Five games over the last 13-seasons have encapsulated this pairing. Wherever that string runs out and lays down will mark the end of the series’ Goldenest Era. It will never be better for both schools at the same time again.
It is a strange rivalry to begin with. Stanford has been good over short or middle-long periods but also played through decades where they didn’t win many games. Not more than a dozen people in Palo Alto appeared to care either way. Whatever happens, their slovenly, man-of-patches band is going to take the field and make an anarchic political or social statement no-one understands or even senses, and some undergrad geek’d-up on nothing but the chemicals his brain produces is going to dawn a tree costume and hop around like a monkey in a Kipling story until he is forced to stop sometime during the pre-dawn hours.
The Ducks, at their end, were almost always bad for as long as anyone could remember, but grew a man’s feathers in the early 1990s and kept them. Since 1994, they have been a glowing star out there somewhere in the constellation of college football. At some point over the last dozen or so years they floated onto Orion’s Belt and began shining alongside the sky’s brightest fireballs. No one saw it coming.
But the antagonism is there between these teams, and it is real. From either campus, you just maneuver onto Interstate-5 with the ocean on your right or left and head over the broad, timbered valleys and through the sandy-green mountain country—there aren’t any turns—and after about 500 miles and one state-line you get there. These are true Pacific Coast rivals.
You don’t need Gibbons history to understand the series. The rivalry reached its first crisis in 2001 and has kept a familiar narrative ever since. The Ducks generally beat the Cardinal—their record is 9-4. But Stanford has had a tendency to go on cold blooded Duck Hunts in the seasons when the flock seemed to be flying at its fastest and fullest force. The massacres have been notable.
The 2001 game first, because the mind is receptive to chronology, and afterwards the series went dormant while Oregon ran up seven consecutive wins.
In that first big upset, Stanford thwarted a championship opportunity for Oregon. The Ducks had been on the edge of a big, national breakthrough since getting back to the Rose Bowl in 1995. Six years later, and wearing the third vintage of radical Nike-made livery, it was there.
Oregon’s Joey Harrington was one of the best amateur quarterbacks in America, he was Heisman Trophy good. Onterrio Smith was rolling along four full years before the whizzinator felled his good name, and so was Maurice Morris. Mike Bellotti had a lot of good seasons left, but this team was his zenith.
Stanford had the human equivalent of plywood—if plywood could develop a strong moral sense—in Ty Willingham coaching their team. He was straight as a rod, and true. That Cardinal were a good squad that lost two conference games and their bowl to Georgia Tech to finish 9-3.
But at Autzen Stadium October 20, they pulled an upset out of their hat. Trailing by two touchdowns after three, they scored 21 fourth quarter points and shut out the fifth-ranked Ducks to win 49-42.
Oregon may not have been able to beat Miami in the Rose Bowl for the national title, but they should have had the chance. This season is marked as one of the BCS era’s most controversial finishes.
The Ducks were Pac-10 champs outright, and finished 11-1 after bludgeoning Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl. Colorado was, next to Miami, the hottest team in the country. They had torn Nebraska limb from limb in the season finale in Boulder, winning 62-24. The next week they had stampeded over Texas in the Big XII championship game. Oregon shot that Buffalo party to hell in the desert in Tempe. The Ducks were legit.
But Nebraska had gotten the BCS invite to the Rose Bowl despite not even reaching its conference championship game. The torches had been dipped and lit in Eugene, but the mob realized it was 2,000 miles from anyone who cared and flame was expressly forbidden on commercial airlines. No one had the credit to fly private.
Miami led Nebraska 34-0 at the half of the national championship game. It wasn’t even that close. Stanford had kept Oregon out.
Oregon, over this span, has won a lot more games head-to-head, but only really trolled on Stanford twice.
The Cardinal’s rise from the fiery ninth-circle of the Pac-10 underworld had been regarded with massive skepticism. Jim Harbaugh was at the head of the column and everyone decided he was worth hating. He became a villain and his mastodon-sized players were regarded as henchmen.
The Cardinal got big and tough and professional in their approach to the conference gauntlet. They went on the road to kill with ruthless, trained efficiency. It became a pleasure to kill and burn what they happened to come across. Because Harbaugh seemed to suffer from some kind of social-adjustment malady, it made Stanford’s appearances that much more compelling.
His 2009 team thwarted an eighth-ranked Rose Bowl-bound Oregon squad 51-42 in Palo Alto. Great big Toby Gerhart had run for 223 yards and three touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck had thrown for three scores and 251 yards on 12 completions.
Oregon’s Jeremiah Masoli and LaMichael James had put up big numbers for the Ducks but could not get it done. They would lose to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and finished 10-3, ranked 11th.
But the crest of Harbaugh’s rising wave broke in 2010 in Eugene, Oregon.
It was an absurd football game. The ninth-ranked Cardinal cruised way out in the first quarter to a 21-3 lead. The second quarter went 21-10 in favor of fourth-ranked Oregon, leaving it 31-24 at the half in Stanford’s favor.
The Ducks, captained by Chip Kelly—that rare swashbuckling-introvert amongst us—scored 28 unanswered points in the second half to win a route, 52-31. LaMichael James rushed for 257 yards and three touchdowns at 8.3 yards-per-carry. Quarterback Darron Thomas rushed for another 117 on 7.8 yards-per-carry, and threw for 238 with three touchdowns. Oregon ran up 626 yards of offense to the Cardinal’s 518.
Stanford’s Luck, now clearly marked by the Gods as a favorite, had been badgered and led into mistakes. He threw for 341 yards on 29-of-46 completions, but matched two touchdown throws with two interceptions.
Stanford finished that season 12-1, ending it on a 40-12 pulverization of Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. Harbaugh pulled up stakes and moved his warlike camp to the NFL.
Oregon would lose the national championship 22-19 to Auburn when a field goal arced gracefully through the uprights as time expired. The golden fleece eluded them again.
David Shaw, the water to Harbaugh’s fire, took over the Cardinal the following season. He quickly felt the fury of the force of 1,000 wings. Oregon, ranked sixth to Stanford’s third, went to Leeland Jr’s Farm and won 53-30.
This was meant to be Luck’s apotheosis, and he did play well, but Oregon pulled away. The Ducks would win the conference outright and beat Wisconsin in a showcase Rose Bowl, 45-38. It was the Ducks first win in Pasadena since 1917. But Oregon was finding out what many mighty programs had come to learn before them. Running down a national championship requires true endurance.
The Cardinal ended up 8-1 in the Pac-12 and 12-2 overall. Their second loss was to Oklahoma State in overtime at the Fiesta Bowl. They had been good enough to force the BCS to send a second Pac-12 team to the big bowls, and finished the year ranked fourth in that poll.
In 2012 and 2013, Stanford dynamited two Oregon teams that had the legs for a national championship. This pair of games remain the bafflers in the series, and the bitterest to Ducks because time hasn’t been allowed apply its soothing balm.
Oregon had—over 26 games from 2012 to the end of 2013—averaged 50-points against every opponent. Facing Stanford—first in Eugene, then Palo Alto—they scored 17 and 20.
The 2012 contest the Ducks dropped 17-14 in overtime. It was Stanford’s behemoths and missiles on the defensive side that did the damage. The Cardinals’ offense under new starter Kevin Hogan was ugly. It handed the ball to Stepfan Taylor and on 35 of its 36 pass plays ran some version of Spyder-2 Y-Banana to the fullback. But it worked.
The game, however, remains a deep and abiding mystery. It also thwarted the one championship that every region wants to see. Oregon against Alabama. The showdown between SEC old-school iron and West Coast dazzle. It is a tyrannosaurus versus a terodactyl the size of a tyrannosaurs. Geological space and time has become involved.
Oregon dominated and ran all over a sterling Kansas State team in the Fiesta Bowl and won its second straight BCS game, 35-17. Stanford beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, 20-14.
Last year, Stanford did it again, winning 26-20. This time, however, Oregon has a legitimate claim that their snow leopard star Marcus Mariota was injured. His left knee was not right, and neither was Oregon. Football seasons hinge on injury luck, which has a dark sense of humor indeed.
That said, the Cardinal bullied the Ducks under new coach Mark Helfrich. Super-athlete Tyler Gafney got the ball 45 times and rushed for 157 violent yards at just 3.5 per-carry. Hogan completed seven passes on a mere 13 attempts for 103 yards. He threw no touchdowns and no interceptions. The game-plan was Soviet Army at Stalingrad. Oregon got a shot of dying adrenaline late and scored 20 points in the fourth quarter to Stanford’s three, but it fell short.
Stanford went off to lose the Rose Bowl to Michigan State. Oregon would lose once more to Arizona and finish up in the Alamo Bowl against Texas, where they sent Mack Brown off to pasture with a savage 30-7 whipping.
And once more the tournament has arrived. Oregon, a fifth-ranked, one-loss team with all the pieces in place, is aimed directly at the first ever College Football Playoff. Stanford, for its part, has regressed offensively and lost three times already. The Cardinal are playing for much smaller stakes. But that defense is still hitting like a heavy-weight and Oregon is still a precision machine.
The game is in Eugene, but what does Stanford care?