Stanford committed three turnovers in Eugene, but it was an overturned incomplete pass call with 1:35 remaining that allowed the Cardinal to upset No. 2 Oregon, 17-14, in overtime.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan lofted a rainbow from 10 yards out to the left corner of the end zone that tight end Zach Ertz, a Duck defender draped all over him, caught for the game-tying touchdown. The back judge initially ruled the pass incomplete. The six-foot-six Ertz turned and looked at him, unstrapping one chin strap, then the other, before handing him the ball.
Subsequent replays appeared to show that Ertz had cradled the football in his belly as he landed on the turf and that it had never touched the ground. The official in the booth agreed, sending the game into overtime. Some 2,100 miles away in Waco, Texas, Baylor fans were storming the field as the Bears had just emphatically toppled Kansas State from the ranks of the unbeaten, 52-24, meaning that Stanford had taken the only two bowl-eligible unbeaten teams in the nation – Notre Dame and Oregon – into overtime on their turf.
The Cardinal found heartbreak five Saturdays ago in South Bend. Saturday night at Autzen Stadium, they met euphoria. Oregon kicker Alejandro Maldonado’s 41-yard field goal try on the first series in OT struck the left upright and bounced forward on the turf. Stanford, which lost two second-half fumbles, coughed up the ball again in overtime but recovered. Two plays later Cardinal kicker Jordan Williamson, the goat in last January’s Fiesta Bowl defeat, struck a 37-yarder straight and true to send the Ducks to defeat.
The ramifications? Oregon went from being the No. 2 ranked team in the nation to being in second place in the Pac-12 North. The Ducks are technically tied with Stanford, but of course the Cardinal now own the tiebreaker. Stanford can clinch the Pac-12 North by beating UCLA next Saturday in Pasadena, thus giving the Cardinal the opportunity to play in the Pac-12 Championship Game the following Saturday versus… UCLA.
The larger ramification, of course, is that the combined defeats of K-State and Oregon puts Notre Dame alone among the bowl-eligible unbeatens (Ohio State is also 11-0). The Irish, sitting on the outside looking in when the day began, are now in the driver’s seat after their 38-0 shutout of Wake Forest. And, of course, the SEC is now once again in play. The SEC Championship Game becomes a de facto national semifinal, just the way Mike Slive likes it.
Finally, it must be said that Oregon, which led the nation in scoring when the day began, managed just two touchdowns versus the Cardinal. Certainly this was the best team the Ducks had faced all season, albeit one ranked outside the top 10. Playing on their own fast rug, with a trio of players whose names have earned Heisman mention during the season – quarterback Marcus Mariota and running backs Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas – the Ducks were held to two touchdowns. This is the same Oregon squad that had scored at least 42 points in each of its previous 13 contests.
Was it really only one week ago that fans in South Bend and elsewhere were lamenting that an undefeated was going to be excluded from the BCS Championship Game? Once again, the natural turn of events, the pressure of being unbeaten in November and the concomitant results of such have left the college football universe a more ordered place than fans ever give it credit for.
Then again, if Notre Dame loses next Saturday, watch out. There’d be 10 one-loss teams, then.