November 14, 2011
Adjusting to the weekend's new realities.
For most other quarterbacks, Andrew Luck's night against Oregon might have been a career highlight: It's not every week that you put up 271 yards and three touchdowns passing in a 30-point effort against a top-10 rival with the best pass defense in the conference. For Luck, college football's answer to Peyton Manning, it was the worst night of his career.
Even without the curve, it was a rough night by any standard: Luck was sacked three times, picked off twice and forced into a third turnover on a blindside hit, all matching or setting new career worsts. (All three turnovers also led directly to easy Oregon touchdowns, accounting for the final margin in a 53-30 loss.) His pass efficiency rating, 135.8, was his worst of the season. As a team, Stanford managed fewer points in the loss (30) than it has in any game in two years. Worse than any of that, though, was this: Luck's worst game came in his biggest game, and assuming he still plans to make good on his promise to enter the draft in 2012, neither he nor Stanford will have another chance to be better than runners-up.
As good as he's been elsewhere — and he's been brilliant, still ranking among the top five nationally in pass efficiency — the nature of Stanford's schedule meant everything was riding on beating Oregon. Among the Cardinal's first nine opponents, only one (USC) is currently ranked, and only two (USC and Washington) have winning records. The best defense Luck faced prior to Saturday night (USC's) is ranked 63rd in pass efficiency D and 55th in scoring. The other eight are all ranked 80th or worse. Those games were glorified placeholders. Oregon was the showcase, at home, and turned out to be a glass ceiling for quarterback and team alike: The BCS championship is out of the picture, the Pac-12 championship is a distant wish and the Heisman Trophy is fading fast.
To be fair, Luck's peers at the position haven't fared any better. Russell Wilson struggled in losses against the best two defenses on Wisconsin's schedule, Michigan State and Ohio State; Kellen Moore's bid to take Boise State back to the BCS just ended with a thud Saturday against TCU. The nation's most prolific passer, Case Keenum, hasn't faced a competent secondary yet; the guy right behind him, Brandon Weeden, has faced one — Texas — which held him to easily his most modest numbers of the season. But Luck, far from transcending the crowd, merely joins it as another very good player who pads his stats against the rabble and looks very average against better-than-average competition.
There's still time for that to change, to an extent: Stanford's last two opponents, Cal and Notre Dame, are both ranked in the top 40 in total and scoring defense, slightly ahead of Oregon. But maybe all those comparisons to Peyton Manning as a potential Hall-of-Famer at the next level are apt on the college level, too: Like Manning, Luck is a first-rate, second-generation talent whose size, arm, intelligence and understanding of the game mark him as a scout's dream. He's going to go down as one of the great icons in the history of Stanford football.
But he's going to leave for his stellar career at the next level defined as much by the handful of big games he didn't win — in this case, back-to-back losses to Oregon by three touchdowns apiece — as the dozens he did. Manning was great at Tennessee, but he was never the best. Luck is not in past-tense at Stanford yet, but as great as he's been and is going to continue to be for people who will pay him tens of millions of dollars for it, he may have just missed his chance to be the greatest.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.