A friend of mine texted me during the opening moments of the second half on Saturday night, sending me a one-word message that seems ridiculous now.
I was. Few expected this game to be close, but through the first two quarters the Cougars were hanging tough and making things difficult for Andrew Luck and the Cardinal. On the second play of the game, Luck dropped back and saw Jamal-Rashad Patterson slipping behind the defense, but his pass floated a bit and was intercepted by Damante Horton. This wasn't a ball that bounced off his receivers hands, it was a bad pass, and Luck knew it right away.
Washington State couldn't take advantage of this early miscue, and neither offense was able to do much of anything for the first several possessions. The game's first points weren't scored until Stanford's Jordan Williamson hit a twenty-three-yard field goal with 1:34 to play in the first quarter.
The Cougars took over and seemed to be gaining a bit of momentum as they reached midfield for the first time behind quarterback Jeff Tuel. Tuel hadn't played since being injured in the opening game of the season, and even though back-up Marshall Lobbestael had been excellent in his place, Tuel's presence was clearly energizing both the Cougars and their fans. A sack pushed the Cougs five yards back into their own territory, and two plays later Jared Karstetter caught a pass from Tuel and promptly fumbled it. Safety Michael Thomas picked it up for Stanford and ran it back to the Washington State twenty, setting up the Cardinal for easy points.
When Jeremy Stewart trucked the ball in from a yard out on a fourth-and-goal play, it looked like order had been restored. The offensive line would pave the way for another Stanford victory, and the Cougars would slowly fade away. A quick three-and-out and a punt forced by the defense on Washington State's ensuing possession seemed to bolster this idea, but Stepfan Taylor fumbled the ball right back two plays later. This time, the Cougars would take advantage.
Operating with a short field, Tuel got to work right away and took what the Stanford defense has been giving up all season long -- short passes. There was a nine-yarder to Karstetter, then a ten-yarder to Marques Wilson. Tuel then looked back to Karstetter twice more, and both times cornerback Johnson Bademosi was called for pass interference, eventually putting the ball on the two-yard line. Running back Carl Winston took over from there, pushing his way into the end zone to cut the Cardinal lead to 10-7.
It was still 10-7 when the teams came back out onto the field for the start of the second half, and that's right about when I got that text. I responded that I had faith in the Mighty Card, but there was still a lot to be concerned about. The offense was struggling to put together sustained drives, and Luck was having trouble finding open receivers. With so much on the line, it was hard not to think about all that could be lost.
And then the second half happened.
Washington State's Isiah Barton returned the second half kickoff fifty yards, so when Tuel and the Cougar offense set up at midfield, they looked ready to build on their momentum from the first half. The Cardinal defense stood strong, however, sacking Tuel for a thirteen-yard loss on third and six and handing the ball back to the offense.
Luck took over at his own fifteen-yard line and went to work immediately. He hit tight end Coby Fleener for nine yards on second and six, then went back to him on the next play, this time hitting him in stride as he broke free from the defense thirty yards down field. It doesn't matter how many times you've seen it, it still doesn't look right to your eyes. The 6'6" Fleener was actually pulling away from the Washington State defensive backs, but he was finally dragged down by a safety who had an angle on him.
The play covered sixty-two yards and put the Cardinal at the ten-yard line. From there, Luck looked again to a tight end. This time it was Levine Toilolo who had gotten behind the defense, and Luck found him with a perfectly lofted pass for the touchdown, bringint the lead to a more comfortable 17-7.
Two possessions later Luck started a drive at his own thirty-eight, but this time Taylor did most of the work. He ran four times for twenty-seven yards on the drive, and his last carry brought the ball to the Washington State twenty-six. With the defense creeping up a bit more with each run, they were becoming more vulnerable to the pass, and Luck exploited this by finding Toilolo streaking (or, more accurately, rumbling) down the right sideline. The pass hit him around the fifteen, and he was inside the five with just a few strides before diving for the pylon and his second touchdown of the night. It was 24-7, and all my nervousness had melted away.
The Stanford offense continued to churn away unglamourously, save for a few spectacular throws by Luck, and eventually scored two more touchdowns on an eight-yard shovel pass to Taylor and a twenty-six yard throw to Fleener.
Washington State received the ball for the last time trailing 38-7. The outcome had long been decided, but there was still a bit of drama. The Cardinal had entered the night having won their past eight games by a margin of twenty-five points or more, the longest such streak in conference history. More than anything, I wanted that streak to continue. If the defense could just hold the Cougars, or if the Cougars would just give in and accept their fate...
But the defense couldn't, and the Cougars wouldn't. Lobbestael came in to replace Tuel, and he engineered a thirteen-play drive that covered seventy-nine yards in 4:05 and ended with a quarterback sneak for the touchdown. It was 38-14, and somehow I was upset. The streak had ended.
I was watching the game at a friend's house, and I got up immediately to go to the kitchen for some food. A few minutes later my friend was calling me back and pointing at the screen. He backed up the video for me to watch Ty Montgomery field the kickoff, follow his blockers upfield, spin out of a tackle, and then break free to sprint up the middle for the touchdown just as the clock hit zero.
Half way through the schedule the Stanford Cardinal has done what we expected. They are 4-0 in conference and 6-0 overall as they head into the meat of their schedule, and things are looking good.
A few minutes later I got another text from my friend. "My biggest fear is that we finish undefeated and we get screwed by the BCS."
I share that fear, and I'll have a lot to say about that in the coming days and weeks, but for now I think we should think about that fear for a minute. Imagine that you had a time machine and travelled back to the Walt Harris era. The first thing you'd probably do would be to buy some stock in Apple and tell people about this cool new phone they'd be putting out in a few years, but after that you'd find your past self, sit him down, and break the terrible news that in 2011 he'd be worried about the possibility of watching an undefeated Stanford team playing in the Rose Bowl.
He would never believe you. Never.
[Photo Credit: Dean Hare/AP Photo]