If you woke up on Tuesday morning hoping to find it had all been a dream, hoping to learn that the football had managed to stay inside of the left upright on the field goal attempt at the end of regulation, I'm sorry to disappoint you. The kicker who had been so accurate all season wasn't able to make that field goal. The defense that had been so stout all season -- and effective on Monday night -- wasn't able to get Oklahoma State off the field when they had to. The offense, easily one of the best in the nation, couldn't get the ball in the end zone for the touchdown that would've assured victory.
It wasn't a dream. What you saw really happened.
But if you can put those final fifteen minutes out of your head for just a moment, you have to realize that this was a great, great game played by a wonderful team led by the best quarterback you'll ever see.
And so it was on Monday night with the Cardinal. The first possession featured a thirty-eight-yard ramble by Stepfan Taylor, but stalled at the Oklahoma State twenty-three and ended with a missed field goal. No worries, though, because the Cowboy offense was having similar problems. Brandon Weeden's first pass of the night, on OSU's first play from scrimmage, was picked off by Terrence Brown, and the Stanford offense was back out on the field again.
Both offenses failed in their first two possessions, but Stanford finally drew blood towards the end of the first quarter. Of the Cardinal's first fourteen plays, nine of them had been runs, so it wasn't surprising when they lined up at their own forty-seven yard line for their fifteenth play and rolled out their first play-action look of the night. All three defensive backs on the left side of the field fell for the deception, freezing momentarily when Luck turned his back on them and allowing freshman Ty Montgomery to streak past them into the open field. Luck took a deep drop to further sell the run, then calmly stepped into his throw, releasing it from his own thirty-nine. The ball sailed on a perfect arc and settled into Montgomery's hands at the ten; two strides later he was in the end zone. (We've been waiting a while for a breakout game from Montgomery, and it arrived right on schedule. He'd finish the night with seven receptions for 120 yards and this touchdown.)
It was an absolutely beautiful play, but the image that remains with me is Luck standing alone in the pocket, waiting a second for Montgomery to break free, and then effortlessly flicking the ball fifty-one yards and placing it directly into his receiver's arms, no different than if it had been a three-yard screen pass. Montgomery was open enough that it didn't need to be a perfect pass, but it was perfect anyway, and the Cardinal led, 7-0.
Early on, Weeden was far from perfect. He threw the ball on all eight plays of the two possessions following the Montgomery touchdown, and didn't end up with much to show for it: four completions for twenty-two yards but only one first down. The first quarter ended with the Cardinal up by a touchdown, but the most important note was that All-America wide receiver Justin Blackmon hadn't touched the ball. Yet.
Stanford opened the second quarter determined to press their advantage, and they did so with startling ease, taking just seven plays and 4:37 to march eighty-seven yards. This drive showcased the running backs, as Tyler Gaffney, Jeremy Stewart, and Taylor accounted for every yard, with Stewart doing most of the damage with a thirty-four-yard ramble in the middle and a twenty-four-yard touchdown to finish it. Cardinal fans instantly thought back to last year's Orange Bowl, when Stewart exploded for ninety-nine yards and a touchdown. Stewart would finish this Fiesta Bowl with ninety total yards, meaning the two biggest games of his career came in the two biggest games his team played during his tenure. The word for that is "clutch."
It wasn't just that Stanford led 14-0, it was that they were dominating the game on offense, keeping the explosive Oklahoma State offense off the field, and somehow eliminating Blackmon from the equation.
That would change.
Oklahoma State took the field following the second Stanford touchdown, and the offense suddenly had its rhythm back. After Joseph Randle picked up six yards on first down, Weeden threw three strikes in a row: twenty-nine yards to Chelf Colton, six yards to Josh Cooper, and forty-three yards to -- finally -- Blackmon. Blackmon had started split out to the left and simply found the seam in what looked like a zone look from the Cardinal defense. (For much of the night before and after this catch Blackmon would be bracketed with man coverage from a defensive back and help above from a safety.) Just as Blackmon hit the open space, Weeden zipped the ball towards his back hip, but it didn't matter. Blackmon pivoted his upper body back towards the line of scrimmage without breaking stride and was in the end zone in the blink of an eye. As good as advertised.
After an ill-timed three and out from the Stanford offense, Weeden led the Cowboys out again and found a similar result. They ran the ball once for no gain, just for fun apparently, and then Weeden looked towards Blackmon on second and ten from his own thirty-three. Blackmon was the lone receiver on the right side of the line, matched up against Terrence Brown, but safety Michael Thomas was up close to the line showing blitz -- leaving Brown on an island with Blackmon. Weeden recognized the situation, probably envisioning the touchdown even as he snapped the ball, and fired a bullet to Blackmon just as he broke inside. Blackmon ran through Brown's arm tackle like a man shrugging off an overcoat and sprinted the rest of the way untouched for a sixty-seven-yard touchdown. As good as advertised.
Rising to the challenge, Luck came out throwing on the next possession and completed passes on the first four plays of the drive, moving the ball from the Stanford 20 to the Oklahoma State 14. Taylor, on his way to a career night, finished out the drive with a four-yard touchdown run, and the Cardinal was back ahead, 21-14.
Weeden's response was to engineer another scoring drive, involving all three of his top receivers (Colton, Cooper, and that Man Blackmon) before finishing things himself with a two-yard touchdown on a quarterback sneak. The three Oklahoma State "drives" had covered 231 yards but combined for only three minutes and fifty-three seconds of game time. By comparison, only one of Stanford's five touchdown drives on the night was shorter than 3:53. Stanford would enjoy a huge edge in time of possession -- 41:47 to 18:13 -- but Oklahoma State, just like Oregon, doesn't worry too much about time of possession, they worry about scoring.
The second half opened well for Stanford, as the defense stood strong and forced a punt on Oklahoma State's first drive. Luck took over on his own forty-one following a big punt return from Drew Terrell, and methodically moved the team down the field before rifling a pass to Zach Ertz for a sixteen-yard touchdown and a 28-21 lead.
The Cowboys came out with a fifty-yard kick return, but the Stanford defense held strong again, forcing a three and out from Oklahoma State. When punter Quinn Sharp pinned the offense back at their own three-yard line, I wasn't concerned. I expected Luck to engineer a fourteen-play, ninety-seven-yard drive that would consume nine or ten minutes of game clock and put the Cardinal in the driver's seat, but it didn't happen that way. Luck handed the ball to fullback Geoff Meinken on first down, and Meinken fumbled. Disaster.
The Stanford defense again stood strong, stoning Randle on first and second downs, then forcing an incompletion from Weeden on third. Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy could've been excused for going for the touchdown on fourth down, but he took the three points instead, and the lead was trimmed to 28-24.
After the next Stanford drive ended with a field goal to make it 31-24, Weeden was nearly perfect in the Cowboys' next drive. There was an incompletion on the first play, but he followed that with seven straight completions, the last to That Man for seventeen yards and a touchdown to tie the game at 31. As good as advertised.
It was the next drive when I knew the Cardinal would win. Knew it down to the last drop of Cardinal blood running through my veins. Calling the plays in the booth, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton leaned heavily on Stepfan Taylor. Playing in the shadow of the best quarterback in America, Taylor has been one of the most underrated running backs in the nation despite having gained more than a thousand yards two years in a row. Tonight he showed a national audience that he is more than just a footnote to this offense. He had a career night, finishing with a preposterous 177 yards and two touchdowns on thirty-five carries. On this drive, with the game hanging in the balance, Taylor was at his best. Luck handed him the ball on five of the first six plays, and Taylor responded with runs of four, three, ten, five, and twelve yards to bring the ball to the Oklahoma State twenty-nine. As great as Luck was, the running game was just as dominant on this night, as Luck and the running backs carried the ball an astounding fifty times for 257 yards, not including two sacks. (For comparison's sake, in the record breaking performance against Washington earlier this season, there were only forty-four carries.)
Two straight negative plays pushed the Cardinal into a third and fourteen situation at the thirty-three (which would translate to a fifty-yard field goal attempt) before Luck reminded everyone that the Heisman voters got it wrong. (A clever sign in the stands suggested that if RG3 wears Superman socks, Superman probably wears Andrew Luck socks.) With the crowd buzzing in anticipation of the biggest play in the game so far, Luck took the snap from the shotgun and surveyed his options. Pressure from the left side forced him to roll to his right before he picked up what must've been his second or third option, his roommate Griff Whalen. Sprinting hard to his right, Luck fired an absolute strike into Whalen's lap for a twenty-yard gain and a Stanford first down. It was the type of play that makes NFL scouts drool and defensive coordinators quiver. Three plays later Luck hit Whalen for nine yards and another critical third-down conversion, and Taylor trucked it in from the one for a touchdown on the next play. It was 38-31, but more than four and a half minutes remained for Oklahoma State to answer, and answer they would.
Weeden opened the next drive, the most important drive of his twenty-eight years, by looking to Blackmon. The first play was a seven-yard gain, but when he followed that with an incompletion and a flair pass to Randle that gained nothing, the Cowboys were faced with fourth and three from their own forty. With less than three and a half minutes to play, Gundy had no choice but to keep the offense on the field, and Weeden had no choice but to look for Blackmon.
If there's one thing to question about this play it's that Corey Gatewood was guarding Blackmon, and because of the relatively short yardage situation, there was no safety help. Gatewood helped the Cardinal through injury problems on both sides of the ball this season, switching from receiver to corner to receiver and finally back to corner as needed, but he shouldn't have been guarding the most dangerous receiver in America on the biggest play of the game. (Of course, I'm sure that wasn't the plan; the confusion of defending five-receiver sets can sometimes bring some unfortunate matchups.)
Weeden hit Blackmon easily on a quick slant that gained twenty-one yards, and suddenly the Stanford defense looked absolutely exhausted. That play took the heart out of them. A few seconds later Weeden found Randle for nineteen yards, then Michael Harrison for sixteen to the Stanford four. With the Cardinal defense looking for guidance and hoping for rest, Weeden handed the ball to Randle, who essentially walked in for the tying score.
At 38-38 with 2:35 to play, I was supremely confident. It didn't occur to me once that Andrew Luck would have any trouble moving the ball down the field for the winning score. Luck completed his first four passes, then handed the ball to Taylor who ran for five yards to set up first and ten at midfield with 1:28 to play.
The next play was vintage Andrew Luck. Working out of the shotgun, Luck faced a ferocious pass rush and was forced to flick a pass over a blitzing linebacker. He found Jeremy Stewart, who took the pass and rambled twenty-five yards into field goal position at the OSU twenty-five.
Fifty-two seconds remained, and after the game some Cardinal fans pointed at the conservative play calling here as the reason for the eventual loss. Taylor ran the ball for six yards on the next play to bring the ball to the nineteen, and Shaw made a decision to play for the last-second field goal. He could've played it differently. He could've let Luck pass once more, or he could've used one or two of his three timeouts to get an extra play or two in, if only to move the ball closer to the end zone and shorten the field goal attempt, but he didn't.
I've gone back and forth on this over the past twelve hours, and here's what I've come up with. Shaw did the right thing. A thirty-five-yard field goal, while certainly not a gimme, isn't exactly a Hail Mary. Yes, Jordan Williamson is only a redshirt freshman, but he's been good all season long, and when he lined up to kick, I certainly expected him to make it. Not a question in my mind.
What happened in overtime was simple. The Stanford offense was conservative (I was more bothered by the play-calling here than at the end of regulation), but would it really have been a surprise if Taylor had broken loose for ten or fifteen yards on one of those runs? He didn't, and there was a crippling false start penalty, all of which led to another Williamson missed field goal, this one a bit longer at forty-three yards. Oklahoma State's Mark Quinn made a chip-shot a few minutes later, and the game was over. Oklahoma State 41, Stanford 38.
It was an awful way to lose, but not because of the play calling. One minute victory seemed certain. I was thinking about the legacy of Andrew Luck, a possible #2 final ranking (number two!), and the long term impact of two consecutive BCS bowl wins. Five minutes later the Cowboys were standing on a stage and hoisting trophies that should've been going home with the Cardinal.
What bothered me the most -- and what still bothers me -- is how the game story changed. Given the brightness of the lights and the tightness of the game, I think this was the best game of Andrew Luck's brilliant career. The announcers kept focusing on one flukish statistic -- Luck was a perfect fifteen for fifteen on Stanford's five touchdown drives, and five for five on what could've been the game-winning drive. That's impressive, but more impressive is that he was nearly perfect all night long.
Luck passed for 347 yards and two touchdowns while throwing only four incompletions (two in the first quarter, including an interception; one in the second, and one in the third). On third down he was 8-10 for six first downs (though he did have the one interception), and scrambled for another first down. He was great if you watched the game as a Stanford fan, but he was even better if you were an NFL scout. He made every throw imaginable -- an effortless fifty-yard pass, bullets while scrambling hard to his left or hard to his right, and check downs to his second and third options.
He was perfect, but he was also the perfect leader. When the flag was thrown for the false start in overtime, I knew who had jumped before the official called the number because Luck went directly to Levine Toilolo and offered his hand in support. His tight end had made a critical mistake, but there was no need to dwell on it. When Williamson missed the field goal at the gun, Luck allowed himself a brief moment of human reaction (cameras clearly caught him saying, "Fuck, he missed it.") before immediately smiling, shrugging his shoulders, and pumping up his teammates. Throughout the break between regulation and overtime -- and even during the coin flip -- Luck was all smiles, as if were playing in a summer quarterback camp and not the biggest game of his life.
In the presser after the game Luck showed up with Terrence Brown, Chase Thomas, and David Shaw, and all four looked as if someone had died. I've never seen Andrew Luck like this, so that it isn't how I'll choose to remember him. I'll remember the fifty-three yard touchdown to Montgomery and the twenty-yard scrambling strike he threw to Whalen, but I'll remember more than that. I'll remember him standing on the sidelines congratulating his teammates as Williamson prepared to kick the field goal that would've sealed the win. As players walked past him, he said the same two words to each teammate: "Finish it." They didn't finish it, but it the long run that probably doesn't matter.
Andrew Luck came to Stanford four years ago with nothing but hope and a dream. On Monday night, he finished it.
[Photo Credits: Donald Miralle/Getty Images]