STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 12: Andrew Luck #12 of the Stanford Cardinal and head coach David Shaw stand on the sideline during the closing minute of their loss to the Oregon Ducks at Stanford Stadium on November 12, 2011 in Stanford, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Andrew Luck surveyed the field. He couldn't find his first read.
He looked down the middle. Nothing there either.
He saw the pressure coming from the right side. He stepped up and locked onto Coby Fleener on the right.
But Fleener was standing on the route with an underneath defender playing zone coverage sitting on the route. Luck uncorked the ball, and knowing that he had support from behind, Oregon LB Dewitt Stuckey stepped into the route and in front of Fleener and went racing one way to set up the first Ducks TD of the game.
Oregon was sitting with eight men in coverage as they only rushed three on the play. If Luck had read the coverage right, he probably would've moved the pocket or taken off to try and pick up the yardage on his own by scrambling for the marker. Neither happened.
It was the first of many gaffes by the Stanford Cardinal, who didn't look like a top five team for most of the night. Luck wasn't bad, but he certainly wasn't very good, and Stanford needed very good to beat Oregon. Luck completed 65% of his passes, but didn't do enough to move the pocket or even run with the football (usually a gifted scrambler, Luck quizzically stayed pocket-bound for most of the game).
Admittedly, Luck had only a few options in who he could distribute the ball to. Stanford could've really used the deep vertical threat they had last year in Doug Baldwin or a great possession guy like Ryan Whalen. With Zach Ertz and Chris Owusu out, they instead were limited to Griff Whalen as Luck's only real outside option. Luck averaged only a meager 6.6 yards per pass attempt, and seemed to dance in the pocket and lose proper footwork as he worried about the Oregon pressure. He also coughed up the ball on a sack fumble, giving Oregon 14 easy points that really changed the complexion of the game. Tough times for Luck, and he's out of chances at redemption.
The Stanford defense also made critical errors in surrendering big play after big play. The loss of Shayne Skov finally seemed to bite them as Stanford got lost on two many plays trying to contain both quarterback and running back. Skov probably would've been able to come in and stuff the Oregon run attack on multiple occasions in support of the rest of the defenders. Instead the Cardinal always looked out of position, whiffed on tackles, got baited by first looks, and let LaMichael James, De'Anthony Thomas, and Josh Huff run right past them.
Perhaps chief among the culprits is Stanford coach David Shaw, who called a pretty pedestrian game on Saturday. The Cardinal obviously are thin in the receiving corps but Stanford seemed content to sit in their box and run their offense methodically 5-15 yards. Stanford couldn't (or wouldn't?) stretch the field in any way, and Oregon happily boxed them in and got plenty of chances to rush in and plug up the plays.
Run heavy power? Sure, it worked before, but this wasn't 2009. Oregon's defenders were smart not to get swallowed up in the line of the scrimmage and waited until they had clear gaps to attack the Stanford ball-carrier, whether it be Stepfan Taylor or Tyler Gaffney. But the Cardinal never really took risks to open up the middle of the field with the deep pass. It was quick hit, quick hit, dink and dunk. On too many of those offensive drives, Stanford made a mistake and the drive stalled.
You'd have liked to see more looks in the play design by Shaw than what you saw from Stanford. Against such an explosive team like Oregon, the Cardinal needed to fight with some unconventional tactics of their own to try and get the Ducks out of their gameplan. Stanford set up Oregon to load in on short and intermediate and never made them pay for that decision by threatening deep.
The Cardinal looked very limited on Saturday; whether that was by personnel or design, it was not enough to give Stanford any advantage to set Oregon back on their heels. Strange offensive gameplan by Shaw, and it simplified the way Oregon's defense could handle the Stanford offense most of the way.
Regardless, while the Oregon Ducks proved that they can dominate with their style of football, Stanford finally hit their wall on Saturday night. And just like that it's over for them, as they go from National Championship contenders to also-rans.
That's how quickly fortunes change in college football. That's how quickly Luck and Stanford go from fearsome to forgotten.