PALO ALTO, Calif. -- As Oregon players ran to a corner of Stanford Stadium and celebrated with their traveling horde of fans, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck -- the presumptive Heisman favorite and No. 1 draft pick -- trudged slowly to the tunnel, helmet hung halfway down his head.
For 13 months, no one had touched the Cardinal, which ran off a streak of 17 straight wins and stood on the brink of a potential BCS championship game bid. This was uncharted territory for the egghead school which, before last season, had not finished in the top 5 in 70 years. This, the first-ever matchup of Top 10 teams in Palo Alto, was Stanford's opportunity to clinch a spot in the first-ever Pac-12 championship game and cement its newfound status as Best of the West.
Instead, the game ended like so many other Pac-10/Pac-12 contests the past three seasons: With Chip Kelly's Oregon Ducks running away from another overmatched opponent, 53-30, for their staggering 19th straight conference win. They'll likely return to the Top 5 come Sunday's new BCS standings.
"I feel like people forgot about us," said Oregon receiver Josh Huff, whose team vanished from the national conversation after losing its opener 40-27 to now top-ranked LSU. "If we keep playing like we do, who knows where we'll be at the end of the season."
The Ducks, who need one more win to earn their spot in the conference title game, could be back in Pasadena, Calif., for the second time in three years. They could return to Glendale, Ariz., for a second straight season as a Fiesta Bowl invitee.
And after a turbulent Saturday that also saw TCU stun undefeated Boise State, Oregon (9-1) could even get back to the BCS National Championship Game for a second straight year -- perhaps for a rematch with the Bayou Bengals.
"We've got to win the next game [Saturday against 8-2 USC] and hope there's a lot of chaos," said Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.
Saturday night, Aliotti's unit created all sorts of chaos for Luck's previously overpowering offense. They sacked the decorated quarterback nearly as many times (three) as he had been all season (four). They picked him off twice, one for a touchdown, and forced him to fumble one other occasion. And they held the Cardinal's physical rushing attack to a modest 124 yards on 32 attempts.
Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas (11-of-17 for 155 yards and three touchdowns) and running back LaMichael James (20 carries, 146 yards, three TDs) remain the Ducks' most visible stars, but their most important players Saturday night were Terrell Turner, Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi and Dion Jordan -- the starters for a ferocious defensive line that made life miserable for Stanford's highly regarded offensive line.
"We get better and better, and this was our best performance yet," said Turner, who had a key third-quarter sack and forced fumble of Luck that Oregon converted into a touchdown to go up by three scores. "Next week should be even better."
The Ducks' defensive front wasn't a strength for much of the season, and in fact they were catching criticism locally for their inability to create pressure and turnovers. But in a 34-17 win at Washington last week, Turner and Co. broke through for six sacks and three turnovers. On Saturday, they had Luck visibly rattled and hesitant for much of the night. "[My] worst game of the year I guess," said the Stanford star, who was just 14-of-22 for 135 yards in the first half. He finished 27-of-41 for 271 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions in a shaky performance that suddenly leaves the Heisman race wide open.
"We were able to get to him a little bit," said Aliotti. "He's certainly the best quarterback I've seen in a long time. It didn't seem like he felt comfortable."
Stanford tried to set the tone early with its running game, handing the ball to tailback Stepfan Taylor 20 times in the first half, but the Ducks held him to 4.3 yards per carry and no run longer than 12 yards. For its part, Oregon kept handing the ball to James, who started slow (seven carries for 12 yards) before bursting through a seam for a 58-yard touchdown that put the Ducks up 15-6 early in the second quarter. Two more long touchdowns (a 41-yard De'Anthony Thomas dash off a fourth-and-7 screen pass and a 59-yard catch and run by Huff) extended the lead to 29-16 by the 13:23 mark of the third quarter, at which point Stanford largely abandoned the run.
"They are physical, so we had to be just as physical -- or 'physical-er,'" said Turner. "And that's what we did."
Luck had success through the air in the second half, throwing one touchdown and leading two other scoring drives, but his turnovers proved costly. A telegraphed pick to linebacker DeWitt Stuckey set up the Ducks' first touchdown, and his fumble on Turner's sack in the third quarter set up Oregon at the Stanford 12-yard line. James scored four plays later to put the Ducks up 36-16, and the teams basically traded scores from there until one last dagger pick -- this one on a bobble by his receiver -- that Oregon's Boseko Lokombo returned for a touchdown that produced the final margin.
The Ducks won last year's meeting -- also Stanford's only loss of the season -- 52-31.
"It's disappointing, obviously," said Luck. "But life goes on. We have two more big ball games coming up."
Indeed, with home games remaining against Cal (6-4) and Notre Dame (7-3), the Cardinal are still very much alive for a second straight BCS at-large berth, most likely to the Fiesta Bowl. But Oregon now holds the inside track to Pasadena -- though suddenly they're back in the discussion for something more.
Fans already sour on the possibility of an LSU-Alabama championship rematch probably won't be thrilled with the prospect of Tigers-Ducks II, either. For one, the first meeting wasn't particularly close (Oregon outgained LSU but committed several backbreaking turnovers), and Chip Kelly's repeated nonconference failures (Boise State and Ohio State in 2008, Auburn in 2010, LSU this season) have elicited backlash toward the Ducks, who seem far less potent outside the familiar confines of their conference.
But hey -- we're running out of options. Right now LSU and Oklahoma State (both 10-0) control their own destinies, but if either slips up (the Tigers face 9-1 Arkansas on Thanksgiving weekend; the Cowboys visit 8-1 Oklahoma on Dec 3), the pool opens to a similarly blemished group of contenders: Alabama, Oregon and the Sooners. The Ducks -- which broke in three new offensive line starters against LSU and replaced a bunch of key veterans from last year's defense -- have improved immeasurably on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
But that conversation will take place entirely outside of Oregon's football complex.
"It feels really good to be 9-1 right now, [to win] in this kind of atmosphere, on this kind of night," said Aliotti. "But you have a game like this and all I'm seeing Is [USC receivers] Robert Woods and Marquise Lee, Matt Barkley and those guys [next week]."
The Trojans will certainly pose a challenge in what has suddenly become the most intriguing game on a rather blasé national slate next weekend. But we've seen this movie before. Kelly's teams stumble early but get rolling by conference play, at which point they're virtually untouchable. The third-year coach is now a remarkable 24-1 in Pac-10/Pac-12 games.
Luck may leave Palo Alto as the most distinguished quarterback in school history, but he's probably going to finish his career without a conference championship ring. He had the misfortune of starting his career the same year as Kelly, whose program continues to tower over the rest of the West.