In 2011, the Oregon Ducks throttled the Stanford Cardinal, 53-30, but on that night on The Farm in Palo Alto, Darron Thomas was still Oregon’s quarterback. Marcus Mariota had not yet been entrusted with Chip Kelly’s offense. When he got his first crack at the Stanford Cardinal in 2012, he thought he was ready, but he failed repeatedly in a game when Oregon’s defense was sensational. The Ducks held Stanford and a shaky quarterback named Kevin Hogan to only 14 points in regulation. Moreover, Oregon took the ball away from Stanford multiple times, creating short fields that a Kelly-coached offense should have been able to gobble up without a problem.
However, Stanford’s decorated defense — with Shayne Shov and Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner — stoned Mariota time and again. Oregon could never solve the Cardinal. Instead of cutting down the Trees in the lumber-producing Pacific Northwest, the Ducks had their wings clipped. Stanford, under David Shaw, turned the tide in this Pac-12 North feud after Kelly had wrested it away from Jim Harbaugh in 2010 and kept it against Shaw in 2011.
This Saturday evening in Eugene, Mariota took the field against Stanford for the last time in his decorated career. Mariota has won a BCS bowl. He’s won a truckload of games. However, he hadn’t yet won a division championship as a starting quarterback, and he hadn’t yet claimed a Pac-12 title. Mariota had to get past Stanford to create a career without any empty spaces. Few players confronted a moment infused with more significance on Saturday than Mariota did against Stanford.
As the voiceover in a trailer for a slam-bang action movie would say, “THIS TIME, IT’S PERSONAL!”
Sometimes, when a great athlete encounters a highly personal moment, that athlete tries to do too much and gets out of rhythm. The intensity of the occasion, the magnitude of the event, manages to hijack internal focus and serve as a disrupting agent more than a calming one. Mariota faced this temptation against his nemesis. He probably wasn’t going to be perfect, but he definitely needed to elevate his game in important situations.
Mariota passed that test with flying colors in Autzen Stadium, and as a result, Oregon will certainly win the Pac-12 North this season, earning the right to contest the Pac-12 championship in San Francisco on the first weekend of December. The Ducks will snap Stanford’s streak of consecutive Pac-12 titles at two.
There’s only so much that needs to be said in the wake of a 45-16 thrashing. What deserves to be mentioned is that in 2012, Oregon held Stanford to a similar amount of points (17) but couldn’t win. This time, the same solid defensive outing produced an easy victory. The offense did its part this time for the Ducks.
What made this night so different from 2012 for Oregon against Stanford? Two years ago, the Ducks — under Kelly — were 4-of-17 in terms of converting third downs, 0-for-2 on fourth down. That’s a combined total of 4-of-19 on third or fourth down. This year, Mariota performed the primary task assigned to him above: He lifted his level of play when the moment mattered most. Oregon was 8-of-13 on third downs, 1-for-1 on fourth downs, for a 9-of-14 total on third and fourth downs. When Mariota converted a fourth down and two third downs on UO’s first drive of the game, ultimately sticking the ball in the end zone just 4:08 into the proceedings, Oregon sent an unmistakable message across the way: This was not going to be like 2012. This time, the Ducks were going to call the shots.
When Oregon calls the shots against Stanford, points fly across the scoreboard, as had been the case in 2011 and also 2010. Under these shootout-based circumstances, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan was hopelessly outclassed. In a season when Stanford has had problems holding onto the ball and finishing drives, Hogan played a game which perfectly matched the larger contents of the Cardinals’ frustrating autumnal march. Two turnovers midway through the second half took an 11-point Oregon lead (24-13) and enabled the Ducks to gain separation with a series of quick scores. Before long, the Ducks had a 38-16 lead early in the fourth quarter, and Stanford’s reign atop the Pac-12 North was over.
Oregon’s back on top in its division. Now, the Ducks and Marcus Mariota — their hearts healed, their lungs taking in fresh emotional oxygen — will set their sights on larger goals in the remaining five weeks.