As No. 7 Oregon ran off the field Saturday night after its 53-30 whipping of fourth-ranked and previously undefeated Stanford, a fan in the stands wearing a Cardinal pullover yelled a painful reminder to Ducks players.
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“Don’t forget LSU,” the fan said.
Not that Oregon can forget its season-opening 40-27 loss against LSU at Cowboys Stadium, one in which it had four turnovers. It’s the Ducks’ lone defeat this season.
But even though Saturday’s win made Oregon the team to beat to represent the Pac-12’s North Division in the conference’s inaugural championship game, the Ducks were already talking about a rematch against top-ranked LSU before they had even exited Stanford Stadium’s soggy and overgrown field.
They weren’t talking about the triumph being the Ducks’ first road victory against a top-five team, or that they had ended Stanford’s nation-best, 17-game winning streak or damaged the Heisman Trophy campaign of Cardinal quarterback Andrew Luck, who had three turnovers.
“We want them again,” Ducks wide receiver Rahsaan Vaughn said of LSU.
As unlikely as that possibility once seemed just more than two months ago, there’s now at least a chance it could happen with help from other teams.
But on a day on which two teams in the top five of the BCS lost, Oregon crept back into the national championship chase on the heels of a dominating performance — one that reminded college football that the Ducks still have almost all of their playmakers from a team that lost on the final play of last season’s BCS title game.
“I feel like the whole world is sleeping on us,” freshman tailback De’Anthony Thomas said. “We’re the real deal.”
On this night, Oregon was a completely different team from the one in the LSU loss. The Ducks looked like themselves again on both sides of the ball: stunningly fast and ultra-athletic.
“We’re a lot better,” Oregon tailback LaMichael James said when asked how much his team has improved since the loss to LSU.
It showed because Oregon’s trademark no-huddle, spread-option “blur” offense was back to making big plays — like Thomas’ 41-yard touchdown catch on a fourth-and-7 in the first half, and wide receiver Josh Huff’s 59-yard touchdown reception on the first possession of the second half.
James also had a 58-yard touchdown run on which he started left before cutting back and then going left again, all while untouched. After missing two games earlier this season because of a grotesque dislocated-elbow injury, he appears back to the form that made him a Heisman Trophy finalist last season.
He juked helpless Stanford defenders all night, rushing for a game-high 146 yards and three touchdowns. It all had Oregon coach Chip Kelly advocating his star tailback for the Heisman.
“He gets better and better as the game goes along,” Kelly said. “The kid’s awesome.”
So was Oregon’s surprising defense, which forced five turnovers. The team’s speed was a nightmare for Luck.
On Luck’s first interception, Oregon middle linebacker Dewitt Stuckey fell down and then got back up to race in front of a pass intended for Stanford tight end Coby Fleener. Speed also caused Luck’s lost fumble in the third quarter when Ducks defensive end Terrell Turner shot into the backfield and slung the quarterback to the ground.
Oregon linebacker Boseko Lokombo also picked off a Luck pass in the fourth quarter and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown.
“Defensively, they did a good job with stunts and blitzes,” said Luck, who was 27-of-41 passing for 271 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
The pressure that Oregon’s defense caused with its speed was stunning against a Stanford offensive line with two highly touted NFL prospects. Luck was sacked three times, once less than he had been all season before entering the game.
“I see them every day in practice, and I know how good they are,” James said of Oregon’s defense. “I’m sure they were tired of hearing about how great Andrew Luck is.”
But as impressive as Oregon’s victory was, perspective is important. After all, Stanford coach David Shaw was blunt earlier this month about his team’s kryptonite.
“We’ve had an issue periodically with teams that do have quickness on the edges,” Shaw said.
Oregon, of course, had been college football’s definition of speed. That was before it looked not so fast and athletic in its loss to LSU.
But Stanford was still so concerned about Oregon’s quickness that it’s not coincidence the field was soaked and lush Saturday night. Thomas is so used to such tactics by Ducks opponents that he recites them like ingredients for a recipe.
“Watering the grass,” Thomas said. “Muddy fields. All kinds of stuff.”
Obviously, Stanford’s field tactics didn’t work. When asked about them, Thomas simply replied, “They can’t beat us straight up.”
But Thomas is haunted by the team that did. In the loss to LSU, the first game of his collegiate career, he lost two fumbles.
“I feel like we’re better than LSU,” Thomas said.
Thomas is so confident in that belief that he still thinks Oregon will win the national championship this season.
“We always make runs at it,” Huff said. “We just look for teams to slip up, and if we keep doing what we do, who knows where we’ll be at the end of the season?”
Not that Huff had forgotten about LSU, either. He and his teammates just think the rest of college football has forgotten about Oregon.