EUGENE, Ore. – The locals like to call Autzen Stadium the loudest place in college football. But when Jordan Williamson's 37-yard field goal sliced through the cold night air and between the uprights, the only sound was silence.
It was so quiet you could hear a dream die. And nearly hear the celebrations that erupted thousands of miles away in South Bend and Tuscaloosa.
On the most shocking night yet in a season of tumult, Oregon's undefeated season hit the scrap heap in a 17-14 overtime loss to Stanford. Meanwhile in Waco, Texas, Kansas State was being routed by lowly Baylor. The top two teams in America, with the inside track to play each other for the national title come January, performed a synchronized face plant.
Now undefeated Notre Dame and rejuvenated Alabama will assume the most coveted – and pressurized – positions in the nation. The Fighting Irish are a single victory against arch-rival USC from a berth in the BCS championship game. The Crimson Tide must handle arch-rival Auburn – a program in disarray – and then win the SEC championship game against Georgia.
But if the last two Saturdays have taught us anything, it's this: Don't assume anything. The road to South Florida is littered with November land mines.
Few anticipated the Ducks stepping on one here.
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They were a three-touchdown favorite against a Cardinal team they'd scored 105 points on the past two years in easy victories. Andrew Luck was long gone. With a freshman quarterback making his second career start – and first on the road – there seemed to be no way for Stanford to match points with the Oregon offensive machine.
Except the Stanford defense somehow shut down the machine. There weren't many points to match. The Ducks were held 41 below their season average, scoring their fewest points since Chip Kelly's first game as head coach in 2009.
That was the 19-8 debacle against Boise State that became the LeGarrette Blount punch game. This loss was a sucker punch of a different kind.
For the most part, the Ducks maintained a forced stoicism afterward. Distress was kept tightly under wraps. It wasn't until quarterback Marcus Mariota came into meet the media that you could glimpse the agony of defeat.
Mariota sat down, blinked hard, rubbed a hand across his face and heaved a sigh. Truth be told, he looked like he wanted to cry – just not here, in public. The freshman has had a brilliant season, but was nowhere near his best while under constant duress from the Cardinal defense.
"It hurts," he said, then paused. "It really does hurt. It's not an easy one to swallow, but there's another game on the horizon."
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That game is against Oregon State next week, with much less on the line now. Oregon went from controlling its national championship path to not even controlling its future in the Pac-12 North.
You can count the ways everything slipped away from the Ducks Saturday night:
• There were the two missed field goals by Alejandro Maldonado, one from 42 yards in the third quarter and one from 41 in overtime that doinked the upright.
"Just a change in the wind, or if somebody would have blown really hard, it would have pushed it to the right and been good," said safety Brian Jackson. "It's a little upsetting."
Maldonado had only attempted one field goal all season, mostly watching Rob Beard perform unimpressively in that role (Beard is 4 of 8, with a long of 41). Kelly largely disdains field goals, so his kickers don't get a lot of in-game practice. And a year ago, Maldonado missed a 37-yarder that could have tied USC in a loss that helped end Oregon's title hopes.
• There was the play when De'Anthony Thomas spectated instead of blocking in the first quarter. Mariota scrambled out of a collapsing pocket and down the Oregon sideline, covering 77 yards – but he could have scored with some help. The super-fast Thomas was simply sprinting alongside the quarterback as safety Devon Carrington closed in and knocked Mariota out of bounds at the Stanford 15.
Had Thomas thrown a block, Mariota would have scored. Oregon's drive stalled inside the Stanford 10, as Kelly passed on a field goal and Mariota was tackled on fourth-and-2.
Mariota had 11 other carries in the game and netted only 12 yards. The 77-yarder was the only trademark Oregon explosive play of the night – no other run went for more than 16 yards, and the longest pass was 28. Stanford covered and tackled and adhered to assignments, never letting the Ducks get fully into their disorienting offensive rhythm.
"They just did a great job," running back Kenjon Barner said. "Guys were in the right spots at the right time."
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• There was the third-down play on Oregon's overtime possession, when Mariota didn't get the full play signal and threw an out pass while receiver Josh Huff ran a post – and looked open as he hit the end zone.
• On Stanford's OT possession, there was the Kevin Hogan fumble that somehow stayed with the Cardinal. The quarterback was sensational all night, but when hit from behind by Kiko Alonso he coughed up the ball. Hogan wound up with the ball, even though he wasn't the first player with a shot at it.
"The ball bounces funny," said defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti. "Why didn't we get the last fumble? We had it in our hands."
Oregon players and coaches will still be asking themselves those questions Sunday, as the painful new reality of the season sinks in. But as badly as this loss stings, it still does not disqualify the Ducks from the national title picture.
Oh, they need help from some unlikely sources – the likes of Auburn and Georgia Tech, for starters. But the chaos of Saturday night means a host of one-loss teams – from Alabama, Georgia and Florida in the SEC to Florida State and even Clemson in the ACC to Oregon in the Pac-12 – are still alive in the championship chase.
At this point, even Ohio State – undefeated but ineligible for a bowl game – can dream. The 11-0 Buckeyes can mount a lobbying campaign for an AP No. 1 and a split national title.
"We have one loss, and there's only one undefeated team," Jackson said. "It really depends what's going to happen at the end of next week. All hope isn't over."
No, hope isn't over. But when the Stanford kick went through and silenced Autzen Saturday night, hope hit the ropes.
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