STANFORD, Calif. -- Babies don’t go from crawling to running marathons. They stumble along the way. They awkwardly grope for something to hold on to. And when there is nothing there, they fall.
In terms of playing in significant college football games, Stanford is a program still very much in its infancy. And when it tried to get up and run, it fell. And when it groped Saturday night -- usually for Oregon running back LaMichael James -- there was nothing there. And when the Cardinal fell, they took the nation’s longest winning streak and a shot at the national championship along with them.
“Now, we’re going to see maturity-wise how we handle coming back from a game like this,” said David Shaw, who suffered his first loss as Stanford’s head coach. “It’s hard to say what’s going to define a season because the season is not over. We have a lot of football to be played, so we’ll see how it all shakes out.”
Stanford may very well end up in a BCS game as an at-large team (let’s go ahead and assume Oregon doesn’t lose its remaining two games, to USC and Oregon State). It could still win out and have one of the strongest seasons in school history. No shame in that.
But this is the one that people are going to remember. The one-sided 53-30 score, for sure. But also the missed tackles and turnovers -- five of them, if you’re keeping count at home.
They won’t remember a fantastic, two-touchdown game from wide receiver Griff Whalen, who at times looked like the only guy in red capable of catching a ball. They’ll remember the drops. They’ll remember James going for 146 yards and three touchdowns.
They won’t remember a pretty good 99-yard rushing game from Stepfan Taylor -- who once again wasn’t tackled for a loss. They’ll remember the three sacks and two interceptions by quarterback Andrew Luck, who finished 27-of-41 for 271 yards and three touchdowns.
“They were fast on film and they were fast on the field,” said Luck. “It was no surprise. They are a very good defense. They did a lot of good things. That forced us to make some bad decisions. Fast, definitely. Probably the best defense we’ve faced all year.”
And that defense made a high-powered offense look mediocre, holding the Cardinal to 129 yards rushing and knocking Luck around the backfield. For perspective, he’d been sacked only four times in the previous nine games -- including seven games without a sack.
“We’re not a team that turns the ball over,” said center Sam Schwartzstein. “We’re a team that executes extremely well. When you turn the ball over, it doesn’t matter how well you execute. They did what we expected them to do. We had a good game plan. But they forced turnovers and got us out of our element.”
That might be the most telling thing any player or coach said all night. Stanford fell behind early and was forced to play catch-up all night. They were out of their element. They threw 41 times and rushed 35 times. It was the first time this season a tight end didn’t have a touchdown.
“Schematically, I thought we were fine,” Shaw said. “This was not going to be one of those games where we run for 300 yards. This was going to be, the way we had it mapped out, a tight game -- which is what it was for a while. But once you turn the ball over and put it back in their hands, that’s what they’re built for.”
And Oregon didn’t pussyfoot. It ran right at the teeth of the Stanford defense and the Cardinal failed to make the stops. Oregon ran between the tackles 34 times for 168 yards and three touchdowns.
“The bottom line is they’re a great team and great teams execute,” said defensive lineman Matt Masifilo. “Great teams find your glitches and they executed more than us. They found our flaws and they exploited us.”
And it didn’t help that safety Delano Howell -- who had just returned after missing three games with a hand injury -- went out at the 8:13 mark in the second quarter after using his casted hand to force a fumble.
Stanford turned that into a 37-yard Eric Whitaker field goal to cut the deficit to 15-9. But in the third quarter, after James fumbled a punt, the Cardinal weren’t able to capitalize. Trailing 29-16, Stanford got the ball at the Oregon 34, but moved the ball only 4 yards before Whitaker missed from 48 yards. It was the first time Stanford failed to score this season after gaining a turnover.
Oregon, meanwhile, had three touchdowns off five Stanford turnovers (though the last two fumbles happened when the game was well out of hand and Oregon wasn’t trying to score).
“They took advantage of our turnovers,” Shaw said. “We got turnovers and didn’t turn them into points. That’s the bottom line. You play against a team with that kind of speed, that kind of talent that is as well-coached as they are, you turn the ball over and you can’t win.”
It was clear Saturday night that -- as a program -- Stanford has some growing up to do.
“We’re close,” Shaw said. “We’re not there yet. We have to keep recruiting. We have to keep coaching and our guys that are here have to keep pushing and fighting.
“I expect them to rebound greatly. We have a lot of guys in our locker room with a lot of character. They love playing the game of football. We’ve got two regular-season games and next week is Cal. We don’t need help with motivation this week.”
Saturday night, Stanford stumbled and fell. Next week, we’ll see if they can stand back up.