PALO ALTO, Calif. — As he stood against the wall of Stanford Stadium’s visiting locker room, a media scrum gathering around him, Nick Aliotti could barely keep the smile off of his face.
After a week’s worth of talk about Andrew Luck and the prolific Cardinal offense, it was Oregon’s defense that shined on Saturday in Palo Alto, forcing five turnovers and setting the table for a convincing 53-30 victory.
“Those kids are magical,” Aliotti said. “They just are. They’re magical. I don’t know what to say. I’m speechless.”
It takes a lot to render Oregon’s outspoken defensive coordinator speechless, but that’s exactly what the Ducks managed to do as they continuously stepped up when it mattered the most. An interception by linebacker Dewitt Stuckey in the first quarter led to Oregon’s first touchdown, while a Terrell Turner sack on Stanford’s third drive forced a Luck fumble recovered by Brandon Hanna.
“We won the turnover battle,” Oregon head coach Chip Kelly said. “And that was the biggest difference in this football game.”
Aside from the turnovers, three of which were in the last five minutes of the game alone, Oregon managed to contain a Stanford running game that came in ranked second only to the Ducks in rushing yards per game (224.7). The Cardinal’s 129 yards ranked as a season low and kept the offense largely in check.
“You’re not gonna shut them down,” Kelly said. “But you can make them drive it, and they gotta go the distance, and maybe they’ll make some mistakes, and that’s what happened.”
Perhaps even more impressive was Oregon’s ability to pressure Luck. The Heisman favorite took three costly sacks, including a lost fumble in the third quarter. Coming into Saturday’s game, the Cardinal had allowed just four sacks all year.
“(We) kind of forced them into a situation where we knew they were gonna have to pass,” linebacker Josh Kaddu said. “So everybody let loose to just get after the quarterback.”
Indeed, it was a night that turned conventional wisdom about both teams upside down. The top-ranked Stanford offense, once considered unstoppable, was stymied. The Oregon defense, once maligned, proved to be more than up for a challenge.
“You always have a chip on your shoulder as a defense when you hear they’re gonna score a lot of points on you,” Kaddu said. “So we just went out there and did what we needed to do.”
There wasn’t any special game plan or alteration in scheme. For Aliotti and the defense, it was simply a matter of execution, and playing their own game at the highest possible level.
“We got after it,” linebacker Michael Clay said. “We stood up to them physicality-wise, and, speed-wise, just got to them. We just played really well.”
Linebacker Boseko Lokombo added the game’s final touch when he returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. It was, in some way, emblematic of everything the defense accomplished on Saturday night. Luck had been backed into the corner by Oregon’s tenacious front line and a Duck offense that had already put up 46 points. He was forced the throw the ball, and it found its way into Lokombo’s hands.
“We were spying him,” Lokombo said. “Because we knew that going into the fourth quarter, they were down. They were gonna pass the ball a lot. So we were kind of expecting that, and I was at the right spot at the right time.”
The Ducks will have to approach this week’s game against No. 18 USC in much the same way. The Trojans rank fourth in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency (152.4), and bring in another NFL-caliber quarterback in junior Matt Barkley (29 touchdowns, tied with Luck for the Pac-12 lead).
Oregon jumped to No. 4 in the BCS rankings on Sunday, but none of the players, particularly on defense, are thinking about that.
“We’re not worrying about that right now,” Kaddu said. “We’re just worried about SC coming in on Monday.”