Stanford gives NCAA Oregon playbook

There is one collective, nagging thought on the minds of the Oregon faithful after Thursday night’s stunning 26-20 loss at Stanford:

How the heck did this happen? Again.

How did Stanford jump out to 26-0 lead?

How did Heisman favorite Marcus Mariota and the high-powered Oregon offense go without a point until the 10:11 mark of the fourth quarter?

How did the Cardinal — the same team that lost to the unranked Utah Utes in Week 7 — take down the undefeated Ducks, ruin their perfect season, and all but dash their BCS championship hopes, just as they did in 2012?

Receiver Josh Huff’s expression on the sidelines before the clock ran out said it all.

Indeed. How did this happen?

Heisman heartbreak

Mariota entered the game as the Heisman front-runner in most people’s eyes, averaging 285 yards passing with a 64-percent completion percentage and 64 more yards on the ground. On Thursday night, he threw for 250 yards, but on less than 60-percent passing. What’s more, he ran for negative 16 yards and was sacked three times. After accounting for 29 total TDs in the first eight games this season, he accounted for only two against Stanford. And even that is misleading. Consider that after three quarters, Mariota, carrying a 178.5 passer rating entering the game, had this passing line:

12 for 26 (a woeful 46 percent), 135 yards, zero TDs, 89.8 passer rating.

So yeah, we aren’t exactly used to seeing photos of Mariota looking like this:

Or this:

Meanwhile, counterpart Kevin Hogan was only 7 for 13 for 103 yards and no scores through the air, but unlike Mariota, he did damage on the ground with 57 yards and a score on eight carries. Most importantly he did not give Mariota any extra chances by not turning the ball over. And he didn’t seem to feel the need to compete with Mariota throw for throw — which was probably a bright idea (after all, he does go to Stanford).

Run into the ground

How did the Ducks, who boast the second-most prolific offense in the NCAA with nearly 56 points per game, get shut down (and shut out) by the Cardinal defense over the course of the first three quarters? Maybe it was because of Oregon’s inability to convert on third downs, finishing the game just 3 for 10 on those attempts.

Or perhaps it was due to the Ducks’ failure to run the ball against the Stanford defense. The Ducks totaled just 62 yards on 24 carries (just 2.6 yards per carry) —a significant decrease from their near-300-yard average for the season.

Or maybe it was because the Ducks were their own worst enemy: 10 penalties for 81 yards, four fumbles (two lost), three sacks allowed, zero forced turnovers and zero sacks on defense.

It’s a matter of time

But the biggest reason Oregon struggled — indeed the key to shutting down the Oregon attack — was turning Mariota into more spectator and less quarterback.

Stanford dominated possession, holding the ball for 42:34 of the game and stringing together two 96-yard drives. The Cardinal’s longest drive of the game — 20 plays and 96 yards — only resulted in a field goal. But it ate more than eight minutes off the clock. Stanford’s second-longest drive of the game in terms of time also netted just three points, but also absorbed more than half a quarter of game time. So beating the Ducks wasn’t as much about scoring enough points to keep up with them — as most had speculated would be key — but rather keeping the ball out of Mariota’s hands and making sure you get something out of your drives.

With a tight grip on the football, the Cardinal took points any way they could get them. Style points weren’t important on The Farm, minutes and rushing yards were. Stanford opened the game with a three-and-out, then scored touchdowns on each of its next two drives — one a 2-yard run by running back Tyler Gaffney and the other carried an 11-yard run by a diving Hogan. Gaffney compiled 157 yards on a whopping 45 carries for a Cardinal squad that amassed 274 total yards on the ground.

This handoff from Hogan to Gaffney was a common theme throughout the game:

The Cardinal added four straight field goals by senior Jordan Williamson, the 3-point bumps adding up to inflate the score to 26-0 with 11:40 left in the fourth quarter.

On the rare occasion it did punt the ball away, Stanford’s continued ability to stop Oregon possession after possession preserved the building lead. The Ducks finally woke up in the final frame and scored 20 points over the course of the final 10 minutes. But their late effort to scratch and claw their way back into contention fell short.

The final score reflected a 6-point separation but the difference between the two teams tonight was much wider.

Wing and a prayer

What does this mean for the Ducks’ national championship chances? Well, now they’ll almost certainly need to count on other elite teams slipping up.

”We don’t hold the cards anymore,” Ducks coach Mark Helfrich told the AP.

The Stanford fans pouring onto the field signaled as much.