It takes weeks and months and years before a team can begin thinking about a national championship, but it takes only sixty minutes for all of that to come crashing down.
Early on, it certainly looked like business as usual for the Cardinal as they took the opening kickoff and marched effortlessly down the field, chewing up yardage in prodigious bites: 34 yards to Ty Montgomery on the first play from scrimmage and 28 yards to Kodi Whitfield two plays later. When Tyler Gaffney leapt into the end zone on the seventh play of the drive, it was hard not to feel like it would be a long afternoon for the Utes.
The Utah players, however, weren't thinking along those lines. Travis Wilson and the offense took the field and scored just as easily as the Cardinal had, covering 75 yard in eight plays and using only 4:15 on the clock. It wasn't yet clear if this was an aberration or a sign of how the game would go for the Stanford defense, but the game was tied and the underdogs were definitely feeling good about themselves.
It took only one play for the momentum to be jerked back across to the field to the Cardinal sidelines as Montgomery took the ensuing kickoff five yards into his own end zone, broke through the pack, veered to his left, and streaked down the sideline for his second return touchdown in as many weeks and the third of his career, tying a record held by Chris Owusu, Damon Dunn, and a few others. Montgomery would seem to be a lock to eventually hold that record all by himself, but I'm guessing teams will stop kicking to him. As good as he's been, it would almost make sense to start kicking the ball out of bounds and simply giving the Cardinal the ball at the 35.
After the defense reasserted itself and forced the Utes into a three-and-out, the Stanford offense took over at their own 19, but this time it was Dallas Lloyd in at quarterback. The Utah native had grown up dreaming of one day playing on the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium, so it was no surprise that he kept the ball on the read option and sprinted to the right for a sixteen-yard gain. Hogan came right back in and found Michael Rector deep down the field for 39 yards to the Utah 25.
The drive stalled two plays later at the 21, but it almost didn't matter. In two possessions the offense had gained 135 yards, and Kevin Hogan had already shown that his poor performance against Washington was in the past. He had completed two passes for 67 yards, and there was no reason to believe that he'd slow down. For now, Jordan Williamson would surely nail the 38-yard field goal to give his team a comfortable ten-point lead.
But Williamson pushed his attempt to the right, and the lead remained at seven.
Utah's next drive was, perhaps, the most important series of the game. After gaining three first downs to push the ball across midfield, the Utes found themselves buried in a 3rd and 17 hole from their own 49. Wilson dropped back to pass and rolled to his right before launching a long pass down the right sideline. Wide receiver Dres Anderson was locked in a one-on-one duel with defensive back Devon Carrington, and Anderson appeared to push Carrington out of the way just before the ball arrived. An official stood by watching, but he kept his flag in his pocket and stood silently as Anderson made the catch inside the five and skipped into the end zone for the tying touchdown.
It makes no sense to blame a loss on the officiating, but we can still look at this play as a turning point. The defense had the Utes in a deep hole, but they couldn't get the stop they needed. From the Utah perspective, this is exactly the type of play that any underdog needs to pull off a huge upset. If the pass had fallen incomplete it wouldn't have broken their will, but coming when it did -- with the Utes down by a touchdown to a team their defense hadn't yet been able to stop -- I have to believe that it was worth more than just the seven points it put on the scoreboard.
The two teams traded empty possessions as the game moved into the 2nd quarter before Stanford mounted a decent drive that stalled just outside of field goal range, leading to a Ben Rhyne punt that was downed by Usua Amanam at the Utah one-yard line.
Everything seemed perfect. With the Utes backed up against the wall, surely the Stanford defense -- the unit that was supposed to be the best in the Pac-12 and one of the best in the nation -- would rise up and take control of the game. This theory still looked good after the Utes' first two plays gained a total of one yard and brought up 3rd and 9, but then the defense got soft. Knowing the Utes needed nine yards for the first down, also knowing that there wasn't much danger in getting beaten deep since Utah surely wouldn't ask Wilson to stand too long in his end zone waiting for such a play to develop, the defensive backs lined up an excusable ten yards off the wide receivers.
Seeing this alignment, Wilson promptly turned into Wile E. Coyote, complete with the bib around his neck, mouth drooling, knife and fork ready to carve. He hit Sean Fitzgerald for twelve yards, and the Utes were in business.
Remember when teams completely gave up on running the ball against Stanford's vaunted front seven? This drive destroyed that idea. Following that first down pass to Fitzgerald, the Utes ran the ball on seven conseuctive plays, and it went pretty well for them: Bubba Poole for 14 yards, Poole for 21, Wilson for 7, Poole for 15, Lucky Radley for 16, and Radley for 2 before Wilson was finally stopped for no gain, bringing up 3rd and 8 from the Stanford 11. Wilson's pass fell incomplete, and it looked for a moment as if the defense had forced a field goal attempt, but a late flag flew in and Ben Gardner was hit with a roughing the passer penalty. Again the KZSU announcers felt a Stanford defender had been victimized, and instead of kicking a field goal on the next play, the Utes got a second touchdown from Anderson, this time a three-yard rush.
Utah took their 21-14 into halftime, then came back out and picked up right where they had left off. If you weren't able to watch the game and are wondering what the Utah offense looked like, all you need to do is think back to what UCLA did to Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game. Wilson would start in the pistol formation, and on every single play a player would go in motion from the outside slot and loop through the backfield. Wilson would then throw a flare pass out to that motion man who would turn up field to exploit the edge of the Stanford defense. Stanford had generally done a good job defending bubble screens like this in the early part of the season, mainly because cornerbacks Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons had done a great job of getting off their blocks and making tackles, but this almost never happened against Utah. There appeared to be quite a bit of holding by the Utah receivers on these plays, but it was never called. When the teams returned to the field for the second half, David Shaw took the opportunity to talk to the officials, and he appeared to be giving them a tutorial on the rules against holding, complete with a demonstration of what he felt the Utes were doing. It didn't help.
When the Utes weren't swing the ball outside, they were running up the middle, gashing the Stanford defense for huge chunks of yardage. They followed UCLA's game plan to the letter, and they had the same success. (It will be interesting to see how the Stanford coaching staff responds to this; the Bruins will be in Palo Alto this Saturday.)
Utah's opening drive was exactly what they wanted. They alternated run and pass throughout the drive, and the Utes eventually earned a 1st and goal at the Stanford nine. They had covered the length of the field with ease, only needing to convert two third downs, and there was nothing to indicate that the Stanford defense would be able to stop them. The second half had only just begun, but the game was starting to get away from the Cardinal.
Wilson dropped back and flipped a short pass to his receiver. Alex Carter arrived at the same time as the pass, and the ball popped out and into the arms of linebacker Joe Hemschoot. There was nothing but grass between Hemschoot and the end zone, but he stumbled a bit and was taken down at the 22. It seemed to be just what the Cardinal needed.
The ensuing drive stalled after thirty yards when Montgomery fumbled while fighting for extra yardage (forward progress had been stopped, but the whistle did not blow), and the Utes cashed in that turnover for a field goal and a 24-14 lead. The Cardinal's next drive ended with another fumble, this one by Hogan as he was sacked from behind, and Utah kicked another field goal to go up by thirteen, 27-14, less than a minute into the fourth quarter.
All things considered, it could have been much, much worse for the Cardinal. Had even one of those field goals been a touchdown, the game would probably have been out of reach, but when they took over on their own 48 with 10:18 to play in the game, there was hope. Two incompletions brought up 3rd and 10, and the coaching staff smartly dialed up a play for Montgomery.
For the second week in a row, Montgomery was the best player on the field, and on this play, with his team on the brink of death, Montgomery took a short slip screen, split two defenders to gain the first down marker, then rocketed up the middle of the field for a 45-yard gain to the Utah 7. Two plays later Hogan found Devon Cajuste in the corner of the end zone it was suddenly 27-21. Stanford fans who had been preparing themselves for a loss only moments earlier found themselves thinking again of a victory that would keep the national championship dream alive.
When the Stanford defense came up a three-and-out on Utah's next possession, the stadium was suddenly silent and Stanford had momentum for the first time since the first quarter. Was it possible? There was no way that the Cardinal deserved to be in the game, but here it was, ready for the taking.
After his quick start, Hogan had suffered through another dismal game, but on this drive he looked like the quarterback we imagined he would be -- thanks to Montgomery. The Cardinal started their drive 88 yards away from the goal line, and Hogan found Montgomery for 13 yards on the first play. Three plays later he hit Montgomery again for 10 yards to convert a 3rd and 5, and three plays after that it was Montgomery yet again for 14 yards to erase a 3rd and 7. Whether he was beating a defensive back one-on-one or simply sitting in the seem of a zone, Montgomery was unstoppable. (He had 296 all-purpose yards (131 receiving, 5 rushing, and 131 on returns), giving him 586 in his last two games.)
On 2nd and 4 from the Utah 37, perhaps knowing that the entire stadium would be watching Montgomery, Hogan instead looked towards Kodi Whitfield deep down the left sideline. Whitfield wasn't open by much -- a cornerback trailed him but there was a safety coming across for help -- but Hogan threw one of the best passes of his life and the ball hit Whitfield in his hands at the top of his leap. When he came down the Cardinal had the ball on the Utah 14 with 1:35 to play and suddenly I was sure they would win. Weren't you?
Gaffney rushed for four yards up the middle, then Hogan gained four more on an odd-looking bootleg to the left, and it was 3rd and 2. Shaw had clearly decided that he would score the go-ahead touchdown while bleeding the clock down, and the Utes had decided that their only option was to stop them from scoring; the next two plays would determine the game.
Stanford brought in a heavy package -- two tight ends, two fullbacks, and a halfback, but no receivers -- and it warmed my heart. Rushing two times here would certainly net a first down at the very least and possibly a touchdown. But instead of handing the ball off, Hogan looked to pass. Ryan Hewitt slipped out of the backfield in a Spider-3Y banana look (Shaw would later say that this was option number one), but Hogan backed off of this when a Utah defender read the play perfectly and jumped into his passing lane. Hogan then went to his second option, Charlie Hopkins, a converted defensive lineman playing tight end. Hopkins entered the game with one career reception, but he wouldn't add to that here as Hogan's pass fell incomplete, bringing up fourth down.
At 4th and 2, the run game was no longer an option, and the end came quickly. Hogan dropped back under a fair amount of pressure and fired the ball high through the middle of the end zone. No receiver had a shot at the pass, and the game was over. Utah 27, Stanford 21.
When confronted with a disappointing loss like this, especially when the expectations for the season were so high, there is a tendency to focus on details that might not have been the true determining factors in the game. The play calls on the final third and fourth downs, for instance, have been debated to death. Stanford used to be a team that "runs power when we get off the bus," and you would certainly expect that to be the case with an offensive line that many rank as the best in the Pac-12. With two plays to gain two yards, they chose instead to go away from this strength and put the game in the hands of a quarterback who has been mediocre for the past two games.
Beyond these two plays, many fans have pointed to the officials and laid blame at their feet. This argument states that Utah's second touchdown was gift-wrapped by the official who failed to call pass interference on Dres Anderson, that Ben Gardner's roughing the passer penalty gave the Utes four extra points, and that Ty Montgomery's forward progress was stopped long before the ball was ripped out of his hands.
But if we subscribe to either of those lines of reasoning, we obscure a much larger truth -- the Utes simply dominated the Cardinal and clearly deserved to win the game.
Utah led Stanford in almost every significant category: first downs, 22-13; rushing yards, 181-143; total yards, 415-389; total plays, 73-56; and time of possession, 32:54-27:06. (Prior to the fourth quarter, that time of possession advantage was a stunning 28:00 to 17:00.)
After the Cardinal scored on the game's opening touchdown, they didn't have another offensive score until 9:22 remained in the fourth quarter, a stretch of 47:08 of game time. Here's another way to look at that: Stanford's offense let 78.5% of the game go by between scores. Starting with the last play of the first quarter and extending through the third, the offense ran 23 plays and gained just 92 yards.
The defense, meanwhile, was self-destructing. Over the first three quarters, they just couldn't get off the field as they suffered through long drives of 8, 10, 11, 12, and 10 plays and couldn't make big plays when they needed to. Utah certainly isn't a bad team, but it should be noted that they scored 30 points against Utah State and 20 against BYU, but they easily could've scored far more than the 27 they put up against Stanford.
It obviously makes no sense to dwell on a few questionable penalties that were or weren't called, and it seems foolish to obsess over two plays in the final minute. This game was lost in the second and third quarters, and it's my hope that smart minds are poring over the film from that stretch and looking for answers.
Finally, we have to address the road that lies ahead. In the minutes and hours following the loss, many fans were ready to write off the entire season. This would be a mistake. There are several concerns, but for the sake of this argument, let's assume these things are fixed and that the Cardinal emerges from this loss stronger and more focused. After all, good teams often respond positively after losses like this.
Not much has changed for the Cardinal. If they beat Oregon on November 7th (and take care of the other teams before and after that game), they will still host the Pac-12 Championship game. If they win that game (likely a rematch against UCLA, Arizona State, or Utah) the Rose Bowl will await as their worst-case scenario. Depending on what happens elsewhere, it wouldn't even be inconceivable for a 12-1 Pac-12 champion to earn a spot in the BCS championship game.
All of which is to say that we still don't know what the season might hold. Two months from now we might look back at this Utah game and see that it was the beginning of the end as the team went on to lose to UCLA, Oregon State, and Oregon before righting the ship and beating USC, Cal, and Notre Dame to finish 8-4. On the other hand, we might point to this week as the team's defining moment, a spoonful of adversity that refocused them as they finished with seven straight wins to earn a second consecutive conference championship and a fourth-straight BCS berth.
I, for one, can't wait to see what happens. Stay tuned.