It's not that I've been avoiding this game, I've just been having a hard time figuring out what to say about it.
I think this is the most important game of the Stanford season. Every single college football publication you look at in the next six weeks will pick Oregon to win the Pac-12 South, and most will also say that Stanford, Washington, and (inexplicably) Cal will fight it out for second place. This match-up comes at the perfect time for Stanford, as they'll have eleven days off to get past the emotions of the USC game (be they positive or negative), rest any nagging injuries, and prepare for the Huskies.
Do you think the Huskies might have this game circled on the calendar? Over the last two seasons, Stanford has outscored Washington 106-21, including last year's 65-21 woodshedding which featured a school-record 446 rushing yards.
Washington will also be coming off a bye week, and they'll almost certainly be 2-1 with wins against San Diego State and Portland State but a crushing loss in the Bayou at the hands of LSU. There are high hopes in Seattle this year, and this will be the first game of a three-week stretch that will determine whether or not those hopes are warranted. After Stanford, they travel to Oregon and host USC in consecutive weeks. Winning two of three would be huge, but the thinking here is that they might just lose all three.
Stanford is the more talented team from top to bottom, but you never know what might happen to a new quarterback in his first road test. Toss Up.
Well, now we do know what might happen to a new quarterback in his first road test. Josh Nunes failed. Back then I said this was the most important game of the season. Right now it doesn't feel like that, but if things don't get turned around, this might be the game we look back on as we're trying to figure out what went wrong. But first, to the game...
Aside from opening the game with a three-and-out, everything appeared to be business as usual for the Cardinal in the opening few minutes. The defense responded with a three-and-out of their own, and Nunes and the Cardinal took the field for their second possession on their own 38 yard line. After a quick first down pass to Ty Montgomery, Nunes left the field and sophomore Kevin Hogan lined up behind center. A dual-threat quarterback, Hogan sits at number three on the depth chart, and he looked good enough during the summer to have his name mentioned as a dark horse candidate for the starting job.
He took the snap and ran for five yards, which is never a bad thing, but his appearance signaled something more. The creativity we've seen in David Shaw's game planning was still there. I hoped we'd see more of Hogan, replacing the increasingly one-dimensional wildcat sets we've been seeing. Unfortunately, Hogan never returned.
The drive continued, however, and even though Nunes completed just two of his five passes, it still felt like a success when Jordan Williamson hit a 31-yard field goal for a 3-0 Stanford lead.
What followed, however, were four consecutive three-and-outs for the Cardinal offense, a unprecedented stretch of ineptitude that resulted as much from poor playcalling as from poor execution. In those twelve plays the Cardinal gained a total of 21 yards. If the Cardinal coaching staff remembered that they had run for a school-record 446 yards against these Huskies last season, nothing during this sequence indicated that. Stepfan Taylor saw the ball four times and gained 16 yards, and fullback Ryan Hewitt got a carry on third and short near the end of the first quarter. He was stonewalled.
Nunes, meanwhile, was suddenly the focus of the offense. He threw the ball six times, completing two passes to Montgomery for 12 yards, and was sacked once. Somehow this didn't seem like a team committed to running the ball. In fact, although Taylor would carry the ball 21 times on the night, at no point did it feel like he was a focal point of the offense.
The reason for this was that the Huskies, who had given up more than a thousand yards rushing to the Cardinal over the past three seasons, came into the game with the obvious intention of stopping the run. They played the entire night with at least eight, nine, or even ten defensive players in the box, lined up to stop the run. They were able to employ this strategy because they had no fear of Nunes, and it worked because Nunes and the coaching staff never made them pay. More on that later.
The good news for Stanford was that the defense was playing at an unbelievable level. The front seven was as good as advertised, as they stifled the Husky running game early on and made life miserable for quarterback Keith Price, who is probably the second-best quarterback in the Pac-12. He was sacked just three times on the night, but the stat sheet cannot measure the amount of punishment he absorbed on hits just as he released the ball.
The defense yielded a Washington field goal late in the first quarter, but for most of the game it didn't look like the Huskies would be able to get anything more than that. When the Cardinal managed to put together a seventy-two yard drive, marching from their own 18 to the Washington 10 on the strength of 57 yards passing from Nunes, Stanford fans were feeling good for two reasons: one, the offense was clicking; and two, the defense was playing well enough that even a 6-3 looked like it could be enough to secure the win.
The third quarter was frustrating. While the defense continued to throw down, the offense proceeded in fits and starts. Nunes connected with Zach Ertz for a first down on the first Stanford possession of the second half, but fumbled the ball away three plays later. He directed the team to two first downs his next time out, but that drive stalled as well when Nunes floated a screen pass that almost got Taylor killed on second down, then threw a bad incompletion to Ertz on third.
All the good feelings earned on that second quarter scoring drive had evaporated, and a sad reality set in. This was a game that would be won by a mistake. Hoping Stanford would be the beneficiary, I fired off this tweet:
More and more it's looking like the defense is going to have to score.#GoStanford— Go Mighty Card (@GoMightyCard) September 28, 2012
Nineteen minutes later, linebacker Trent Murphy obliged. On first down from his own 49, Keith Price tried to swing a short pass into the right flat, but the 6'6" Murphy leapt into the air to tip the pass, then managed to corral it for the interception. He finally caught the ball at the Husky 40, then outraced a wide receiver to the end zone for the touchdown. It was an incredibly athletic play, and even though almost eighteen minutes remained to play, it certainly felt like a nail in the UW coffin. The Cardinal led 13-3, and although there was nothing to indicate that they might add to that lead, there were also no signs that the defense would allow a single inch to the Huskies.
It would only take a few minutes for the Huskies to climb out of the grave. Facing a fourth and one at his own 39, coach Steve Sarkisian understood the importance of the moment and kept his offense out on the field. (Facing a similar decision at the same point on the field in the first quarter and armed with a dominant offensive line, Shaw had punted.) You've seen the highlights by now, so you know that Bishop Sankey broke through the line and ran sixty yards for a touchdown.
How exactly did that happen?
The Huskies had come into the game with only one of their original five starting offensive linemen, and they had no hope of sustaining a conventional running attack against the Stanford front seven. With that in mind, the coaching staff had shrewdly designed a game plan based on misdirection and delays, and this pivotal play was no different.
Even though it was 4th and 1, we were still in our base package, but the entire front seven was drawn up close. Right outside linebacker Chase Thomas was on the line, but spread a bit wide in a two-point stance and fronted by a tight end. Left outside linebacker Trent Murphy was also standing, and off the line of scrimmage by a yard or two. The play went away from him, so he was never involved. As Price was barking signals, inside linebacker Shayne Skov jumped up into the gap between defensive end Ben Gardner and defensive tackle Terrence Stephens. Just as the ball was being snapped, inside linebacker James Vaughters streaked into the next gap, between Stephens and defensive end Henry Anderson. (I don't know what the gap responsibilities are supposed to be, but this seems to make sense, since all four linebackers were surrounding the three down lineman.)
As the lines engaged, Skov was immediately bottled up, then popped into the next gap over, almost as if he were running a stunt. The problem, of course, was that Vaughters was already there. The two collided and took each other out of the play. Thomas, meanwhile was being adequately blocked by a tight end, leaving a gaping hole on the right side of the offensive line. Even given all that, Sankey's run should've gained only ten yards. As strong as the tackling has been in the secondary this season, I'd have expected them to make the play. (Admittedly, our best tackling corner, Wayne Lyons, was on the opposite side.) Safeties Jordan Richards and Ed Reynolds both closed on Sankey after he broke through the line, but he made them both miss. If this had been a game of two-hand touch, Sankey still would've scored.
And suddenly the Cardinal lead had been shaved back to three as the game entered the fourth quarter. After the offenses took turns doing nothing, Keith Price and the Huskies showed their mettle in the closing moments. Trailing 13-10 with 7:11 to play and facing a 4th and 1 at the Washington 44, Sarkisian again chose to go for it, his third 4th down attempt of the game, a statistic which supports the idea that while the Cardinal was hoping not to lose, the Huskies were playing to win.
Washington converted that 4th down with a two-yard run from Dezden Perry, then arrived at another crossroads with a 3rd and 2 at the Stanford 35. Price had been operating under serious fire from the Stanford rush all night long, so the play call was for a quick outlet pass to wide receiver Kasen Williams along the right sideline. He made the grab, but cornerback Terrence Brown closed quickly, looking to make the tackle. Williams stepped through Brown's attempt, secured the temporarily bobbled ball, and raced down the sideline for the go ahead score.
People who know me, or even people who read this site regularly, will you that I am hopelessly optimistic about the Mighty Card. In this moment, as Williams was celebrating in the end zone and 55,000 Husky fans were screaming themselves hoarse, optimism seemed pointless. The offense hadn't managed a single touchdown all night, so it didn't seem likely that we'd see one now.
But Nunes came out firing, hitting Ertz for fifteen yards to the 49, then for nine more to the Washington 42. After Hewitt converted a 3rd down to give the Cardinal a 1st and 10 at the 40, I started to hope. That hope lasted about thirty seconds, until the offense fell victim to yet another delay of game penalty, putting themselves into a 1st and 15 hole. Shaw would argue vehemently that the play clock had been started too soon (and replays would confirm this error), but the call would stand. Undaunted, Nunes dropped back on the next play and threw deep down the right sideline in the direction of a streaking (and open) Montgomery. I leapt out of my seat as the ball was in the air, sure that this was the moment when Nunes would silence his critics and win the game.
The ball was placed well, but it skipped off of Montgomery's finger tips. The pass wasn't perfect, but it was definitely a ball that a number-one receiver should be expected to catch. If you have an elite quarterback running your offense, a dropped pass here or there really doesn't matter, but when your quarterback is struggling to keep his head above water, these balls simply have to be caught.
Two plays later Nunes stepped up to the line at 4th and 4 with the game hanging in the balance. The 6'8" Levine Toilolo was split out wide to the right, defended by the 6'0" Desmond Trufant, and that was the only place Nunes looked. He lofted a pass in that direction, hoping Toilolo would outleap his defender, but he never gave him a chance. The ball was badly overthrown, and Trufant came up with the interception to seal the win.
Normally I love this play, but only in certain circumstances. On first or second down from inside the ten-yard line, it's a great choice, but I have a huge problem in this situation. With the game on the line -- and much more than just the game -- it simply doesn't make sense to throw a ball up for grabs, even given Toilolo's huge height advantage. If felt like desperation.
But perhaps that was the appropriate way for the Cardinal to lose this game. That single play highlighted all three areas of weakness: quarterbacking, wide receiver play, and play calling. It's tempting to hang this loss on Josh Nunes, who was 18 for 37 with an interception, a fumble, and only 170 yards passing, but there's much more to it than that.
Let's start with those 37 pass attempts. When you add in his three sacks, that means offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton sent in 40 passing plays, but only 28 running plays. I've made a conscious decision not to compare this team to last year's, especially not the quarterback position, but in this case I think a comparison will prove enlightening. Andrew Luck -- arguably the best quarterback in Stanford history -- threw the ball 37 times or more only four times in his college career.
My issues with the play calling run deeper than the ratio of runs and passes. When the Cardinal ran the ball on Thursday night, they were incredibly one dimensional. Far too often they lined up with seven or eight offensive linemen, a tight end or two, and just Taylor in the backfield. Faced with this look, the Huskies had no reason not to stack their defense accordingly. Washington had success stopping the Cardinal run game early -- something no one outside the Husky locker room would've expected -- but instead of continuing to pound the ball, knowing that their superior size would eventually wear down the smaller UW defensive line, or looking to run outside with a speedy player like Kelsey Young, Hamilton and Shaw instead cast their lot with Nunes.
It didn't work.
[Photo Credit: Otto Greule, Jr./Getty Images]