What’s it like to block for a running back who carries the ball a school-record 45 times and rushes for 157 yards to spark an upset victory over the second-ranked team in the country? Ask Stanford center Khalil Wilkes, who made many of the calls for the offensive line Thursday night that helped spring Tyler Gaffney in the sixth-ranked Cardinal’s 26-20 win at Stanford Stadium.
“Gaffney had one of the best performances I’ve ever seen,” said the fifth-year senior. “That’s Toby (Gerhart) stuff right there. We call him Toby Gerhart No. 2. He played a great game.”
Gaffney showed flashes of his predecessor, who was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 2009 after leading the nation in rushing (1,871) and touchdowns (28). Although Gaffney only had one carry for more than nine yards, he pounded and slashed against the Oregon defense all night, earning every yard en route to his sixth 100-yard rushing game of the season.
“You have no choice but to play your heart out when you block for Gaff,” said Wilkes. “He’s over there making sure that two or three guys tackle him at all times. I want to see how many yards he had after the first tackle, because he’s always moving his feet forward. He’s a great back and a great guy.”
Senior defensive end Henry Anderson, who returned to the lineup for the first time since sustaining a knee injury against Army in the second game of the season, had nothing but praise for Gaffney. Defensive players usually rest on the bench and talk strategy when the offense is on the field, but that doesn’t prevent them from keeping track of the action.
“We’re up there watching the Jumbotron and that dude is a beast,” he said. “Every third and 1 – we were talking about it on the bench – we were almost happy about it because it runs out the clock more and we know Gaff’s going to get that first down.”
Anderson’s point is well taken. Stanford dominated time of possession 42:34 to 17:26 and ran 79 plays to Oregon’s 58. That’s imposing your will.
“This is unbelievable,” said Wilkes. “We worked so hard after that Utah game; we didn’t want to lose another game. Oregon is a great team and everybody kind of doubted us. We just knew as an offensive line we had to put it on our shoulders to run the ball and that’s what we did.”
Wilkes noted two big style differences in the way Stanford and Oregon ran the ball.
“We just knew that we could keep on grinding and move them down the field,” said Wilkes. “We knew our game wasn’t their type of game. They wanted to run sideways and we wanted to run north and south. I believe we did that tonight.”
* * *
With Ben Gardner sidelined for the rest of the season, Anderson gave the defense a nice lift. Admittedly, he’s still rounding back into form, but the player teammates call “The Goose” made his presence felt with five tackles, a half-sack and half-tackle for loss.
“It felt good,” he said. “I’m still a little rusty and I was a little hesitant sometimes cutting off my bad knee. It was good to be back out there and I just have to grind through it.”
Anderson felt no butterflies.
“I was just excited,” he said. “I was kind of bouncing around before the game, listening to music, trying to get in the zone. I was more excited than I was nervous.”
What did beating Oregon for the second-consecutive year mean to the team?
“It’s big,” said Anderson. “We’ve got this game circled on our calendar’s every year. We know it’s going to be a big game between two really good teams. It’s awesome, because we know its two different styles: the power team versus the speed team. It’s good to come out on top.
Gardner, who recently underwent successful surgery for a torn left pectoral muscle, watched from the sideline. Linebacker Shane Skov wrote a big No. 49 on his arm to pay respect to his fellow team captain.
“I knew they wouldn’t miss a beat without me,” Gardner said. “I tried to do my best to keep the energy up on the sideline and keep guys looking in the right direction. I’m so proud of these guys, just the way they fought tonight. You look at the defensive side of the ball and it was 11 hats to the ball on every play, and that’s so crucial against the Ducks.”
How hard was it being a spectator?
“I can’t really put it into words,” he said. “It’s was easy to watch for three quarters. When it got close at the end, my heart was racing. They gave me this little stress ball in my sling and I think I squeezed it until it’s flat.”
* * *
You won’ find his name his name in the statistics, but no one played a bigger role in the final outcome of the game than backup wide receiver Jeff Trojan from Huntington Beach, Calif. Oregon attempted three on-sides kicks and all three came to him. Trojan handled two-out-of-three, the second with 2:10 left to play, earning a big shout out from David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football, and his teammates in the locker room afterwards.
“It was a jump ball up in the air,” said Trojan of the second recovery. “I got down and just had to secure the ball.”
Trojan, sporting an ice pack on his right hand, got pummeled by an Oregon player but held on. Such is life on special teams.
“That’s what they say – to be ready for it,” he said of getting drilled. “A lot of times you don’t get hit if you lay down quick enough. But yea, you’re expecting to get hit pretty hard.”
And Trojan embraces his role. While seemingly everyone around him – fans, coaches and TV viewers -- were on the edge of their seats and the finish, he kept his cool and just did his job.”
“It’s fun,” said Trojan. “It’s just an opportunity to make an impact on the game and help the team win as much as I can. They trust that I’m going to go in there and secure the ball and get it back for the offense to help us run out the clock. I enjoy it.”
Sophomore wide receiver Michael Rector made a big early impact by hauling in a 47-yard pass from quarterback Kevin Hogan to set up Stanford’s first touchdown. He also paved the way for the team’s second touchdown by inducing a pass interference penalty.
“We work on that play every week,” he said of his key reception. “We like to pound the ball, but if an opportunity presents itself, we want to take a shot. That was just a great ball by Kevin. It hit me in stride.”
Rector thought the play caught the Duck defense off guard.
“I think we did,” said Rector. “They had to bring the safeties up to try and stop the run. We knew if they wanted to do that, we were going to have to take a shot. You can’t put anything past us.”
* * *
Senior placekicker Jordan Williamson, who has been out with a pulled muscle in his leg, returned Thursday night and converted four-of-five field goal attempts and two extra points. Last year, he kicked a 37-yard field goal in overtime to beat Oregon in Eugene.
“It felt great,” said Williamson. “It was just nice to be back out there, especially for Oregon. Oregon is always a fun game to play in and I’m just glad I was able to contribute and help the team out.”
Williamson’s lone miss came with about five minutes remaining in the game when his 40-yard field goal attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown.
“One, I think I probably hit it a little low,” he said. “And two, I think they probably did get penetration and got their hands up. Ultimately, we could have done better in multiple aspects. I probably could have gotten the ball up higher as well.”
What did the win mean to Williamson?
“It feels great,” he said. “It’s an amazing atmosphere when you get Oregon and Stanford people together. It’s been phenomenal to win the last two years.”
* * *
Former Stanford All-American quarterback John Elway was on hand with his family to have his No. 7 jersey retired during a halftime ceremony on the field. Elway joins No. 1 Ernie Nevers and No. 16 Jim Plunkett as the only players in school history to have their jerseys retired.
“I’m honored and humbled,” Elway told the sellout crowd. “I can’t believe it’s been 30 years. I give Stanford University all the credit for what I’ve been able to do.”
He also fired up the fans by saying, “Stay in the game. Keep kicking Duck butt.”
Also honored were Cardinal student-athletes who helped Stanford win its 19th-consecutive Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup last year. Accepting the award was the women’s tennis team, which won the NCAA Championship to extend Stanford’s streak of having won at least one NCAA title to 36-staright years.
* * *
Thursday night’s game wasn’t just a hot ticket for spectators. The press box was packed with 185 credentialed journalists and 30 communications/press box staff; 39 NFL scouts; representatives from Fight Hunger Bowl, Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl, Fiesta Bowl and Alamo Bowl; and six trophy reps. Also on hand were 150 photographers, and a crew of 150 people from ESPN, which did pre and post-game shows on campus and in the stadium, and televised the game nationally.
Two stats to chew on: Stanford had more rushing attempts (66) than Oregon had rushing yards (62). Let that sink in. Also, Stanford was penalized twice for 10 yards; Oregon 10 times for 81 yards ... Stanford wide receiver Jordan Pratt, the lone Oregon native on the team, received extensive playing time and caught one pass for 6 yards … Wide receiver Devon Cajuste returned from a knee injury, but did not catch a pass … Skov led the Cardinal with 10 tackles, had two tackles for loss, forced two fumbles, and recovered one … Stanford extended its streak of forcing at least one turnover to 34-straight games, second in the nation behind Missouri (39) … Senior Eddie Plantaric made his first career start at tight end … Former Cardinal offensive line standout Eric Heitmann was the honorary captain … Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight attended the game. He earned an M.B.A. from Stanford in ’62 and has a been a big contributor to the Graduate School of Business and the sports medicine center in the athletic department, which is named for Phil and Penelope Knight. He’s also a huge Oregon fan and picked the Ducks to win by 1 … Champions Tour standout Fred Couples played in the Cardinal Golf Classic, a fundraiser for Stanford men’s golf, and wore a Stanford hat, then attended the game.