tempo more conducive to Cardinal success. Exhaustion was a shocking turnaround for a team that was used to gassing its opponents -- especially at home. It happened thanks to the bone-crunching labor of Stanford's front.
Grade: A+ (Oregon scored only 14 points through regulation and overtime in Autzen Stadium, despite the fact that Stanford's offense came up empty in 10 straight possessions. That says it all.)
Capitalize on Improvement at the Safety Position
Defensive success only began with the Stanford front's dominance. As was evidenced by the slew of big plays the Ducks ripped off following Delano Howell's early exit last season, the Cardinal needed sound secondary support to stonewall Oregon's track stars whenever they did slip through the initial protection.
Mariota's passing success -- he led the nation in efficiency entering the game -- complicated matters for the safeties: Ed Reynolds and Jordan Richards would have to execute the perfect game of cat-and-mouse. They couldn't afford to let Barner and De'Anthony Thomas pick up too much steam in front of them, nor could cheat forward too far and let physical speed freak Colt Lyerla toast the coverage over the top.
Reynolds played it perfectly, particularly in space. The Cardinal's off-season commitment to open-field tackling was put on brilliant display in each of his six stops, while an Oregon receiver never once sped behind the Stanford secondary -- a remarkable accomplishment in and of itself. Richards' phenomenal athleticism was on display as well: his sideline-to-sideline speed cut off the Oregon edge a handful of times. Speaking of safety speed in space, never forget that reserve Devon Carrington was the one who flashed Duck-like speed when he ran down Mariota to save a game-opening touchdown. The Cardinal would subsequently stop Oregon on fourth down.
While we're on the secondary subject, it's important to acknowledge the Cardinal's cornerbacks as well. Barry Browning, the victim of Keanon Lowe's 28-yard post touchdown reception, was the only one decisively beaten in coverage on the night. Terrence Brown, meanwhile, played a spectacularly physical game that disrupted Oregon on the edge that was overshadowed only by Alex Carter's beastly performance. The true freshman, built like an upperclassman, brought a jaw-dropping combination of speed and physicality to outside support, often looking like the best player on the Autzen Stadium field. He tallied two tackles for loss on the night.
Grade: A+ (Even on Oregon's 16-play, 95-yard drive, Stanford's displayed textbook pass coverage that Mariota beat only with pinpoint accuracy)
The 2009 Model: Balanced Offensive Efficiency
Stanford started and ended well offensively, similar to the pattern displayed a week prior against Oregon State. In between, the unit's 10 consecutive scoreless possessions forced the defense into a legendary performance.
At the end of the day, though, the Kevin Hogan-led attack passed for 211 yards and rushed for 200. This effects of this fantastic balance were evident late as the Oregon defense showed definite signs of fatigue with the Cardinal grinding for the game-tying score. Stepfan Taylor's vision, anticipation, and power fueled 169 punishing yards, while Zach Ertz complemented No. 33 with a career-high 11 catch, 106-yard performance following the passing of his grandmother.
Pep Hamilton dialed up several perimeter bubble screens to thin out the Ducks' defensive interior, and that strategy worked toward the Cardinal's objective of chipping away at an Oregon defense that played a solid 60-plus minutes of football. Three costly turnovers, though (an Autzen Stadium special), opened the door for Oregon. It would be special teams play -- Daniel Zychlinski's otherworldly punting and Jordan Williamson's "Shaw shank redemption" -- that helped the defense negate the blow of these offensive gaffes.
Grade: B (There were mistakes, and there was a long scoring dry spell. But Hogan, a redshirt freshman, orchestrated a balanced clock-eating effort in his first road start and delivered in crunch time, so call it a success.)
The Guys Upstairs
First and foremost, Shaw must be credited for the excellent job he did in preparing his troops for battle. A team embodies the example set by its head coach. In this case, Stanford's general established a confident, relaxed vibe that emanated from the Cardinal all week long. That ideal mentality is not easy to maintain -- particularly against an opponent that boasts the nation's longest win streak and averages 54.8 points per game.
But the Farm Boys' free-flowing demeanor translated beautifully onto the football field a year after nerves and anxiety seemed to extinguish any chance of beating Oregon. This attitude was paramount to victory. It was so important, in fact, that it ultimately concealed a pair of Shaw's questionable decisions.
The first came during the coach's call to punt on the game's opening possession from Oregon's 35-yard line on fourth down and short, an almost zero-upside decision that blew up in Stanford's face when Mariota exploded for a 77-yard gain shortly thereafter. The second came in the fourth quarter, when Shaw opted for a 43-yard Williamson field goal on fourth and short -- despite the fact that his kicker was 3-for-7 from beyond 40 yards and the Cardinal needed a touchdown, and not a field goal, to tie. Williamson missed, but the Stanford defense gave its team another chance.
But Shaw did also display some playcalling brilliance. Stanford's second quarter play-action attempt on fourth down was the absolute right move, but Hogan's throw missed a wide open Ryan Hewitt. Regardless of its result, that was the type of aggressive chance that's necessary to beat Oregon at its own game. It set a no-nonsense precedent that the Cardinal adhered to for the rest of the game.
Like the Stanford team, Shaw has grown into his role. He's sharpening his instincts as a head coach. Previously deflating conservatism reared its ugly head a couple of times. Still, Shaw's precisely-timed strikes helped a football team accomplish college football's most difficult task: winning at Autzen Stadium.
Grade: A- (A fantastic week for Shaw and his staff, marred only by a couple of questionable decisions ultimately rendered moot.)
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.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!