That hurts. That really hurts. Watching a national championship slip through the fingers of your college football team as the blood slips away from your body is just about as painful an experience as you can have in sports. There is a multitude of talking points and controversy and angles to analyze, scenarios to address, and for some of us, hair to pull out from Stanford's gritty, gutty 17-14 overtime win over the Oregon Ducks. But one stands out over all the others: Chip Kelly runs a machine, a humming machine that has one pebble that every-so-often trips up the works - an incompetent kicking game.
This football game was similar to the USC football game last year. A night home game, against the premier challenger to Oregon's Pac-12 crown, with the rain coming down, and things slowly but surely going horribly wrong. Last year, the Ducks and SC engaged in a high-stakes shootout, with the Trojans driving the Ducks to the brink of obliteration for three quarters, before Oregon counter-charged in the fourth and came up a missed game-tying field-goal short. This year, Stanford and Oregon wouldn't let go in a tug-of-war in the trenches that left the Ducks befuddled and bewildered offensively with dominating line play. But they still should have won. Two missed field goals, most importantly in overtime, did the Ducks in.
Oregon, once or twice a year, comes up against a team on a night that they are evenly matched with. When two teams are evenly matched, the game is usually very close. And close games come down to field goals. Alejandro Maldonado is a high-school kicker. Personally, I'm sure he's a nice guy, but he's flummoxed as to how to make any field goal over 30 yards. You knew Oregon would get in a situation where they had to make a field goal at some point this year. You also knew they didn't have a kicker. Oregon, and really all college football powers, are stacked at every position - except kicker. The Ducks have five-star players across the board. And a one-star kicker. It killed them again this year.
I don't get it. Why can't the certifiably brilliant Chip Kelly find someone who can consistently make a field-goal under 40 yards? Why? They've got to be out there. You cannot ignore the position of kicker; that man usually makes the two or three biggest plays of the season. It just so happens that the Ducks kicker, whoever it is, only kicks about seven field goals a year, but three of them change the season. The price is too steep to ignore the position. It's most likely cost Oregon two national title appearances in a row. I'm incredulous as to how a team as good as Oregon can have a kicker whose season long is 26 yards, and how the number one priority each year isn't upgrading that kicker.
Before we even got to overtime, Maldonado missed a dead-on 42-yard field goal in the third quarter that would have put Oregon up 17-7 and pulling away. Once Oregon got to overtime, sending out Maldonado was like separating from your wife. The actual kick was merely a formality, finalizing the divorce. Let Maldonado take that kick 40 times. Would you feel in your gut that you could object if I said he'd miss all 40?
Of course we can't pin all the blame on Maldonado and deny Stanford the credit and glory they so richly deserve. I read this game completely wrong: Stanford showed a will and focus that we hadn't seen in the last two games against Oregon, both played by Stanford teams considered more talented, but nowhere near as tough or clutch. The Cardinal didn't fall away when they were supposed to, and it was Oregon who lost concentration. They play UCLA next Saturday for a shot to play UCLA again in the Pac-12 title game. They executed their game-plan to perfection, and I'm sold on David Shaw as a major head college football coach. Stanford still appears to be on the rise.
I was saddened and surprised to see how baffled and toothless Marcus Mariota was. I'm once again left wondering why the Ducks haven't instituted a real two-minute offense, which would have helped in on the last drive of regulation. Oregon's defense was great, and the fan in me wants to lash out at the typically inept Pac-12 refereeing crew … the supposedly talented team working the biggest conference game of the season that didn't understand how to count downs. I thought that Zach Ertz was out-of-bounds, and that he didn't have control of the ball when his shoulder came down inbounds on Stanford's game-tying score. I can't imagine how there was conclusive video evidence to overturn the incomplete call on the field.
Of course, there were bounces that didn’t go the Ducks’ way as well, most notably the overtime fumble which fell to Michael Clay – the same man who swooped in to nab the game-changing fumble at last year’s Rose Bowl, but the man who this year fell right over the ball, and into the grateful arms of a white shirt. You couldn’t call the Ducks unlucky though … Stanford did what they had to do and got the bounces they needed to knock off #1.
We'd seen this game before: Oregon's offense is stopped cold, and the Ducks are locked in a real, old-fashioned battle - USC last year, Auburn the year before that - and Oregon needs to make the plays to win the game. They need to be clutch when it isn't easy. Oregon doesn't have to make a lot of pressure plays, and once again proves that this is a team, and very possibly a coaching staff, that can't win outside their comfort zone. Oregon was unprepared and not ready to play a game like this. Atrocious, rotting, un-attended to field goal kicking, no two minute attack, and an offense that doesn't know what to do if they can't run the same six plays they always run and coast by teams. That's extremely frustrating and until the Ducks figure out how to win games like these - in a miserable, frozen Autzen Stadium like Saturday night - they won't finish and win a national title.
The madness isn't over, not by any means. Oregon could still, conceivably, get to the national championship if teams like Notre Dame and Stanford lose next week. At worst, Oregon is playing for a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. No, the BCS carousel is far from exhausting itself, and the Ducks could find themselves in the lucky position when it's shut off for 2012.
Chip Kelly and his team will try to gloss over this game, quickly regroup, and Win some more Days. They should - the Ducks still have very important games to play. But they can't pick up, scurry away, and leave this game in the dust. Kelly and his staff need to learn from it. Address the kicking game, with which Oregon would have escaped. When Chip Kelly murmured field goal like he was saying “Voldemort” before he sent Maldonado to the wolves in overtime, you knew it was just about over. It doesn’t have to be that way. I’m not saying the Ducks could have flipped a switch and won this game – Stanford were more than worthy victors. But I am positive that Oregon isn’t helplessly resigned to the kind of result they got Saturday night.
This game hurts. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth because we'd seen this game before. Oregon had a chance against Stanford to rewrite its history in this kind of contest, and they went back and painted the exact same strokes, with the exact same results. So move on, but remember what this feels like, and remember why it happened. Oregon will be in another close game, another season-deciding game very soon. Don't show us this sickening movie again.
Abe Asher is on Twitter. Follow him at @AbesWorldSports