by Rob Moseley
STANFORD, Calif. — This was a night that conjured up some of the most difficult in recent Oregon football history.
No. 5 Stanford beat No. 2 Oregon on Thursday, 26-20, knocking the Ducks from the national championship race for the second straight season. So there's the obvious parallel to Nov. 17, 2012, when the Cardinal won in overtime in Eugene, handing Oregon its only loss and denying the Ducks a fourth straight conference title.
The inability of the UO offense to get on the scoreboard through three quarters Thursday had media scrambling for the record books. It was the first time Oregon was shut out in the first half since Oct. 10, 2009, at UCLA. For much of the night, it looked like the Ducks were on their way to being shutout completely for the first time since Nov. 24, 2007, at UCLA.
But perhaps the best parallel is the game before that 2007 white-washing in Los Angeles. Another Thursday night tilt, played eight days shy of six years before this one. On Nov. 15, 2007, Oregon's title dreams died on a Thursday in Arizona, as did the Heisman Trophy chances of the UO starting quarterback, due to a knee injury.
No, current starter Marcus Mariota isn't out for the season, like Dennis Dixon was back in 2007. But you probably have to go that far back to find a game so devastating to the program on multiple levels.
"You work so hard to get to this point, and to see it all go down the drain, it hurts," UO receiver Josh Huff said. "I'm just at a loss for words. We wanted that perfect season. Unfortunately it didn't happen."
There's still much to play for, of course. The potential for a fifth straight BCS appearance, something only two programs have ever done. The Ducks will need some help to play for the Pac-12 title, but have to help themselves by rebounding against Utah next week — the same Utes who handed the Cardinal their only loss.
So yeah, there are goals to achieve.
But the subdued Oregon locker room told the story. The silence was broken infrequently, usually just by a muffled curse word or two. The Ducks had been battered on the field, and will taking a beating in the polls Sunday.
Head coach Mark Helfrich's message to the team was that this loss was different than the one to Stanford a year ago. The Ducks showed plenty of fight in the fourth quarter, scoring the game's final 20 points and attempting a third and final onside kick for the chance to take the lead with 2:12 left.
Ultimately, though, Oregon couldn't overcome its early mistakes on offense, and the way the UO defense couldn't get off the field. Stanford was 14-of-21 on third down, possessing the ball for 42:34 in the 60-minute game, while the Ducks were stopped twice inside the Cardinal 5-yard line in the first half.
"We just started off slow, and against great teams like that you can't start off slow," UO running back De'Anthony Thomas said.
That comment belied the notion Thomas was somehow disrespectful of the Stanford defense, based on his comment earlier in the week he felt Oregon should score 40 points. Anyone who knows Thomas understood the comment was a reflection of his usual confidence in the UO offense, not a dis of the Cardinal.
During the fourth quarter, Stanford fans behind the Oregon bench loudly and repeatedly reminded Thomas of the comment. He smiled and nodded, a gesture derided by television announcers.
"I was taking it serious; I just feel like, when I do that, I don't let people take me out of my game," Thomas said. "So I just smile. (But) I know how I feel inside."
Make no mistake, the Ducks were devastated. Helfrich may have felt the team played better in defeat this year, but that didn't make it feel any better.
"We tried to finish," defensive lineman Taylor Hart said. "We didn't just hang our heads and let them score 40 on us. But they're a good team. And we lost."
That Stanford was the team to end Oregon's run at a perfect season conjured more historical parallels. The Cardinal handed the Ducks their only defeat in the 2001 and 2012 seasons, and their only conference loss in 2009. That latter game was also the last time, prior to Thursday, that Oregon lost a road game.
The matchup gets billed at the big, physical Cardinal overpowering the smaller, faster Ducks. Not so simple, UO left tackle Tyler Johnstone said.
"There's no formula for beating any football team, because anybody can just switch it up," Johnstone said. "Every game's unique. You can't play the same way you play every year. They didn't play us the same way as they did last year."
Johnstone said the Cardinal's linebackers and safeties gave the UO offensive line trouble Thursday, denying space in the spread offense. Turnovers and missed plays, like an underthrown deep ball from Mariota to Huff in the first quarter, also will haunt the Ducks.
Still, the Ducks fought. After their first touchdown, to make it 26-7 with 10:11 left, it was Johnstone marching down the sideline, yelling, "we're not (expletive) done! Let's go! We're not done!" And indeed the Ducks went on to score twice more, before Stanford finally was able to run out the clock.
Run out the clock the Cardinal did, however. Ultimately, that late UO surge was for naught.
And so, while Helfrich may have had a point, that this loss to Stanford didn't perfectly mirror last year's, it was the same in the most important way — it was still a loss.
"It still hurts the same," Huff said.
Hurts in a way Oregon has only felt a few times — a few memorable times — in the last several seasons.