STANFORD, Calif. – The final indignity Stanford football delivers to visiting teams comes in the form of two consecutive concrete staircases – twenty daunting steps each. They lead players from their locker room behind Stanford Stadium, straight up a steep hill and to a driveway where an idling bus waits.
After 60 minutes against David Shaw's Cardinal, the wrecking ball of college football, the stairs just serve to add insult to ice-packed injury.
No. 3 Oregon showed up here Thursday with visions of 40-point offensive performances, revenge from last year's painful defeat and a big step toward the national title that hangs like the impossible dream over a program that has risen and risen yet still finds further to go.
They left a few hours later up those steps, distant stares and distressed bodies telling the lopsided story more effectively than the scoreboard that read: Stanford 26, Oregon 20.
There was Marcus Mariota taking one slow, soft step at a time upwards, nursing a left knee. There was Pharaoh Brown forced to balance on his toes, his right foot tightly wrapped in ice. There was Daryle Hawkins, needing to sling his right arm over a middle-aged woman's shoulders for extra support.
There was one after another, bodies bruised, pride bludgeoned, BCS dreams dashed at the hands of Stanford. Again, Stanford.
For a second consecutive season, the oldest school of programs undid the Ducks and their high-wire act offense and ultra flashy array of shiny helmets and jerseys. One more time the simple, smash-mouth Cardinal ruined everything. Once again it was this team that prides themselves on being dork-dressing, tape-on-the-glasses wearing nerds who just happen to go about 6-5, 290.
"Two years in a row losing to them," defensive lineman Arik Armstead said. "We've got to figure it out."
The truth is, there may not be much to figure. Stanford isn't fooling anyone. They aren't inventing new styles of play. They play a sophisticated, pro-style system but it's predicated on being bigger and tougher, being more disciplined and sound.
They line up and run it – 66 total attempts for 274 yards, including a workhorse 45 for 157 and a TD from Tyler Gaffney. They pass when it make sense – Kevin Hogan was just 7 of 13 for 103 yard. They play smart – no penalties or turnovers for three quarters. They control the clock – 42:34 time of possession thanks to 14 of 21 on third down conversions and 1-for-1 on fourth.
And they hit and hit and hit until they break your will – be it at the foot of those stairs or before. On Thursday, it was Ducks wide receiver Josh Huff who was seen weeping on the sidelines at the end of the third quarter, part physical pain, part emotional frustration.
"It just hurts," Huff said later. "Just to see everything we worked so hard for go down the drain. Our heart is just broken right now."
The senior from Houston paused and sighed. He's given everything to this program, bought into the dream, and yet it wasn't enough. He was spent in every imaginable way.
"That's all I got."
The question is if this is all Oregon has got. The program has been on a meteoric rise but the grand success has generated an impossible hunger for more, making Eugene a national-title-or-bust kind of place – the last remaining unclaimed goal that no amount of flair or flash or Phil Knight-funded facility can buy.
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They've staked everything on this offensive system of speed and skill, yet here was Stanford, forcing turnovers and stops while grinding out long, clock-chewing scoring drives.
Oregon came in 7-0 and averaging 55.6 points and 632.1 yards per game. Through three quarters, the Ducks were shut out and had gained 185 yards total. Only a furious comeback attempt – complete with 65-yard blocked field goal return – made the scoreboard look legit.
Into the fourth quarter, it was 26-zip. And to a team that refuses to alter its Plain Jane uniforms, plays in a conservative stadium that still prides itself on a collegiate atmosphere and seems to take this entire balance between athletics and academics quite seriously.
You can bring all the weapons and wizardry you want in here, but waiting for you is Shayne Skov and Trent Murphy and Cameron Fleming and Henry Anderson and so on until you're staring at those 40 steps, ice taped to your knee.
You could say this was an affirmation of Stanford's unyielding embrace of old-style football in the face of endless praise for cutting-edge schemes, except a true Stanford man [or woman], as coach David Shaw most certainly is, doesn't care what anyone thinks of them. They stick to their oft-mocked plan until the IPO makes them rich.
"We don't worry about what anyone says of us," Shaw said afterward, standing outside the locker room of his 7-1, fifth-ranked club that isn't out of the national title chase. "We let everybody talk about what they want to talk about. We just play football."
Shaw took note that his team was profoundly physical during a week when one of his recent All-American linemen, Jonathan Martin, was called "soft" after being ostracized in the Miami Dolphins locker room.
"Do Stanford guys have problems?" Shaw asked mockingly. "Funny thing is that question usually comes after, 'Boy, your team is so tough and so physical and plays so great on the offensive and defensive lines.' "
On Thursday, it was Oregon that was questioning everything. Over and over rookie coach Mark Helfrich noted that unlike last year's BCS-crushing loss to Stanford, his guys "competed, no question."
Yet they were still no match to Stanford's system, its physical size and mental strength. Two teams came here and one just imposed itself on the other.
"We knew going in it was going to be a test of wills," Skov, the violent linebacker said. "Two different approaches, two very different temps. One team was going to decide the way it was going to go."
And once again, that team was Stanford.
"I think they have really good players," Helfrich said. "A lot of teams have played us very similar to how they did and there have been different results. But yeah, they've beaten us two years in a row."
Helfrich had no simple answer. He vowed to "correct things." He claimed he and his coaches knew what was needed and how to do it.
"It starts with me," Helfrich said. "And we'll end it at me."
Maybe it's that simple, but maybe it's not. Across the Ducks roster as they took turns answering questions there was the depressed acknowledgment that the season's primary goal was spinning away from them. They will not just fall in the BCS standings, but are now boxed out in the Pac-12 North by the Cardinal.
"It's tough," Mariota said.
"Just frustrating," Armstead said. "They didn't do anything we haven't seen."
"I feel in some ways I let them down," defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti said.
This was the once high-flying Ducks after a long, brutal night of football here, their national dreams and self-confident style churned up and spit out by a Stanford machine that simply doesn't stop.
They were a little hurt and a lot humbled and after all the talking was done and they just wanted to leave this nightmare behind them, they still had to look up that steep hill and climb all those damn stairs.