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Oregon's Playoff Dreams Don't Die With Its Tough Loss at Stanford

The Ducks, who own arguably the best win of the season at Ohio State, shouldn't be written off despite the Pac-12's general woes.

An Oregon loss to an unranked team after climbing to No. 3 in the polls is extremely on-brand for this 2021 college football season. But an Oregon loss in overtime on the road without its offensive coordinator and several injured players, in a game that turned on an untimed down touchdown to end regulation after a shaky penalty flag, is not a College Football Playoff eliminator. This stunning, bizarre and controversial defeat at Stanford was not Farmageddon.

Relax, Ducks. You’re still in this thing.

Once you get past the ruthless domination of Georgia and Alabama, everyone is fallible. It’s just a matter of how ugly a team’s warts are. And while Stanford is no juggernaut, this 31–24 OT defeat comes with a pile of extenuating circumstances that must be kept in mind, if pollsters—and ultimately the CFP selection committee—are going to be fair.

Stanford TE Benjamin Yurosek is tackled by Oregon

Oregon still has arguably the best win of the season, at Ohio State. That should keep the one-loss Ducks ahead of the one-loss Buckeyes, for sure, and probably ahead of every other one-loss team. The number of undefeated teams that belong ahead of Phil Knight University coming out of this weekend is five: the Bulldogs, the Crimson Tide, Iowa, Cincinnati and Penn State. You can also make an argument for Michigan, BYU, Michigan State and Kentucky, but I’m not sure it’s a convincing one.

So while some harm was done to the Ducks’ résumé here in a wild affair at Stanford Stadium, it is not irrevocable harm. There will be one-loss teams in the playoff come December. Oregon could be one of them if it wins out.

Pac-12 cannibalism, an annual rite of autumn, is not a disqualifier. That September victory in the 100,000-seat cathedral of a Big Ten blueblood outweighs the teeming mediocrity of Oregon’s conference—for now.

If you want to peek ahead and assume that the top teams keep winning—a really risky assumption this season—the playoff race could unfold this way: Alabama and Georgia both make the CFP after arriving at the Southeastern Conference championship game undefeated; the Big Ten champion (Iowa or Penn State) locks up another bid; and the fourth spot comes down to a taffy pull between undefeated Cincinnati, one-loss Oregon and Big 12 champion Oklahoma. Throw BYU into the stew if you’d like as well.

Injury-riddled as they are coming out of Palo Alto, I believe the Ducks are O.K. with still being in the mix to potentially win a résumé contest for a fourth playoff spot.

“None of us are happy, content or proud of our final result of our performance,” coach Mario Cristobal said. “And we're a driven bunch that doesn't B.S. ourselves.”

This isn’t B.S., it’s truth: this was a struggle from before kickoff for depleted Oregon. Defensive back Bennett Williams, with three interceptions and 20 tackles on the season, missed the game after being injured in practice Friday; center Alex Forsyth was out with back spasms; and most importantly offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead was a game-day scratch due to a non-COVID-19 illness that arose Saturday morning.

From there, factor in a very good start for Stanford bouncing back from a loss to UCLA. The Cardinal took a 17–7 halftime lead, slowing down the Ducks in the passing game.

Then add an injury to leading rusher CJ Verdell late in the third quarter. Cristobal afterward termed it “a pretty significant injury” but isn’t sure of Verdell’s long-term status.

Despite all that, and despite a poor performance by quarterback Anthony Brown (“Excuse my language, but I played like s---,” he said), Oregon was in position to win. The Ducks led 24–17 when this game went haywire in the final minutes.

Cristobal made a bad decision to throw on second-and-18 with 2:14 left, stopping the clock and allowing Stanford coach David Shaw to save a timeout for the Cardinal’s final offensive possession. Then, with Stanford in disarray and facing a second-and-19 at its own four-yard line, Tanner McKee went to work on a desperation drive that had to impress 1970 Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett, who was in attendance.

McKee fired a slant pass to John Humphreys for 27 yards. Then McKee was sandwiched by two Ducks on the next play, leaving him prone on the grass and leading to a targeting call and ejection for Oregon star pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux. McKee left the game for just one play, then returned to fire more strikes into the middle of the field—13 yards to Benjamin Yurosek, 13 more to Bradley Archer—and suddenly the Cardinal were on the Oregon 31 in the final minute.

Then, another Ducks defensive penalty for a hit on McKee, this time roughing the passer, followed by one more slant to Yurosek to the Oregon 3-yard line. From there, Stanford transitioned from slants to fades, trying to use its tall receivers to win jump balls in the end zone. This is a David Shaw tradition.

“Over the last 15 years since we came here with coach [Jim] Harbaugh and I was the offensive coordinator … we’ve had a lot of guys go up and get the ball,” Shaw said. “Across the board, we've got two 6' 5" tight ends, a 6' 5" receiver, 6' 4" receiver and a 6' 3½" receiver who's 235 pounds. We're going to test people outside. If we don't make one, guess what, we're going to come back and do it again.”

On what appeared to be the final play of regulation, they came back to the fade. And this time, the 6’ 5” Humphreys drew a flag on the 5’ 11” Mykael Wright for holding. It was not the most egregious of penalties; it was the third flag of the drive on the Ducks; and it extended the game to one untimed down to decide whether it was over or would continue to overtime.

“We didn’t play with enough discipline,” Cristobal said. “We didn’t coach with enough discipline.”

Gifted with that final chance, McKee came to the line of scrimmage planning one final fade. He saw the coverage he wanted on the left side of the field and glanced in the direction of receiver Elijah Higgins, tipping him off that the pass was coming his way. Then McKee lobbed it into the Northern California sky and everyone in the stadium held their breath.

“You just have to trust your guy to go get it,” McKee said.

When Higgins came down with it, Stanford suddenly and improbably had life. From a second-and-19 at its own four with less than two minutes to play, it had tied the game. Oregon had to be in shock.

In overtime, McKee fired a strike to Humphreys for a touchdown, and Oregon was stopped on its set of downs. Down went the Ducks, onto the field went the Stanford students. Up in the air went the Pac-12 race, as another wrinkle was added to the national picture.

“Right now our team has to heal up and our team has to get better,” Cristobal said. “Our team has to make sure that times like this, when the noise surrounds your program, you got to make sure that you stick together and have each other’s back and go attack the processes that are going to put you back on track to be 1–0, to continue playing in a conference that has a lot of good football teams, a lot of good football players.”

That sentence sounds like a little bit of P.R. work on behalf of the Pac-12 for Oregon’s benefit. This is what coaches have to do once they lose a game, and certainly what they have to do when they play in a league that hasn’t measured up nationally in recent years.

It is customary for the nation to write off the Conference of Champions as soon as it runs out of undefeated teams, and we are at that point now. But hold the burial shovels. Oregon retains its hole card from the Horseshoe, and a loss that turned on an iffy flag on the final play of regulation, on a day when the Ducks’ play-caller called in sick, is not enough to disqualify them from the playoff race.

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