PALO ALTO, Calif. — The “Game of the Year” in the Pac-12 conference was supposed to feature two of the nation’s most explosive offenses putting points on the scoreboard at a frantic pace. The speed of LaMichael James and Darron Thomas and the physicality of Stanford’s offensive line and tight ends captivated connoisseurs of scoring around the country.
And while the teams combined to score 83 points, it was actually Oregon’s aggressive defense that proved to be the difference in the game. The Ducks forced Stanford into committing a season-high five turnovers and topped the Cardinal 53-30 Saturday night at sold-out Stanford Stadium.
“They took advantage of our turnovers,” Stanford coach David Shaw said following his team’s first loss in the past 18 games. “We got turnovers and didn’t turn them into points. That’s the bottom line. You play against a team with that kind of speed, that kind of talent that’s as well coached as they are. You turn the ball over, (you) can’t win.”
Although Stanford’s defense was far from perfect – the Cardinal allowed three plays of 40 or more yards and surrendered 387 yards of total offense — their uncharacteristically sloppy offense played a key role in the defeat.
“We’re not a team that turns the ball over,” Stanford center Sam Schwartzstein said. “We’re a team that executes extremely well. When you turn the ball over, it doesn’t matter how well you execute. They did what we expected them to do. We had a good game plan. But they forced turnovers and got us out of our element.”
Many of Stanford’s miscues were forced. Oregon sacked Andrew Luck three times (the most he’s been sacked in a game all year) and constantly applied pressure on the Stanford signal caller. Even when the Stanford offensive line did give Luck time to throw, Oregon’s secondary often took away Luck’s primary targets, forcing him into poor decisions.
“They were fast on film,” Luck said. “They were fast on the field. It was no surprise they’re a very good defense. They did a lot of good things that forced me into making some bad decisions, but fast, definitely. Probably the best defense we’ve played all year.”
In addition to two interceptions, Stanford lost three fumbles, also a season-high total.
Although he had a decent statistical showing (27-41 for 271 yards and three touchdowns), Oregon’s defense prevented Luck from finding his rhythm for most of the contest.
“(I didn’t play) good enough to win,” Luck said. “Worst game of the year, I guess.”
Shaw was slightly more complimentary of his star pupil’s performance but also credited Oregon’s defense with harassing Luck all night.
“I thought he was good,” Shaw said. “I thought Oregon made it tough. They get a lot of credit for their front four, because they have the tackles for loss, and they have all the they do a good job coverage-wise. They made Andrew pull the ball down a couple of times, they make you hold it for an extra split-second, and then the rush gets to you. I give them all the credit in the world.”
When the latest edition of the BCS standings were released on Sunday afternoon, the Cardinal predictably took a tumble from No. 4 to No. 9. However, if they defeat Cal (next weekend), and Notre Dame (Nov. 26), Stanford will still be in good shape to earn a second-consecutive BCS bowl bid.
“Our goals are still out there,” safety Michael Thomas said. “Obviously the biggest one is probably out, but that wasn’t our main goal. We were just trying to win our division, but that didn’t happen tonight. But like Andrew said, we still have two big games left and last time, I remember Cal beat us on our field, so we have a lot of motivation.”