EUGENE, Ore. -- With the efficiency his offense had demonstrated until the moment it met Stanford's defense Saturday, Oregon coach Chip Kelly offered an elegantly simple three-word explanation that described his team's loss and the race for the national title in general.
"The ball bounces," Kelly said.
One moment, the ball rests in the hands of Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan during a second-down play in overtime. The next, it wobbles on the Autzen Stadium turf like a great brown Easter egg waiting to be snatched. Oregon linebacker Michael Clay sees it. He dives. The ball caroms back and forth on his forearms. Then it bounces away. When the bodies rise from the turf, Stanford guard Khalil Wilkes proves that possession is ten-tenths of the law. Two plays later, Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson kicks a 37-yard field goal. It gives the Cardinal a 17-14 win, knocks Oregon from the top of the polls and sends the national title race spiraling further into uncertainty. "It hurts everyone so badly because they have all put so much into this," Kelly will say later. "It's times like these that you wish you would have the right words to say to take the pain away. But there are no words to do that."
Had the ball bounced differently, Kelly might have smiled as he spoke different words. The Oregon band's postgame rendition of Earth, Wind and Fire's September might have been accompanied by dancing fans instead of zombies clawing their way to the exits. Clay might not have emerged from a silent locker room to say this: "If we'd have pounced on that fumble, it would have changed everything."
It might have, but the ball does what the ball wants in those moments. Had Clay corralled it, the first overtime would have ended. Stanford would have gotten the ball again. Ditto for Oregon's offense, which had been held 40 points below its scoring average to that point. Guess who was the better bet to score more?
Had Oregon won, the Ducks would have remained in first place in the human polls and risen to first in the BCS rankings following Kansas State's 52-24 loss at Baylor. Oregon and Notre Dame would have been the only teams in complete control of their BCS fate. Now, thanks to Bouncing Ball Theory, the only group in control is the Fighting Irish.
Chaos Theory tells us that a butterfly can flap its wings over Japan and cause a storm in New York, but we can't watch that happen in real time. Bouncing Ball Theory tells us that a 20-year-old can kick a field goal in the Pacific Northwest and touch off a celebration in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Through the power of social media, we can all hear the cheers from the Alabama faithful who were just as silent last week at Bryant-Denny Stadium as Oregon fans were Saturday night as they stood trapped in the upper reaches of Autzen and watched Stanford players celebrate on their field.
Who will play for the national title now? Who knows?
After weeks of being told that they didn't have the style points to overcome Oregon and Kansas State, the Fighting Irish are the only ones who don't have to concern themselves with any nebulous factors. They can go to the Los Angeles Coliseum and win 2-0 because a snap sailed over the USC punter's head and out of the end zone, and they'll book their tickets to South Florida for the national title game. Everyone else must win with panache.
Alabama, destitute after losing to Texas A&M last week, might win its way back into the game by beating Auburn next week and then beating Georgia in the SEC title game. Georgia, which also only has one loss, might do the same by beating Georgia Tech next week and then beating Alabama in the SEC title game. Meanwhile, in Tallahassee, one-loss Florida will face one-loss Florida State. The winner will want to stake its claim. But what about Kansas State, which can finish 11-1 by beating Texas on Dec. 1? What about Oregon, which plays Oregon State next week and would still play for the Pac-12 title if Stanford loses next week at UCLA?
Sometimes, the ball doesn't bounce. Sometimes it sails. It sailed over the heads of Kansas State defenders and into the hands of Baylor receivers Saturday. It sailed through the Waco air while carried by tailback Lache Seastrunk, who originally played for Oregon and who, before Stanford pulled the shocker, appeared as if he would help the Ducks in their quest for the national title game even as the NCAA tries to determine how wrongdoing committed during Seastrunk's recruitment might affect Oregon's fortunes in the long run.
In Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 1, the ball kicked by Stanford's Williamson in overtime sailed left of the left upright, and the Cardinal lost the Fiesta Bowl to Oklahoma State. Afterward, Williamson sat in his locker and bawled. Saturday, Williamson used a pre-kick routine sharpened after the failure of the Fiesta Bowl. In his mind, he had watched the ball sail through the uprights 20 times before it actually did. And when it did? "I kind of blacked out, to be honest," Williamson said.
Why was Williamson in position to kick the game-winner? In a macro sense, he found himself there because Stanford coaches got sick of losing to Oregon by three touchdowns and began recruiting faster, more athletic defenders. Those players either won jobs or pushed their elders to become faster and more athletic in order to keep their jobs. "We are faster on the back end," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "We've got speed." As a result, the floodgates never opened as they do in most Oregon games. The Ducks kept grinding, but they never found that other gear that allows them to score four touchdowns before their opponent can catch his breath. "We saw some runs that looked like they'd be 20-yard gains that ended up being 12-yard gains," Shaw said. "That's huge against this Oregon team."
Next week, if Stanford can stop another up-tempo opponent (UCLA), the Cardinal -- not the Ducks -- will claim the Pac-12 North title. The following Friday, Stanford would face the Bruins again -- this time in Palo Alto -- for the conference championship and a ticket to the Rose Bowl. To reach that point, the Cardinal had to stop Oregon one last time Saturday. The Ducks played offense first in overtime, and with limited space to stretch the defense, Oregon stalled again after two Marcus Mariota runs and an incomplete pass. So Alejandro Maldonado lined up for a 41-yard field goal attempt. The ball sailed. Then it tailed. Then it met the left upright with a mighty clank.
The ball bounced.
Unlike in the second quarter, when a Maldonado extra-point attempt bounded off the upright and over the crossbar, this ball fell straight down into the end zone. But Oregon would have another chance. Two plays later, linebacker Kiko Alonso would dislodge the ball from Hogan's grasp. It would bounce. Clay would dive for it. It would bounce again.
"I dove on it," the surprisingly Zen linebacker said. "I thought I had it in my hands. It squirted out. Life happens."
Life happens. The ball bounces. Kicks clear the crossbar in Eugene and start parties in Tuscaloosa.
And America's greatest sport spins madly on.