Some supposed "experts" were predicting an easy victory for the Cardinal, and early on it looked like the game was heading in that direction as Ty Montgomery took the opening kickoff at the one yard line and shot up the field like a rocket. He got two key blocks, one of them from Joe Hemschoot, who's been an absolute beast on special teams this season, and then sprinted 99 yards to the end zone. It would've been a touchdown even if they had been playing two-hand touch. Just twelve seconds into the game, and Stanford led, 7-0.
Keith Price led the Husky offense out on the field and got to work immediately. Tailback Bishop Sankey got two carries, but this drive was all Price aside from that. He was a perfect 4 of 4 for 46 yards, but the drive stalled when a holding penalty put them into a 4th and 9 and they were forced to punt.
On Stanford's first possession there were signs that quarterback Kevin Hogan wasn't on his game. After drivng the ball across midfield and down to the 38, Hogan made two bad decisions in a row as he looked to force passes to Michael Rector. Rector was double covered both times. The first was an incompletion, but the second was an interception. Neither pass should've been thrown, and the Husky defense took advantage.
If there's one thing that will make head coach Steve Sarkisian and his players cringe as they review the film of Saturday's game, it will be the penalties. The Huskies came into the night leading the nation in the category, and they finished the game with 10 penalties for 89 yards, which is unacceptable, but the timing of those flags only served to magnify them. On the Huskies' final possession of the first quarter, Price found receiver Kasen Williams for a thirteen-yard gain to convert a 3rd and 12, but the play was erased due to an illegal crackback block. That put the Huskies into a 3rd and 26, and Price again converted, this time with a 27-yard pass to Williams. But once again the play was nullified, this time for illegal touching, and the drive was finally dead.
The Cardinal settled for a 33-yard field goal from Jordan Williamson on the ensuing drive, and the lead was 10-0, but there was a definite sense that things would be challenging for both the offense and defense all night long. These Huskies, unfortunately, weren't going to go away.
The two teams traded punts over the next four possessions, but then Washington took over on their own 12, and Price and Sankey went to work. There was only one third down on the entire drive, a 3rd and 5 from their 17, but Price hit Williams for 18 yards and the conversion. After that, the Huskies cut through the vaunted Stanford defense with ease. The drive covered 88 yards in 12 plays and ended with a seven-yard touchdown from Sankey. Media reports leading up to the game focused on the feel-good story of the year: Bishop Sankey's grandfather, who had been blind for five years, had recently had a cornea transplant which has allowed him to see again. He was watching his grandson play college football for the first time, and ESPN's cameras found him after seemingly every one of Sankey's 32 touches. Sankey rushed six times for 27 yards on this drive, and his touchdown with 1:03 remaining in the second quarter cut the lead to 10-7 and appeared to give the Huskies the momentum heading into the locker room.
Perhaps because he didn't want to risk kicking to Montgomery again after that opening touchdown, Sarkisian chose to have his kicker pooch it short; special team superstar Hemschoot fielded it at the 32 and returned it to the 39, leaving the Cardinal only 25 yards or so to get into field goal range.
A short pass from Hogan to tight end Luke Kaumatule and two quarterback scrambles brought the ball across to the Washington 39, where the Cardinal eventually faced 2nd and 10. Hogan dropped back to pass and looked deep for Montgomery, who had beaten his man going down the right sideline. He had baited his defender a bit, coming off the line slowly as if it were a run play, but then he muscled past him and broke free. Hogan's pass was placed perfectly, and it dropped out of the sky and into Montomery's arms inside the ten. Montgomery juggled it once or twice, but gained control quickly for the touchdown. It had taken only fifty-two seconds, but the Cardinal had restored their ten-point lead and reclaimed momentum heading to halftime. Stanford 17, Washington 10.
It would take less than a minute for the Huskies to change all that. They took the opening kickoff of the second half and struck quickly: Price to Sankey for 14 yards, Price to Jaydon Mickens for 2, Sankey for 30, Price to Kevin Smith for 29 and a touchdown. Four plays, seventy-five yards, fifty-nine seconds. (Note that the yards covered (75) exceeded the seconds burned from the clock (59). Because I was curious (and perhaps feeling a bit masochistic), I decided to find out how many of these Lightning Strike drives Oregon has had this season. The answer is seven.)
Looking to slow things down a bit and regain control of the flow of the game, the Cardinal offense returned to Tyler Gaffney. Gaffney carried on five consecutive plays, then had a 12-yard reception on the sixth to account for 34 yards and bring the ball to the Washington 4. Two plays later Hogan kept the ball on the read option (a play we should really see a bit more of) and slipped into the end zone for the touchdown. Stanford had kept the ball for 4:47 and pushed the lead back out to ten at 24-14.
From here the Stanford defense stiffened, dropping a three-and-out on Washington's next possession to force a punt, then earning two more three-and-outs on the possession after that, neither of which stuck. Here's how that happened. The Huskies started their drive at their own 36, and after two incompletions and a one-yard loss, they faced 4th and 11 and naturally lined up to punt, a victory for the defense. But Sarkisian called for a fake, and Stanford's aggressive special teams unit actually helped him out. They lined up looking for the block, and just before the snap the defensive line shifted over to the left to overload that side of the line. Washington's Travis Coons is a rugby style punter, so all game long he had been taking two or three strides in that direction before kicking, but this time he took the snap and sprinted to his left, away from Stanford's stacked defense, and there was nothing but green grass and a first down in front of him.
No matter. The Stanford defense dug in again as Josh Mauro tackled Sankey for a five-yard loss and Trent Murphy sacked Price for a loss of two, which brought up 3rd and 17. Price scrambled out to his left, threw incomplete, and it looked like the defense would finally get off the field, but a well-deserved roughing the passer penalty on James Vaughters gave the Huskies a first down and extended the drive. A few plays later Sankey was darting into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown and I was ready to rip out my own corneas, just so I wouldn't have to watch him anymore. Stanford still led, 24-21, but things were getting sticky.
Knowing that he couldn't risk another big return from Montgomery, Sarkisian again instructed his kicker to drop one short, but it wasn't short enough. Montgomery raced up and grabbed the ball at the 13, then simply kept going. He split through the pack, powered through a few arm tackles, and was suddenly in the clear. There was a moment when it looked like he might separate and break for daylight, but he was pulled down at the Washington 19 after a 68-yard return.
Before the season I tabbed Montgomery as one of a few young players on the team who were Poised for Greatness. In Montgomery's case, that greatness was realized. As good as Keith Price was, the player of the game was cleary Ty Montgomery. He had 290 total yards (30 rushing, 56 receiving, and 204 in kick returns), and it seemed like every time the Cardinal needed a big play, he delivered. Perhaps no play was bigger than this late third quarter return.
Set up inside the red zone, Hogan simply handed the ball to Gaffney on three consecutive plays. The third time was the charm, as the Cardinal showed a bit of a wrinkle. With eight linemen and a fullback in front of him, Gaffney actually took the play to the outside away from all the wreckage at the line of scrimmage and scored untouched. Momentum seized, lead expanded, confidence restored throughout Mighty Card Nation. Stanford 31, Washington 21.
When James Vaughters ended the next Husky drive with an eight-yard sack of Price (after Shayne Skov hurried him with a ferocious inside rush), it felt like Stanford was finally ready to take control of the game. With 13:58 to play, a long scoring drive against Washington's tiring defense would essentially end things. We've seen Stanford teams execute neck-crushing drives in moments like this so often that we actually come to expect them, but it wasn't to be this time. Three and out.
The Huskies took over at their own 20 and began the most methodical drive that they will likely have all season long. In contrast to their Lightning Strike drive to open the second half, this Slow and Steady trip took 18 plays, covered 73 yards, and burned 5:37 off the clock. It was as if the two teams had switched jerseys.
Price snapped the ball for that eighteenth play on 1st and goal from the 7 and looked to pass. Trent Murphy manhandled his man on the line of scrimmage, and although he wasn't able to get in to pressure Price, he was free to get his hands up, and he deflected the pass. The ball shot skyward and came down into the arms of A.J. Tarpley. Moments earlier a touchdown looked certain, but now Stanford had possession, the defense had extended its preposterous streak of 29 consecutive games forcing a turnover, and the game, again, looked to be in hand.
But of course, it wasn't. The Cardinal took over at their own 20 with 6:11 to play, but they punted three plays later after consuming only 2:03 of game time. The Huskies started 80 yards from the goal line, but they covered that distance in giant strides as Price completed passes of 4, 13, 40, and 21 yards to get to the Stanford 1, then finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown pass to Mickens to bring the Huskies within three points. Again.
They had covered those 80 yards in just 1:34, and they hadn't had to use a single one of their timeouts. Even so, with just 2:34 to play, a single Stanford first down would likely ice the game.
Once again, they wouldn't be able to get that first down, but it wasn't for lack of creativity. They clearly weren't going to pass for two reasons: one, they needed to force the Huskies to use their timeouts; and two, Hogan was suffering through the worst game of his short career. He finished 12 of 20 for 100 yards, but if you remove the long touchdown to Montgomery, his numbers look even worse: 11 of 19 for 61 yards and an interception. Fans are often critical of coaches who eschew the pass in situations like this, but on this day, Shaw had no choice.
The problem, though, was that Stanford's best option all day had been Montgomery, so instead of passing the ball to him, they gave it to him on a reverse. He had gained 26 yards on a similar call on Stanford's first offensive play of the day, but he gained only four yards here. After a Gaffney run gained four more, there was another exotic handoff, this time to Kelsey Young on the jet sweep. The Huskies strung it out perfectly, however, and Stanford was forced to punt.
As Keith Price took the field at his own 33 with 1:51 to play and a timeout in his pocket, I was hopeful but concerned. I had faith in the Stanford defense, but they were clearly gassed. Ben Gardner and Shayne Skov had both missed critical plays in the fourth quarter due to either injury or exhaustion, and the defensive line wasn't getting nearly the push they had been for much of the game.
The Huskies' first play did nothing to lessen my concern. Price rifled a ball across the field to Williams for an eighteen-yard gain to move the ball just across midfield. It was an acrobatic catch, and Williams landed shoulder first. Stanford challenged the call, believing that first shoulder had touched out of bounds, but the play was upheld.
The urgency of the moment seemed to awaken the Cardinal pass rush, and Price was suddenly operating under duress again. First Trent Murphy and then Ben Gardner hurried him into incompletions, and then tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins dropped what would have been a first down and a twenty-yard gain, bringing the Huskies to the brink. Facing 4th and 10, Price found himself with plenty of time, but he couldn't find a receiver. He was finally flushed out of the pocket and scrambled to his right. Gardner pursued and made a diving attempt at the sack, but Price only stumbled for a second before continuing towards the sideline. He stopped, fired the ball up field, and completed an unlikely sixteen-yard pass to Kevin Smith for what appeared to be a first down in field goal range.
Smith had circled back towards the ball on the play and made the catch diving forward towards Price. Looking live I wondered if he had actually caught the ball, and replays showed that he might not have. Even so, Coach Shaw had already used his challenge for the half, so it didn't seem to matter. But before the Huskies could run another play, the officials quickly stepped in and announced that the play was under review.
Watching the replays over and over again -- it was a long review -- I was certain of two things. The ball looked like it had hit the turf, but I was sure there wasn't enough evidence to overturn the call. I was wrong. The play was reversed, and the game was over. Stanford 31, Washington 28.
I had foolishly predicted a four-touchdown win for the Cardinal, and it had come down to the final minutes. Truth be told, before that 4th down play was overturned, I wasn't worried about a tying field goal, I feared a game-winning touchdown. There was only 1:16 to play when Price's final pass bounced into Smith's arms, and even if they had scored on the next play, nothing I had seen from the Stanford offense in the fourth quarter led me to believe that they'd be able to answer in the final sixty seconds.
Thankfully it didn't come down to that. While it might be tempting to look at this game and worry about how this team might fare against Oregon, a team that's better than Washington in all three phases of the game, I see it differently. The Alabama Crimson Tide has been the standard against which all college football teams have been measured for the past few years, and it's easy to think that they've been untouchable during that span. We forget that they actually lost to Texas A&M last season and to LSU in 2011. The 2010 national champion Auburn Tigers had numerous close calls (and at least one miracle win) en route to their BCS title, and the' 09 Crimson Tide needed a blocked field goal on the game's final play against a mediocre Tennessee squad to preserve their perfect season.
The point is this: we tend to forget that like true love, the course of a national championship never does run smooth. While there are concerns raised by this narrow win, they must be seen alongside the reasons for hope. Washington appears to be a legitimate top ten or top fifteen team (we'll learn a lot more about that when they face Oregon this weekend), and the Cardinal did enough to emerge victorious.
Ty Montgomery was brilliant, Tyler Gaffney ran for tough yardage, Shayne Skov was a force on defense (he led all players with 14 tackles, including 1.5 sacks), and players like Ben Gardner, Trent Murphy, and James Vaughters all contributed as expected.
In short, today Stanford fans have more to be optimistic about than most fans in the country. The Cardinal is undefeated at 5-0 and ranked #5 in the nation, and their stated goals of winning the Pac-12 North, winning the Pac-12 championship, and winning the BCS championship are all still within their reach.
The dream still lives.
[Photo Credit: George Nikitin/AP Photo]