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Stanford in total control vs. Ducks

Stanford players celebrate with fans on the field after the Cardinal beat Oregon.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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STANFORD, Calif.

A nasty rumor about Stanford football went swirling around the football world this week. After Stanford alum Jonathan Martin left the Miami Dolphins amid reports of vicious and ugly bullying by teammates, most notably fellow offensive lineman Richie Incognito, a whisper campaign began that Stanford football players were soft. They were brainiacs, a bunch of nerds whose toughness factor was questionable at best in the ultra-macho world of the NFL.

To which David Shaw and his Stanford Cardinal football team offered the perfect rejoinder on Thursday night in the Pac-12 upset of the year.

It wasn’t just that Stanford tamed the high-flying offense of Oregon, shutting the Ducks out for the first 49:47 and then holding on at the wild end for a 26-20 victory that saw Stanford put a serious dent in Oregon’s BCS title game hopes for the second year in a row.

It was how Stanford did it: by playing big-boy, smashmouth football. And by putting on a display of toughness in the trenches that rivals that of programs, like Alabama, whose toughness is never questioned.

This is not to conflate the very serious problem of Jonathan Martin and bullying, which reflects a greater societal ill that we’re just beginning to tackle, with what was ultimately only a football game. What happened to Martin, a former All-America left tackle at Stanford whose job was to protect Andrew Luck’s blind side, is something that deserves far more introspection than any result of a sporting event.

Still, what Shaw’s team did on Thursday was obliterate the silly notion that a Stanford degree — worth its weight in gold in any other industry — is somehow a hindrance in the NFL.

“Do Stanford guys have a problem?” Shaw said after the upset win, the fourth year in a row where the underdog has won in the Stanford-Oregon rivalry. “Funny thing is, that question usually comes after, ‘Boy, your team is so tough and so physical, and plays so great on the offense and defensive line.’ And then follow that up with a question about, ‘Well, Stanford has that problem.’

“Tonight, you see who we are: a big, physical team that plays extremely hard and plays very well together.”

The only problem this Stanford team has is that nagging October loss to Utah, which is the only thing keeping us from discussing whether Stanford is the best team in the country.

After the Cardinal's win Thursday, perhaps we need to discuss it, anyway.

In an age of spread offenses and the read-option attack, Stanford flat-out dominated Oregon by running it up the gut. With the help of Stanford’s towering — and, yes, tough — offensive line, Tyler Gaffney ran for a school-record 45 carries.

It was a courageous performance by Gaffney, one that spelled the death of Oregon by a thousand cuts. Gaffney did it in small, manageable chunks. He ran for 156 yards and one touchdown, averaging 3.5 yards per carry and didn’t have a run of longer than 16 yards. That was part of the game plan to keep the Oregon quick-strike offense off the field.

That’s exactly what Stanford did, controlling the ball for a ludicrous 42-plus minutes of a 60-minute game.

“Tyler Gaffney ran the ball tonight the way running backs are supposed to run the ball in this game of football,” Shaw said, sounding like Vince Lombardi, the ultimate man’s man.

And the defense? Well, the Stanford defense stifled college football’s most hyped offensive scheme. Going into the game, Oregon averaged 55.6 points and 632.1 yards per game, both second in college football. Stanford held Oregon to 20 points and 312 yards of offense, less than half the Oregon averages. Dating back to last year’s upset victory in Eugene, Stanford held college football’s most exciting offense scoreless in 12 straight possessions. In two games over the past two seasons, Stanford’s bullying D held Oregon’s offense to a combined 34 points. The past two seasons, Oregon has scored more than 34 points in every single non-Stanford game.

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, the leading Heisman candidate before the game, looked merely pedestrian against Stanford. His statistics were inflated during a hectic fourth-quarter comeback attempt, but the numbers still weren’t Heisman-esque: six rushes for negative-16 yards, 20 of 34 passing for 250 yards and two touchdowns.

Moreover, in the area where toughness is proven — in front of the goal line — Stanford's defense twice stuffed Oregon’s offense, stopping a fourth-and-goal play on the 4-yard-line on Oregon’s first possession, then stripping the ball from Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas at the 2-yard-line and recovering the fumble in the second quarter.

“We knew going into this game that it was going to be a test of wills,” said Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov, who forced and recovered the goal-line fumble. “Two different approaches, two very different tempos. One team was going to decide the way it was going to go.”

That team was Stanford.

Unfortunately, this smashmouth Stanford team might not get to decide its fate in a national title game. The College Football Playoff won’t begin until next year, and who knows whether a one-loss Stanford squad will be able to force its way back into the national title chase when four other teams in the top 10 remain undefeated.

I asked Shaw about this in a postgame interview for FOX Sports 1. He wished the playoff were in place this season so his team wouldn’t worry about being on the outside looking in. But still, real men don’t complain about things that they can’t control, and Shaw didn’t complain. He instead spoke of how proud he was of his team, which beat a hugely talented Oregon squad the only way it knew how: by simply playing a tougher, more physical football game.

Does Stanford deserve a BCS title shot despite the one loss on its resume? That’s a discussion for another day, when the BCS rankings shake themselves out. Instead, Thursday was about proving something else about Stanford football: That “Nerd Nation” might just be the toughest group of men in college football.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Stanford, Oregon, Tyler Gaffney, Jonathan Martin

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