What No. 20 Oregon did on Saturday night was nothing short of spectacular.
Coming into the showdown with No. 7 Stanford, the Ducks were a two-point underdog, facing a team that beat them 49-7 a year ago. With the eyes of the nation watching, Oregon was a team in desperate need of a marquee win.
To fight for 60+ minutes — to show courage in the face of all the adversity — to keep rising to the challenge after being knocked down so many times — and finally, to lose 38-31 in overtime was nothing short of spectacular.
Oregon out-Stanford’ed, Stanford.
The Ducks dominated the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Justin Herbert proved himself as the best quarterback in the nation. Wide receiver Dillon Mitchell caught 14 passes for 239 yards. The defense limited the Cardinal to 71 rushing yards. The Ducks jumped out to big leads late in the third and fourth quarters, registering a 99-percent chance of victory according to ESPN’s FPI multiple times.
But in the end, the Ducks were left in silence — kneeling on the field with their head in their hands. When Herbert’s last pass ended up in the hands of a Cardinal defender, stunned looks not only came across every Oregon football player, it also shone brightly on the faces of the 58,453 in attendance.
This game will now serve one of two purposes.
The Ducks may look at this game, realize how close they were, how much it hurts and let it derail their season. I’ve seen it before. To come so close but end up with nothing has a way of knocking you down for the count.
Or, and my bet is, the Ducks use this as motivation — as a learning experience.
Oregon is for real, a top-15 team in the nation, capable of beating any team without a quarterback named Tua Tagovailoa. The Ducks are very good in the trenches, nasty groups on both sides who love the physicality and enjoy implementing their will as the game goes on.
Their skill players are athletic and capable of being difference-makers, just look at the job Mitchell did against one of the best pass defenses in the country. And their quarterback is a legitimate choice for the top overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
“The first NFL draft pick… that’s basically the only way I can say it,” Mitchell said of Herbert.
The Ducks are a team that will find themselves in other games of this magnitude as the season goes on. The goal now is to learn from the heartache of tonight. Learn how to play with a lead and how to finish a game. Learn to hold onto the ball with two hands, learn to not touch the pylon, learn to snap the ball safely.
This game hurts… and it will for a while. But the Ducks aren’t lingering on it. They understand what lies ahead, what’s still at stake.
Never forget that Chip Kelly’s first game was a demoralizing loss at Boise State — but the Ducks learned and were playing in the national championship the following year.
Mark Helfrich suffered bad losses to Stanford and Arizona in his first season — but again, Oregon rebounded and played for the national championship the nest season.
Oregon’s season isn’t over, not by a longshot. How the Ducks respond will ultimately decide how spectacular this game really was.
“It was a great game and unfortunately it didn’t bounce our way,” Herbert said. “We’re not going to let that define us.”