Stanford's 26-20 defeat of third-ranked Oregon Thursday was the masterpiece of the Jim Harbaugh-David Shaw era. Sure, two special teams miscues in the fourth quarter produced a final score not indicative of the Cardinal's thoroughly dominant performance.
But then, not every masterpiece is perfect. The Venus de Milo is missing her arms, after all.
Three late scores may have knocked off a few of Stanford's style points, which matter in the BCS Championship race, where everyone's a critic. Nevertheless, the Cardinal no less resoundingly answered misguided detractors who projected a comfortable Oregon win.
In the process, Stanford left its signature all over the Ducks bright yellow helmets, as defensive tackle David Parry alluded on Twitter.
Forty points? Maybe in an eight-quarter game. And that's no criticism of Oregon's offense, which has scored big points on literally every other opponent it's faced in nearly three full seasons.
Rather, it confirms that while Oregon is the Pac-12's face, Stanford is its standard bearer.
"To be able to win the Pac-12 Championship, you have to go through Oregon, or you have to go through us," linebacker Shayne Skov explained in his postgame press conference, per GoStanford.com. "That is the mentality we've had these past couple years, and that's what it's going to keep being."
Thursday marked a new high point for Stanford football in what has been a five-year run of new milestones. Last season brought the program's first conference championship since 1999, and the first Rose Bowl victory in over four decades.
Stanford moved into the lead for a second straight league title and another Rose Bowl appearance with the win, and it did so against a more experienced, more balanced and arguably better Oregon team.
The Ducks' frantic rally effort resulted in a score similar to last year's Stanford win—a win that, as The Bootleg's David Lombardi noted, Shaw said could have been much more lopsided.
This win followed a similar formula. Skov made himself at home in the Oregon backfield, forcing erstwhile Heisman Trophy candidate Marcus Mariota well out of his comfort zone. Skov forced two fumbles, including one in the red zone that proved to be a difference-maker.
The Cardinal lived up to the Stanford reputation of smart, disciplined play, never conceding the big play and avoiding costly penalties. Offensively, the Cardinal took the air out of the ball with powerful running back Tyler Gaffney carrying 45 times en route to a 42:34-to-17:26 time-of-possession disparity.
It was throwback football at its finest.
"When you walk into our new facility, the players only entrance, to the left is the offensive line, to the right is the picture of the defensive line," Shaw said, as reported by Elliott Almond of the San Jose Mercury News. "That is what football is about. You control the line of scrimmage, and you have a chance to win."
But that didn't mean Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren were paint-by-numbers. A few big pass plays for quarterback Kevin Hogan were difference-makers in the first half, particularly a 47-yard connection with Michael Rector that set up the game's first score.
The Cardinal's ascent to the upper echelon of college football has been ongoing for six years, two longer than Michelangelo spent on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Crafting the perfect work of art can't be rushed, and Shaw's mission is keeping the project going.
Stanford's current run of greatness isn't the program's first. Attaining success hasn't been an issue for the Cardinal—maintaining it has.
As Stanford pursues the first back-to-back conference championships since 1970 and 1971, the long-term question that lingers beyond this season is what's next?
Thursday's win wasn't just the next pinnacle for the current era of Stanford football, it was also the culmination of an outstanding senior class that includes Skov and Gaffney, as well as Trent Murphy, Josh Mauro, injured Ben Gardner, Henry Anderson, Ed Reynolds and more.
This year's lineup may have been Shaw's best chance at a national championship.
Still, Hogan returns, and it certainly appears his best days are ahead of him. His best receiving weapon, Ty Montgomery, has a season of eligibility remaining. James Vaughters is ready to emerge as the star on the defensive side, and the coaching staff's ability to pitch the university's appeal to a national recruiting base has yielded results.
Words that Shaw shared with a small gathering of reporters in July resonate:
"I get a little smile on my face when people say, 'gosh, I can't believe you guys are still doing well. We tried to build a program and build a team that, year-to-year, was going to be competitive. The fact we went to three straight BCS games, that's kind of our expectation.
Stanford is now over the highest hurdle between it and a fourth straight BCS bowl. And that's an especially eye-catching addition to the Cardinal's growing gallery.
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