Twelve hours later, I'm still not sure where to begin with this game, so I guess I'll start at the top. The Cardinal arrived in Tempe, Arizona, on Saturday looking to build on the offensive success they enjoyed last week against Washington State, and all signs pointed towards another Stanford win. After all, the Cardinal beat ASU twice last year and hadn't dropped a game to the Sun Devils since 2008. Even though the struggles of the Stanford offense have been well documented, there was nothing frightening about the Arizona State defense through their first five games. Surely the Cardinal would use this win in the desert to build on their momentum and head into the back half of the schedule with a strong head of steam. That was the expectation, but instead the exact opposite happened.
Neither team scored in the first quarter, but it was an uneasy fifteen minutes to watch for Stanford fans. On ASU's opening drive they moved the ball a bit too easily, picking up an early first down with a 20-yard run by Deantre Lewis and then another on a 13-yard reception from running back D.J. Foster. But that drive ended when linebacker Blake Martinez knifed into the backfield and wrapped up quarterback Mike Bercovici for a seven-yard sack, forcing an ASU punt.
The Devils picked up two more first downs on their next possession, this time driving as deep as the Stanford 21 before a penalty and another tackle for loss by Martinez, this time on Foster, pushed them back to the 31. Kicker Zane Gonzalez missed the 48-yard field goal attempt, and the Cardinal had dodged a bullet. In two possessions, the Sun Devils had driven into Stanford territory twice, but this wasn't too unusual for the Stanford defense, which usually gives up more yardage early than late.
The Stanford offense, meanwhile, was sputtering. They gained no yards before punting on their first possession, then went backwards on their second. (Kevin Hogan fumbled as he was sacked on 3rd and 6, but recovered the ball for a nine-yard loss.) The numbers were ugly after those two possessions: 6 plays, -8 yards. Hogan: 0 for 3 with a sack and a fumble. The Cardinal wouldn't get a 1st down until less than two minutes remained in the first quarter, when Hogan completed his first pass, a 14-yard strike to tight end Eric Cotton. He'd throw for another first down two plays later, but that drive would eventually stall as well after netting just 25 yards.
ASU's first possession of the second quarter raised more concerns. First downs on three consecutive plays gained 38 yards and moved the ball into Cardinal territory again, but when true freshman Harrison Phillips pulled down wide receiver Fred Gammage for his first career sack, it was 3rd and 12 and the defense had a chance to get off the field. (The coaches chose to burn Phillips's redshirt due to an injury in practice this week to defensive lineman Aziz Shittu, who could be done for the season. How Phillips was credited with a sack on this play is beyond me. Bercovici had lateralled to Gammage, setting up a potential double pass. Gammage pulled the ball down and looked to run instead, but I guess it's the thought that counts. Sack for Phillips.)
Anyway, back to that critical third down. Mike Bercovici is the back-up quarterback, pressed into service because of an injury to the incumbent starter, Taylor Kelly. He isn't the running threat that Taylor can be, but he's a great passer, as he showed on Saturday night. Of course, it helps a bit when you're throwing to one of the best receivers in the country, Jaelen Strong. On this play, Strong ran a simple route down the left sideline, covered one-on-one by cornerback Ronnie Harris. At just 5'10", Harris was giving up five inches to Strong, so all Bercovici had to do was throw the ball in his general direction and trust that he'd make the play. Strong was the best player on the field all night long, so it was no surprise that he was the better player on this play. He worked his way behind Harris, but when the pass came in short he simply leapt up and over him to steal the ball away, then landed with one foot in bounds for a 15-yard gain and a Sun Devil first down at the Stanford 21. Deantre Lewis ran for nine yards on the next play, then ten more on the play after that, and the Devils were knocking on the door. It took them three plays to kick that door down, but Foster eventually got the one-yard touchdown for a 7-0 ASU lead.
The way the Stanford offense was playing, that lead felt like 70-0, but Hogan quickly mounted a drive in response, using his tight ends effectively. First he hit Austin Hooper for 10 yards, then found a wide open Greg Taboada for 30, and suddenly the Cardinal was actually running plays on the ASU side of the field. (They'd gotten to the ASU 48 on an earlier drive, but lost three yards on the next play before eventually punting.) But from there, guess what -- things sputtered. Facing an important 3rd and 5 from the 30, just on the edge of Jordan Williamson's field goal range, Hogan dropped back to pass looking for a first down -- or at least a few extra yards to help out his kicker. In a play that encapsulated Hogan's recent struggles, he took the shotgun snap and immediately locked onto Montgomery, who was split out left. He was so focused on Montgomery, that he never saw the blitzing linebacker who was barrelling into him from the right. Imagine a quarterback being sacked from his blindside, and you've got a pretty good image of this hit, except that the play was coming from Hogan's front side. He never saw it, and he was completely leveled for a ten-yard loss. Stanford would punt.
The second quarter was winding down, and when the defense came up with its first (and only) three-and-out of the night with just over four minutes to play, it looked like the Cardinal would have a shot to put some points on the board before halftime. At the very least, they'd escape with only a seven-point deficit.
But then something happened that I've never seen before. ASU punter Matt Haack unleashed a rocket that sailed deep over Montgomery's head. For some reason, though, perhaps because of his inexperience in this role, Montgomery turned and chased after it, trying to catch it over his shoulder as if he were running a fly pattern. When the ball went off his finger tips at the 26, however, it wasn't just an incomplete pass, it was a live ball, and the Sun Devils recovered at the 12.
It was deflating, to say the least. Seconds after that three-and-out, the defense was right back out on the field with their backs against the wall. As poorly as the offense was playing, it felt like the next few plays might determine the game. There was, afterall, no guarantee that this offense could actually score 14 points. ASU's first play was a quick screen to Foster that went all the way to the 1, setting up 1st and goal, but when the defense stiffened, stoning Foster on first down, then pulling him down for a two-yard loss on second, there was hope. But hope dissolved on third down when Bercovici found Strong in the back of the end zone for a touchdown and a seeminly insurmountable 14-0 lead.
But the Cardinal would not go quietly. The offense took the opening kickoff of the second half and drove slowly down the field. The big play was a 22-yard ramble up the middle of the field by Remound Wright, a play that stung a bit. Wright took the ball deep in the backfield, giving the left guard time to fire out to his right to help the center and right guard seal off the defense, creating an enormous hole in the middle of the line. Wright gobbled up 17 yards before he was touched, then fell forward for five more. Plays like that used to be so easy for the Cardinal, so commonplace. Now they're like Yeti sightings.
A few minutes later the Cardinal had 3rd and 2 at the 22, and Hogan rolled out to his right looking to extend the drive. Montgomery had lined up in the right slot, and ran a corner route, but he wasn't open. It didn't matter to Hogan. He had clearly already decided where he was going with the ball, so he threw to the end zone even though Montgomery was covered (and even though Michael Rector was wide open right in front of him for what would've been an easy ten-yard gain). Hogan's pass should've been intercepted, but it was dropped. Williamson came in and kicked the 40-yard field goal, and the Cardinal was finally on the board. Finally.
The Sun Devils answered with a field goal of their own, reclaiming their two-touchdown lead at 17-3, but two possessions later the Cardinal seemed to have a golden opportunity to get back in the game. After a moderately successful drive by the offense got the ball just into ASU territory at the 49, punter Ben Rhyne dropped his punt at the Sun Devil 4. With Arizona State backed up almost to their own goal line, surely the Stanford defense would stand strong and turn the ball back over to the offense with good field position, possibly even in ASU territory.
That was the hope, anyway. Instead, Bercovici went to work, completing four passes in a row for 47 yards, then recovering from an incompletion to find Strong for 15 more yards. In the blink of an eye, the Sun Devils went from their own 4 to the Stanford 31. As the third quarter ended, there was a very real sense that the game was already over. But after Bercovici hit Strong for 14 more to the 15, the Stanford defense rose up once again, inexplicably coming up with three consecutive TFLs (Blake Lueders for three yards, James Vaughters with a seven-yard sack, and Kevin Anderson for five yards). The line of scrimmage was pushed all the way back to the 30. If Zane Gonzalez would cooperate and miss the 47-yard field goal, it would be a huge win for the defense and an adrenaline surge for the offense. If only he would cooperate... But he didn't. He drilled the kick down the middle, and the mountain stood at 20-3.
And then the Stanford offense woke up. On 3rd and 1 from their own 46, the Cardinal came out in an interesting formation. Instead of bringing in all the big bodies and announcing a dive play up the middle, they came out in a standard formation -- a single tight end, three wide receivers and a single back in the backfield. Hogan went to the read option, a play he should run at least ten times a game, and as he's done for the past year or so, he made the right read. He put the ball in Remound Wright's arms but then pulled it back when he saw the entire ASU defense crashing to the center of the line. Hogan sprinted out to the wide open pasture on the left side of the field and galloped for 31 yards before going out of bounds at the ASU 23. (I cannot emphasize this enough -- if this offense is ever going to recover in 2014, it will do so with Kevin Hogan on the move.) Hogan hit Montgomery for a short pass that his receiver turned into a 22-yard gain on the next play, and then Patrick Skov plunged into the end zone on the play after that. ASU 20, Stanford 10. More than eleven minutes remained on the clock. There was hope.
The Stanford defense came up with a stop on ASU's next possession, but when Bercovici's pooch punt was downed on the Stanford 1, the outlook began to dim. Stanford punted it right back three plays later, giving ASU a short 36-yard field to work with, and soon enough they were kicking another field goal to stretch the lead to 23-10.
But 4:07 still remained on the game clock. The pulse was thready, but Stanford hopes were not yet dead. Seconds later, they would be. Christian McCaffrey took the kickoff at the 2 and returned it to the 21 -- where he fumbled it away to the Sun Devils. They wouldn't get a first down, but they'd force the Cardinal to burn all three timeouts before giving up ASU's fourth field goal of the night, and it was 26-10. For the past two seasons, special teams has been a huge advantage for the Cardinal, both in tilting field position and scoring on returns, but on Saturday night it cost the Cardinal ten points.
The Cardinal's last ditch possession highlighted all that is wrong with the Stanford offense. Admittedly, this isn't an offense designed for quick scoring or coming from behind, but Hogan's execution of the two-minute drill was disappointing. He was only going marginally faster than he normally would be, often taking as much as 15 or 20 seconds after the ball was set before running the next play. Also, his inaccuracy as a passer was exposed. While he did complete enough passes to move the ball into ASU territory, the Sun Devil defense was never afraid of him. After the Cardinal got the ball to the Stanford 49, the Devils begin blitzing mercilessly and fearlessly. Yes, they did so with the cushion of 16-point lead, but Hogan couldn't make them pay. Aside from one play -- 1st and 10 at the ASU 15 -- the Devils blitzed on ten of eleven plays, sending five, six, or even seven attackers. Stanford was forced to keep two backs in to help protect Hogan, but receivers Montgomery, Rector, and Owusu were still working with an advantage. At least twice Hogan misfired on plays that could've been touchdowns (once to Rector, once to Owusu), and other times he threw into double coverage. His last play of the night, appropriately, was a jump ball to Montgomery that fell incomplete in the end zone. The Sun Devils took a knee and the game was finally over. Arizona State 26, Stanford 10.
So where does the Cardinal go from here? As rocky as this game was, I think the answers are all there if the coaches look closely enough. The three tight ends, Hooper, Taboada, and Cotton, combined for 6 catches for 92 yards, almost half of Hogan's 212-yard total. Hogan's midrange accuracy still hasn't improved, so these large targets who tend to be wide open should be seen as the building blocks of this offense. Since Hogan clearly isn't ready to check down to his second and third receivers, it might be time to simplify the playbook for him. I'm not convinced that he's ready to direct the offense from the line of scrimmage the way Andrew Luck did, so perhaps that responsibility should be taken away as well. Finally, the coaches should allow him to play to his strengths instead of asking him to build on his weaknesses. If they were to call at least five -- preferably ten -- designed runs for him, the offense would be immediately better. He excels in the read option, so he should be allowed to excel.
As much as fans claim the opposite, this offensive coaching staff has shown a willingness to make adjustments. The wide receiver screen has been called much more of late, and we didn't see a single wildcat last night. I'm sure that the coaches are poring over game film right now, and I'm sure they'll find a solution.
Okay, here's the cold dose of reality. Before this game I still held onto the hope, foolish as it may seem now, that the Cardinal could close out the season with eight consecutive wins and earn a spot in the playoffs. Now they aren't even ranked in the top 25, having fallen out for the first time since the 2010 preseason poll. Now, at 4-3 with only three wins over FBS opponents, Stanford faces the very real possibility of ending its season without a bowl game for the first time since 2008. The Cardinal will have to win three of its final five games, and none of them -- NONE OF THEM -- is guaranteed. They've got Oregon State and #19 Utah at home, and #6 Oregon, Cal, and #25 UCLA on the road. Those five teams have a combined record of 24-9, and each one still has a shot at winning its division and advancing to the conference championship game. In short, the road is steep.
But nothing worth having ever comes easily, and so it will be with this season. Believe it or not, as dark as the clouds are which have gathered over the program, there is still hope. The defense, obviously, is just fine. (In fact, imagine how good they would be if they got any support from the offense and weren't hanging by their fingernails all game long.) If the coaches can find away to resuscitate the offense -- and I think I laid out a pretty good blueprint: throw to the tight ends, get Hogan out of the pocket, call more read-options -- they can still be good enough. The problem the team has right now is that the offense is awful; all it needs to be is average and they can still win the Pac-12 North and they can still win the Pac-12 Championship. Still.
Six days from now we'll know a lot more. I'm betting on the Cardinal.