STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 12: LaMichael James #21 of the Oregon Ducks celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 12, 2011 in Stanford, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The Oregon Ducks looked battered all season. They got run roughshod on opening night by the LSU Tigers. Their once unstoppable offense sputtered for quarter after quarter against middling opponents. LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner, Josh Huff, Darron Thomas all took their turns on the injury table. It looked as if when the Stanford Cardinal came onto their plate, there was a good chance they could finally be swept aside.
Fat chance. When it mattered the most, everything clicked back into place.
It started with James, who had one of his signature runs to put Oregon well ahead and keep them well ahead. James slipped all over the crappy turf in Stanford Stadium, but he maintained his balance, managed to slip through defenders reaching at him, and race toward the end zone untouched. It was another big-time performance by Big Game James, who proved once again why he's been the MVP of the conference three years running.
For the second year in a row, the Oregon QB outplayed Andrew Luck. Thomas managed the game, dinked and dunked for most of the evening, then hit Lavasier Tuinei rolling out for the first score, De'Anthony Thomas on the brilliantly designed 4th and 7 playcall from Chip Kelly for the 41 yard touchdown, and Josh Huff waiting in the flat for the 59 yard score. Three TDs, no INTs, and 100 out of 155 passing yards on two plays! Thomas didn't need to do much, but what he did was essential.
The up-tempo game again proved deadly. Oregon didn't need any more than six plays or two and a half minutes against Stanford on any of their first five scoring drives. They exploited the mismatches of speed on the outside and untested Cardinal defenders got burned again and again. Everytime it looked as if Stanford was working its way back into the game, Oregon answered with another quick score to make the Cardinal have to do it all over again.
And ultimately it was the Ducks defense that blew things open. The conventional Stanford offense worked its way down the field a number of times, but it never fazed Nick Aliotti's squad. Disguised blitzes finally flustered a Cardinal offensive line that had held stout much of the season. The Cardinal managed only a modest 3.7 yards on the ground, as Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney couldn't really pound out huge gains. And the turnovers made all the difference between competitive game and Oregon rout. Whether it be picks on Luck throwing into bracketed coverage or fumbles by Duck defenders ripping out the ball from behind, Oregon made the mistake-free Cardinal lurch at the worst possible times, as they turned five Stanford turnovers into 21 points.
The Ducks have defied all normal conventions in college football, making a habit of using their speed to rack off big play after big play after big play, whether it be offense or defense. And the Cardinal wilted under the heat and the pressure of the relentless Oregon attack, succumbing to critical mistake after critical mistake. Oregon was happy to capitalize over and over again to race to victory on Saturday.
Oregon has played bridesmaid most of this season to the unstoppable Stanford juggernaut, but tonight they proved why they were a team to be reckoned with coming into this year, and why the Pac-12 is still nowhere closer to figuring out the deadly one-two combo of Kelly's offense and Aliotti's defense. And they've made it work to the astounding cue of a 24-1 conference record in three seasons.
No one in any other major conference in the country can touch that sustained level of success that Chip Kelly has brought to Eugene. Eventually (because this is how things usually will work in sports), someone might have the defense necessary to combat Oregon's team speed on offense and the power and complexity to bruise them on defense, and the Pac-12 will transition into the next era. I'm sure eleven other teams in this conference are looking forward to that switch.
Not this year though. This conference is still ruled by the Mighty Ducks.