STANFORD, Calif. — At one end of the locker room complex that sits just outside Stanford Stadium, the college football team known more for its fashion statements than rise-to-the-occasion toughness solemnly filed out and loaded the bus, having once again blown its shot at a national title.
At the other, three Stanford players walked into an interview room wearing black horn-rimmed glasses with a piece of tape over the bridge, and the symbolism was not subtle.
Once again, Nerd Nation has beaten Team Nike, left it wondering how many more monuments to excess it needs to build, how many more uniform combinations or millions in facilities it will need to finally get the ultimate prize. Because after No. 6 Stanford's 26-20 victory against No. 2 Oregon on Thursday, a game not nearly as close as the score indicated, the question is now more obvious than ever.
If not now for the Ducks, when?
"It hurts just to see everything we worked for go down the drain," senior receiver Josh Huff said "Our heart is broken right now."
It should be. Even in the muddled final year of the BCS, where an argument could have been made for either Florida State or Baylor to be No. 2, the Ducks had a clear-cut path to the national championship game. All they had to do was keep on winning; all they needed was to pass this test at Stanford and likely sail into the Pac 12 title game with Alabama in their sights.
Instead, Oregon looked physically overmatched and mentally rattled, answering all questions about whether they belong in the stratosphere of elite teams. Stanford limited the Ducks to 62 rushing yards (270 below its average, which had been second-best in FBS), converted 14-of-21 third downs, held the ball for 42:34 and ripped off a 26-0 lead.
Plenty of national championship teams have lost in November and recovered, but this wasn't about the outcome as much as it was about Oregon being exposed.
"Any loss is disappointing," Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. "Where we've put ourselves, it's obviously magnified. We don't hold the cards anymore."
This loss in particular, though, spoke to the fundamental issue with Oregon as a perennial contender, which it has been for the past half-dozen years.
For all the Ducks' designer helmets and neon uniforms, Stanford's regular home jerseys look just fine when the players wearing them are bigger, stronger and tougher. For all the talk about Oregon's cutting-edge offense and the mountains of points they can pile up, things seem to get mangled awful quickly when a few breaks don't go their way.
"When we got behind the 8-ball in the first half, they were allowed to play their game," offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "We got out of our gameplan a little bit early, and I don't know if the kids were frustrated but I was sitting up in the box after squandering a couple opportunities and we didn't see the ball again for six or seven minutes. It was a complete team effort by them."
If Oregon's gameplan falls apart like wet tissue against the Stanfords of the world, how does it ever expect to beat the Alabamas and Florida States and play with the kind of physicality you need to win a national title?
And it makes Helfrich's decision to decline an easy field goal and a 3-0 lead on the game's second series all the more confusing. This was no time or place for Oregon hubris; in a game with fewer possessions against an excellent defense, you take points where you can get them.
Instead, the Ducks went for it on fourth down from the 5-yard line, failed and watched Stanford march 95 yards the other way for a touchdown.
"Two different approaches, two very different tempos," Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov said. "One team was going to decide the way it was going to go."
That sequence foreshadowed two more empty trips for Oregon inside Stanford's 25-yard line, both of which ended with fumbles. The second, which occurred when the Cardinal defense swarmed quarterback Marcus Mariota with 9:04 left in the third quarter, was Stanford at its finest. The Cardinal got the ball, pounded Oregon with Tyler Gaffney (45 carries, 158 yards), milked another 7:33 off the clock and kicked a field goal to take a 23-0 lead.
"That is what football is all about," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "You control the line of scrimmage, you have a chance to win."
In other words, if you can get Oregon out of its comfort zone – even a little – there's no real backup plan. Sure, Mariota was operating on a banged-up left knee – he confirmed as much after the game – but he frequently looked helpless against Stanford's mix of blitzes and ability to cover receivers downfield. If the Ducks were going to win this game, they needed a lot more from him than 20-of-34 passing for 250 yards.
"It's tough," Mariota said. "You go out there and you have a good week of practice and just don't pull it out. These guys really worked hard for it. You know, it ain't over. It happens. We're going to come back stronger than ever, and we're just going to take it in stride."
The season may not be over for Oregon, but most of the big goals are. The date with Alabama isn't going to happen, and a Pac- 12 title probably won't, either. It will be a good season for the Ducks, but a wholly unsatisfying season at the same time.
Oregon has built an excellent program, and nobody can take that away. But in the biggest moments against the most important opponents, toughness versus style is a mismatch the Ducks are always destined to lose.