This game probably says as much about the state of Stanford Cardinal Football as any this season. Consider this: the Cardinal travelled to play a night game in Arizona, a state which hasn't been terribly kind to them in the past, struggled for much of the night, and somehow we come away from the game feeling disappointed. We expected fireworks, but instead we got the ugliest of wins. Ah, but a win is still a win. Here's how it happened.
At the outset it looked like business as usual for the Mighty Card as the defense threw down a three-and-out on the opening possession and handed the ball to Andrew Luck and Company who marched fifty yards for a touchdown to make it 7-0, exactly as expected. But the Sun Devils answered the score with a touchdown of their own on their next possession, letting everyone know that this game would not be a Cardinal blowout.
Stanford would reach that same sixteen-yard line on its very next possession, but when the drive stalled, Nate Whitaker missed the 34-yard field goal, pretty much summing up the half for the Cardinal. How bad was it? Stanford had come in to the night averaging more than 220 yards rushing per game; they had nine yards rushing in the first half on Saturday night.
The third quarter was really more of the same. Stanford looked relatively inept but still managed a field goal to take a 10-7 lead midway through, only to see that lead erased by a Sun Devil touchdown. After the missed extra point Arizona State led 13-10, and I found myself wondering if Andrew Luck had another comeback left in him. When he threw an interception to end the ensuing Stanford possession with only 10:36 left in the game, things looked bleak.
The problem wasn't so much with Arizona State -- they hadn't really shown that they could move the ball against the Stanford defense -- but with the Stanford offense. For the first time since the second half of the Oregon game, it looked inept. The running game had been shut down, and even though Luck had piled up more than 250 yards passing at that point, the offense simply didn't look dangerous. One problem was the absence of Chris Owusu, who didn't make the trip to Tempe. (I'd love to tell you why, but we know by now that Jim Harbaugh doesn't reveal such things, a habit that is really getting to be rather tiring.) Last week I wrote that the Stanford offense was playing better than it had all season, and I attributed that to the resurgence of Owusu, who looked healthy for the first time since last year. If Owusu is hurt again, the offense will certainly take a step back.
But back to the game. The defense responded to Luck's interception by bowing their necks and forcing a quick Sun Devil punt, giving the ball back to the offense eighty-five yards from the end zone. The ensuing drive, the drive that would determine the outcome of the game, proceeded thanks to lots of luck of both the upper- and lower-case variety. The statistics will tell you that Luck was perfect on this drive, completing all four of his passes (including two to Go Mighty Card favorite Doug Baldwin, who had career-highs with 10 catches and 122 yards in Owusu's absence), but there was a moment when it looked like Luck had lost the game. On the fourth play of the drive, Luck dropped back and fired a pass in the direction of tight end Coby Fleener -- but it was intercepted by Eddie Elder. Here's where the lower-case luck came into play. The play was called back because of a defensive holding penalty, and the drive was alive.
Upper-case Luck added another play for the highlight package two plays later. With the Cardinal facing a critical third and one at their own 47, Luck dropped back to pass, but defensive end James Brooks raced in untouched, only a step behind Luck. Luck sprinted deep into the backfield, then turned, and just before being driven to the turf by Brooks, flicked a pass down field. For a split second it looked to be a desperate attempt to avoid the sack, but as the camera followed the flight of the pass, the ball settled neatly into the arms of a wide open Konrad Reuland. First down, Cardinal.
It was at that moment when I knew I had been wrong to doubt Andrew Luck. It was at that moment that the game was won. What happened next was just a formality. Two Vontaze Burfict personal fouls on one play (one deserved, the other not) moved the ball to the seven-yard line; two plays later Owen Marecic was bulling his way into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game and a 17-13 Stanford lead with only 5:14 to play.
I assume that Marecic rested for a bit during the extra point and kick off, but he was back on the field moments later, breaking up a pass on first down and triggering a three-and-out for the defense.
The Cardinal took over needing only a few first downs to ice the game, and I found it interesting that Harbaugh chose to put the ball in true freshman Anthony Wilkerson's hands rather than Stepfan Taylor's during these important final minutes. Wilkerson would reward Harbaugh's confidence by carrying the ball four times for forty-one yards on that final drive, but it was four yards that he didn't get that probably said the most about this player and this team. With ASU out of timeouts and the ball at the Sun Devil twenty-three yard line with 1:38 on the clock, Stanford needed just six yards for a first down that would end the game. Wilkerson took a hand off from Luck, bounced to the outside, and streaked down the sideline towards the end zone... but then he slowed down and took a seat at the four-yard line. After the game Wilkerson revealed he had slid on Harbaugh's orders. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Wilkerson said, "Man, a touchdown would have been nice, but Coach Harbaugh told us to slide and kill the clock."
If he had scored he would have given Stanford a 24-13 lead (and thrilled bettors who had put money on the Card), but he also would have given the ball back to the Sun Devils, who could conceivably have scored a touchdown, recovered an on-side kick, and scored again. By sliding before the goal line, Wilkerson assured that Arizona State would never see the ball again. Luck kneeled down twice, and the game was over. Stanford 17, Arizona State 13.
This game was odd any way you look at it. Stanford outgained Arizona State 420 to 268, and thoroughly dominated the time of possession battle as they held the ball for a ridiculous 42:25 compared to ASU's 17:35. (In the fourth quarter that edge was even more pronounced, 12:23 to 2:37.) Stanford converted 10 of 18 third down plays, while the Sun Devils were just 1 for 9 in those situations. The Cardinal totaled 27 first downs to 12 for Arizona State.
Looking at all of those numbers, it's frustrating that the game was in doubt deep into the fourth quarter, but a win is still a win.
Your Stanford Cardinal is 9-1, and it feels good.
[Photo Credit: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images]