PASADENA, Calif. (GMC) -- During these past four seasons -- inarguably the greatest four-season stretch in the history of Stanford football -- the final game has not always gone in the Cardinal's favor, and so it was that Stanford fell to Michigan State in the 100th Rose Bowl.
The game began well for the Cardinal, perhaps because the Spartan defenders were having trouble adjusting to the weather, which was spectacular even by California standards and roughly sixty degrees warmer than what they had left behind in East Lansing.
The Stanford offense took the field first, as usual, and Kevin Hogan and company looked crisp and ready to play. After a short gain from Tyler Gaffney on first down, Hogan looked deep for Michael Rector on the game's second play. It was a simple design, with Gaffney staying in for protection and Ty Montgomery running a shallow cross to draw the safeties up and clear the middle of the field a bit. Rector had lined up wide left, and he simply outran his defender. Gaffney helped pick up the Spartan blitz, Hogan hit Rector perfectly in stride, and the result was a 43-yard gain for the Cardinal all the way down to the Michigan State 32.
After another run from Gaffney and a short quarterback scramble, Hogan faced 3rd and 5 from the 27, and we saw the first read-option play of the day. Hogan looked to hand the ball off to tailback Anthony Wilkerson, but instead kept the ball himself and darted up the middle for a seven-yard gain. In many ways, this run was a better sign than the big play to Rector. Two plays later, Hogan handed the ball to Gaffney, who burst through a hole up the middle, overpowered a linebacker, spun to his left into open space, and rambled the rest of the way for a sixteen-yard score, the 21st touchdown of his spectacular season.
Really, the game could not have started any better for the Cardinal.
The Spartans, however, came out firing. Sophomore quarterback Connor Cook entered the game as something of an unknown quantity. He had had a great game in the Big Ten championship win over Ohio State, but much like Kevin Hogan, he had been inconsistent and had rarely been the focus of his offense. He completed his first pass on the first play of the possession for 17 yards, then tailback Jeremy Langford ran for ten yards and another first down, and the Spartans were quickly into Stanford territory. Two plays later, however, they faced 3rd and 3. Cook kept the ball and moved to his left, but linebacker Trent Murphy, Stanford's best defender all season long, easily beat his man at the line of scrimmage and wrapped up Cook for a two-yard loss -- the first #Partyinthebackfield of the game. Did I mention that the game couldn't have started any better?
The Cardinal took over at their own 20 after the Michigan State punt, and they quickly took another shot downfield. Stanford lined up with an empty backfield and Michael Rector slotted to the right. He beat his man deep, and Hogan's pass was nearly perfect. Rector had to leave his feet to make his attempt on the ball, but he was still able to get both hands on it as he fell to the turf. The catch would've gone for more than thirty yards, and it likely would've made the Spartans rethink their overly aggressive approach to defending the run, but the ball fell harmlessly to the ground. It would've been a great catch, and it might've changed the game. Instead, the Cardinal punted two plays later.
We expected to see lots of running from the Spartan offense, but these early drives showed that they had something different in mind. Perhaps out of respect for Stanford's rushing defense, Michigan State ran sparingly, and many of those runs early on were delays. Quarterback Connor Cook would be the focus of their offense, and his ability to make plays would go a long ways towards determining the outcome of the game. He completed his first two passes on this drive, rolling away from pressure to find first Macgarrett Kings and then Tony Lippett for consecutive first downs, but the Stanford defense eventually held and forced another punt.
Hogan handed the ball to Gaffney on first down at the Stanford 14; Gaffney burst through the right side of the line, and raced down the sideline for a 47-yard gain. Not willing to sit comfortably with that, the Cardinal stayed on the attack. Michigan State's defensive strategy all season had been to play their safeties close to the line of scrimmage and leave the opposing team's wide receivers in single coverage. It was no different against Stanford, and the Cardinal was clearly looking to take advantage.
On this play, Hogan dropped back and saw that Montgomery had gotten inside of his defender on a post route. Montgomery would likely have made the play on a good pass, but Hogan's ball was overthrown by about five yards.
On second down Hogan lined up again in the shotgun, but this time he took off to the right on a designed run for an eight-yard gain -- but then he fumbled. It was a dramatic fumble, with the ball squirting up into the air and ahead of the play for everyone in the stadium to see. Two Spartan defenders converged on the ball, and it seemed like their was no way the Cardinal would retain possession, but somehow they did, and the line of scrimmage moved all the way to the Spartan 23. The drive stalled three plays and six yards later, but Jordan Williamson, finally completely healthy, nailed a 34-yard field goal to give Stanford a 10-0 lead.
The ten-point lead was nice, but the manner in which the Cardinal had procured that lead was even better. The defense had been just as solid as we've come to expect, and the offense had been diverse. The bulk of the rushing yardage had come on Gaffney's long run on the third possession, but everything else was working well, and the success of the passing game would surely open up avenues for the run game before long.
There was a moment on the Spartans' next possession when it looked like things were about to get even better. Michigan State started on their own 25 after Williamson's kickoff soared into the end zone, and the Cardinal defense stood strong, pushing the Spartans back a bit. Facing 3rd and 11, Cook dropped back to pass and tracked Kings on a crossing route. If you look at the boxscore, the play description says "Cook pass complete to Kings for 14 yards," but that only tells the final result. Cook's eyes were locked on his receiver, so he never saw linebacker Kevin Anderson, who was sitting in the middle of the field as the play developed. Cook's pass went over the middle, and it was a perfect pass -- if Anderson had been the intended target. Anderson watched the ball into his hands, but the pass squirted through them and into the arms of Kings for the first down. If the ball had simply deflected away, the Spartans would've been forced to punt; if Anderson had made the interception (and I guarantee that he makes that play nine out of ten times, probably 19 out of 20), the Cardinal would've taken over inside the Spartan 30 yard line.
Looking back now, it's easy to wonder what might've happened had that play turned out differently, but even at the time it felt like a huge missed opportunity. A 13-0 or even 17-0 lead would've changed things dramatically, but that's not how it happened.
So instead of suffering a demoralizing turnover, the Spartans entered the second quarter trailing by ten but with a chance to get back into the game. Cook responded by moving his team down the field with a series of passes and a few runs before arriving at 1st and goal at the Stanford 4. But as Stanford fans have come to expect, the defense rose to the challenge, forcing Cook to throw the ball away on first down and then pushing the Spartans five yards back on a great play from Kevin Anderson to pull down Bennie Fowler behind the line of scrimmage.
On third down, the Cardinal looked to have held again. Cook looked to Kings in the back of the end zone, but his pass sailed high, well out of his receiver's reach. Cornerback Wayne Lyons, however, had grabbed Kings as he made his break for the ball, and two separate officials correctly flagged him for pass interference.
But here's the thing. Section 3, Article 8c of Rule 7 of the NCAA rulebook states that "[d]efensive pass interference is contact beyond the neutral zone by a [defensive] player whose intent to impede an eligible opponent is obvious and it could prevent the opponent the opportunity of receiving a catchable forward pass." (Emphasis added.) There is no way that Cook's throw could've been interpreted as a "catchable forward pass." It zipped through the end zone approximately five feet above Kings's outstretched hands; LeBron James could not have caught this pass.
The officials gathered and discussed the situation while viewers at home were treated to one replay after another, each showing the same thing. But the officials let the penalty stand. Instead of 4th and goal from the Stanford 9 and a likely field goal attempt, the Spartans had 1st and goal from the 2. Langford wasted no time. He took the handoff from Cook on first down, bounced to the outside, and scored a touchdown to cut the Cardinal lead to 10-7.
Both defenses stiffened after this, and the offenses took turns punting until the Spartans took over with excellent field position at their own 41 with 2:51 to play in the first half. On 2nd and 6, Cook dropped back to pass and faced a ferocious pass rush from blitzing defensive back Usua Amanam. Back pedalling to set up a potential screen, Cook flipped a desperation pass in the general direction of Langford, but linebacker Kevin Anderson, he of the earlier dropped interception, easily picked the pass out of the air and raced 40 yards for the touchdown and a 17-7 lead.
It was more than just redemption for Anderson. It gave the Cardinal a two-score lead with just over two minutes to play, and it likely applied a little pressure to the Spartans' young quarterback. Once again, it felt like Stanford might be ready to assert their dominance and take control of the game.
Once again, however, it wouldn't work out that way. Instead of curling up and playing dead, Cook and his Spartans mounted a drive. First he hit Tony Lippett for 24 yards over the middle and dropped a screen to Langford for eleven more two plays later. On the next play Cook saw Bennie Fowler streaking down the left sideline, covered by cornerback Wayne Lyons. Quarterbacks have picked on Lyons all season long, and Michigan State clearly came into the game with that very plan in mind. Cook threw the ball to the pylon, and whether it was by design or just a fortuitous accident, his pass was underthrown enough that Fowler was able to stop and come back to it before Lyons could react. He made the reception at the three-yard line. First and goal.
A penalty here, and a penalty there, and the Spartans eventually found a 2nd and goal at the Stanford 2. Cook rolled out to his right away from the pressure and looked ready to throw the ball away again, but at the last possible moment he noticed that linebacker Jarek Lancaster had slipped near the goal line, leaving fullback Trevon Pendleton open on the right side of the end zone. Cook hit him square in the chest, and the lead was cut to 17-14.
Michigan State took the opening kick of the second half and wasted little time in asserting themselves. On 2nd and 10 from his own 25, Cook looked to Fowler again and hit him on a short curl eight yards down the field. Both Alex Carter and safety Jordan Richards overpursued the play, however, and Fowler was able to turn back towards daylight. Ed Reynolds met him at the Stanford 45, but he wasn't able to make the tackle. Fowler used a classic stiff arm to keep Reynolds off of him, and the two battled for thirty yards before Richards was able to get back into the play and help Reynolds bring him down at the 15 after a sixty-yard gain. Henry Anderson, not Kevin, came up with a sack on the next play, and the defense eventually forced the Spartans to settle for a field goal, but the game was tied at 17, and there was a clear sense that Michigan State was beginning to take control.
Hogan and the Cardinal returned to the field for their first possession of the second half, but they wouldn't be out there long. After converting one first down, Hogan looked deep to Rector for the third time. This time, however, there was safety help, and Hogan passed into double coverage. Rector was still able to get both hands on the ball, but the pass went through his hands and it was intercepted by Trae Waynes. It would've been a spectacular catch, but instead it was a turnover.
The Spartans weren't able to do much with the ball on the ensuing possession, but the drive was notable for what didn't happen. On 2nd and 10 from his own 37, Cook was flushed out of the pocket -- again by a blitzing Amanam -- and made the mistake of throwing the ball back over the middle of the field. His pass found Lyons at midfield for what should've been another easy interception. But Lyons let the ball get into his body a bit and it bounced off his chest before falling harmlessly to the grass with the rest of Stanford's missed opportunities.
For a quick moment it looked like Lyons's drop wouldn't matter. On the very next play, Cook looked over the middle again and was intercepted by Jordan Richards at midfield, but Alex Carter had clearly held Cook's intended receiver, Tony Lippett. David Shaw was furious, but it was an easy call for the officials -- and yet another missed opportunity.
The Spartans would punt three plays later, giving the ball back to the Cardinal deep in their own end. Gaffney was stuffed on two consecutive plays, bringing up 3rd and 11 from the Stanford 6, and I'd have eagerly bet all my earnings from this website (zero dollars and zero cents) that they'd simply run into the line again, punt the ball back to Michigan State, and hope the defense could get the ball back.
When Hogan lined up in the shotgun with Wilkerson and Hewitt on either side of him, I was a bit surprised, but I was sure we'd see a draw play. Instead Hogan dropped back into his own end zone and looked deep for Devon Cajuste who was breaking free. Hogan's pass was perfect and Cajuste gathered it in for what looked to be a game-changing 51-yard gain.
The Cardinal pulled Hogan off the field and went with a wildcat set on the next play. Kelsey Young split wide to the left, sprinted through the backfield to get the handoff from Gaffney, and raced to the right sideline. He was able to get to the corner and ran upfield for a 16-yard gain that would've put the ball at the Michigan State 27, but the officials flagged two players for holding, Josh Garnett and Cam Fleming. (Incidentally, those two flags equaled the sum total of holding penalties for the offensive line all season.)
Two plays later, on 3rd and 17, Hogan scrambled ahead for 14 yards to the Spartan 36, bringing up 4th and 3. A 53-yard field goal attempt was clearly out of the question, a punt probably wouldn't have gained much in field position, so Shaw kept the offense out on the field.
With three yards to go to for the first down, and with the Michigan State front seven having dominated the Cardinal running game for most of the first three quarters, a pass seemed the best course of action, and accordingly the offense came out in a shotgun formation. But instead of a pass, Hogan handed the ball to Gaffney, and he was drilled for a three-yard loss. The gaps Gaffney had found in the first quarter were long gone, and he rarely had room to run after that. His final numbers were respectable, but when his early big run is removed from the statistics, a far different story is revealed: 23 carries for 44 yards. As he said in the post game press conference, "Everywhere I looked, I saw nothing but green defenders."
It's easy to notice things like this after the fact, but Ty Montgomery had lined up in the slot, and was essentially uncovered on the play. A toss to him would've gotten an easy first down at a bare minimum.
Michigan State took over, and even though the game was tied, it certainly didn't feel like it. Starting at their own 39 and looking ready to take the game by its throat, the Spartans did what we're used to seeing from the Cardinal offense. Langford carried the ball on the first four plays of the drive, totalling 34 yards and netting two first downs. After two Cook completions moved the ball all the way to the Stanford 12, they went back to Langford. He carried for four more yards, but he was met by Skov, who stripped the ball before bringing him down. Josh Mauro recovered the fumble at the eight, and Stanford hearts settled back into rhythm.
But the Cardinal offense wasn't able to create anything remotely positive after the turnover, in fact, they actually moved backwards. Gaffney ran for two yards on first down, lost five on second down, and gained two back on third. It wasn't just that it was a three and out, it was the complete domination by the Michigan State defense that caused concern. With the Cardinal looking to punt as the game headed into the fourth quarter, the game that had been hanging in the balance seemed to be tipping decisively towards the Green and White.
Punter Ben Rhyne had been phenomenal all afternoon, pounding his first three punts 60, 49, and 54 yards up until this point, but his shortest effort of the day came at the most inopportune time for the Cardinal. It travelled only 39 yards, Macgarrett Kings returned it 19, and the Spartans were in business at the Stanford 27.
With the Cardinal sideline begging fans to increase the volume, the Stanford defense, the best defense in Stanford history, took the field with their backs almost to the wall. It wasn't fair to expect them to keep the Spartans from scoring, but when Josh Mauro crashed through the line and pulled down Langford for a two-yard loss on first down and Michigan State followed that with a false start penalty to push the ball back to the 34, there was hope.
But the Spartans got all those yards back on the next play, setting up 3rd and 8 from the 25, and then Cook calmly found Lippett across the middle for a touchdown and Michigan State's first lead of the game at 24-17.
If there was one phase of the game where Stanford was expected to have a clear advantage over Michigan State, it was in special teams. Consensus All-America Ty Montgomery had been good for at least one field-tilting return per game, but he hadn't yet been able to find a crack against the Spartan return team. As Montgomery stood waiting near his own goal line, the Cardinal faithful in the stands began imploring him to break loose. He was able to run the ball back to the 30, his longest return of the game, but he was injured on the play.
Montgomery lay on the turf for several minutes after being tackled, then hobbled off the field favoring his right knee. The Stanford offense sputtered its way to a three and out, but my attention was focused on Montgomery. An assistant coach escorted him to a trainer's table behind the Stanford bench and only ten yards from my seat in the third row. Fifteen bench players immediately jogged over to form a phalanx between Montgomery and the prying sideline camera, but our view was unobstructed. We watched as the trainer probed his knee for a while before leaning over and whispering into the receiver's ear. We certainly couldn't hear a word from our seats, but we didn't have to. Montgomery's face told us all we needed to know. One by one his fellow receivers -- Cajuste, Rector, Francis Owusu, Jordan Pratt, and Jeff Trojan -- all walked over to tap his shoulder or touch a forehead to his, but it was little comfort. Now, in the final moments of his team's biggest game, he would be nothing but a spectator.
One of those receivers offered renewed hope when the Cardinal offense returned to the field a few minutes later. On first down from the Stanford 28, the coaching staff sent in a play we hadn't seen since the Arizona State game in September. Hogan started to the left, feigning a read-option with Wilkerson, but then he flipped the ball to Rector who was reversing field back to the right and through the backfield. Ryan Hewitt stepped in to provide a crushing block, and Rector sprinted around the right edge for a 27-yard gain.
Rector's reverse seemed to jumpstart the Stanford offense, and it showed life for the first time since the first quarter. They were helped out by a defensive holding penalty that pushed the ball to the Spartan 33, but runs from Gaffney and Hogan eventually brought the drive to the Michigan State 17 where they were forced to line up for a field goal on fourth down.
This is where things got crazy. After the snap, Jordan Williamson took two steps towards the ball before stuttering as holder Ben Rhyne suddenly got up and rolled to his right. My heart leapt into my throat as I realized with horror that I was watching a fake field goal. (Later I'd learn -- and the television broadcast would confirm -- that Rhyne had fumbled the snap. It wasn't a designed fake.)
Either way, Rhyne was rolling to his right, desperately looking for help, when suddently he spotted Trent Murphy loping across the field and calling for the ball. Rhyne delivered the ball perfectly into Murphy's mitts, and the Stanford crowd exploded in celebration of what appeared to be a first down. But alas, there were flags in the air. Murphy was an eligible receiver on the play, but lineman Josh Garnett had drifted too far downfield, negating the play. The penalty pushed the ball back five yards, but this time Williamson nailed the kick without drama and the Cardinal had scratched to within four points, 24-20.
Only four minutes and fifteen seconds remained when the Michigan State offense took the field needing only two first downs to ice the game, but the Stanford defense came up huge. After a short gain from Langford on first down, Shayne Skov rocketed into the Spartan backfield on second down and wrapped up Langford for a three-yard loss and the final tackle of his phenomenal Stanford career. When Usua Amanam broke up Cook's pass on third down, the defense had done their job. It seemed fitting that the last effort by this group -- Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ed Reynolds, Josh Mauro and the rest -- was a three and out.
After the punt, Stanford took over on their own 25 with 3:06 to play and 75 yards between them and the end zone. The final sequence was interesting, to say the least. Hogan hung onto the ball on a read option for four yards on first down, running back Ricky Seale got his first touch of the game on a swing pass for four more yards, and then Gaffney was stoned after a one-yard gain on third down, forcing the Cardinal to go for it on 4th and 1.
Stanford came out in their expected jumbo package, and the Spartans immediately called timeout to configure their defense accordingly. After the timeout, the Cardinal stuck to their guns, and Hogan lined up with Gaffney, Hewitt, and eight offensive linemen. The handoff went to Hewitt, and he never had a chance.
Knowing that the run was coming, the Spartan defense could afford to sell out completely to stop it. The defensive linemen dove to the ground, negating any push the offensive line might've gotten, and the crashing inside linebackers dove across the scrum and met Hewitt before he even reached the line of scrimmage.
Would another play have worked in that situation? Could Hogan have gotten the first down on a naked bootleg? Could Gaffney have gotten the first down on a pitch out to the outside? And what about those earlier turning points? What might've happened if Kevin Anderson had made that first interception, or if that early pass interference had been waved off, or if Wayne Lyons had held onto that third quarter interception?
We'll never know the answers to any of those questions, but we do know that the Cardinal lost to a great team in Michigan State and that there can be no shame in any season that ends in the Rose Bowl. While it's natural to feel disappointment with the loss and even a sense of regret about what this season could've been, there is much to be proud of.
In 2006 the Cardinal finished 1-11 and there were some who felt it was time for Stanford to consider relegating its football team to a lower division. Since those dark days the program has become a fixture on the national stage, producing dozens of All-Pac-12 performers, a fistful of All-Americas, two different Heisman Trophy finalists, and four consecutive BCS bowl appearances. No program in the nation can match that, but not even those accomplishments speak to the true strength of Stanford football.
This program is built on the hearts, souls, and minds of 109 student athletes who make the University proud not only with tackles and touchdowns but with words and wisdom. Long after the confetti had settled to the ground on Wednesday night and the Spartans had joyously accepted their trophies, the Stanford seniors dealt with the reality of the end of their journeys. Kevin Danser sat on the bench long after the rest of his teammates had left for the locker room, clearly unwilling to leave the field for his final time. Shayne Skov wore his pads and uniform to the postgame press conference, not wanting to remove the jersey he had worn with pride for four seasons and a part of another.
And finally, there was backup center Conor McFadden. He hadn't worn his helmet all afternoon, but he had been working feverishly throughout the game, furiously diagramming defensive alignments on his white board and coaching up the offensive line each time they came off the field. His time as a player also came to end with the final gun, and he fought back tears as he described his emotions to David Lombardi afterwards.
"One of the things about football that hurts so much, is that losing's a part of the game, too. But at the end of the day, I know it's a cliche, but the wins and losses, those are secondary. They really are. Football ends, but the relationships, the lessons you learn in this game... that's where the true value is. I leave this program such a better person than when I entered it," McFadden explained.
"From the fifth-year senior to the walk-on freshman, everyone played a part in making this team special, and I think that's what's so cool about this place. Before we even stepped on the field today, we won. From where we've grown as a team, as individuals... I am so blessed. I am so blessed every day to have gone to work with these guys. These are the people that I want to associate myself with, these are people that make me better, these are people that I love. And when you love, you want to be better and you become better, and there's no doubt that I've become better since I've entered Stanford. I couldn't ask anything more from my college experience."
In the end, these players are no different than we are. They love the game, they love their teammates, and they love Stanford.
[Photo Credits: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images]