A friend of mine who hadn't been able to watch Stanford's double-overtime defeat at the hands of the Utah Utes asked me if the game had been exciting. I'm not sure anyone -- not even a Utah fan excited by the victory -- would describe what happened on Saturday afternoon at Stanford Stadium as "exciting." It was a battle between two teams with dominant defenses and inconsistent offenses. Utah won the game, but it would be more accurate to say that they survived.
The Cardinal opened Senior Day with a promising start. After starting with decent field position, it took only one first down to reach midfield, but when a Christian McCaffrey run came up a yard short of the marker on third down, leaving the Cardinal with 4th and 1 at the Utah 47 (one foot, not one yard), David Shaw kept the offense out on the field. We saw the look we're used to seeing -- the jumbo package with six linemen and two tight ends, Hogan tight under center with a fullback behind him and Christian McCaffrey dotting the I. In most situations like this over the course of the season, we've seen a fullback dive, but this time Hogan faked the handoff to his fullback, then pitched out to McCaffrey, the fastest man on the field. With the entire Utah defense bunched in close to the line of scrimmage to stop the inside run, McCaffrey had nothing but grass in front of him and wasn't touched until he was bounced out of bounds at the 10.
It was a great play, one we've seen in critical moments over the past five years, a play that always used to remind people that the Stanford offense wasn't just about pounding the ball down a defense's throat. There was speed and creativity to go along with the power and brutality; that hasn't been the case for much of this season, so it was nice to see it on display on Saturday.
Two plays later, we got more. On 3rd and goal from the Utah 3, fullback Lee Ward lined up as a tight end on the left side of the line. He crashed in on the snap as if to block, but then released immediately and rolled back towards the left side of the end zone. He was completely uncovered, and Kevin Hogan flipped the ball to him for an easy touchdown. It was the first career touchdown for the team captain and fifth-year senior, a great way to start Senior Day.
That opening touchdown would hold up through the first quarter as both defenses took turns stifling the offenses. Stanford's defense was led by defensive end Henry Anderson, another senior playing his final game in Stanford Stadium. The Hammer spent the afternoon ranging free in the backfield and harassing Utah quarterback Travis Wilson and running back Devontae Booker. On the Utah side, it was defensive end Nate Orchard, a candidate for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. It's rare that a defensive lineman leads a defense in tackles, but that's exactly what these two players did. Orchard would finish with 10 tackles, including 3.5 TFLs, all sacks. Anderson's stats would be even better -- 11 tackles, including 5.5 TFLs and 3 sacks. Without question, the best game of Anderson's career.
It was Anderson who doomed a Utah drive midway through the second quarter, wrapping up Booker for a five-yard loss on first down, putting the Utes in a hole from which they couldn't recover. The eventual Utah punt gave the Cardinal the ball inside Utah territory at the 49, and the offense quickly set about putting together what looked to be another productive drive. The first play was a handoff to Ty Montgomery that went for eleven yards (and made you wonder if perhaps Montgomery is the best running back on the roster). Two plays later, however, tight end Austin Hooper made a great one-handed snag of a short Hogan pass up the middle, then turned up field looking for the first down. But as he was stretching for the marker, Hooper had the ball ripped out of his arms by Orchard, and the Utes recovered. Instead of a Stanford first down at the Utah 28, the defense was back out on the field.
Two short quarterback runs by Wilson brought up a 3rd and 4, and as James Vaughters pressured Wilson on that third down, it looked like the Cardinal defense might be able to get off the field, but Wilson was able to connect with wide receiver Kenneth Scott on a short pass that Scott turned into a 32-yard gain to the Stanford 28. Wilson continued moving the ball down field, passing for 15 yards and running for 13, the last two yards netting the touchdown that tied the score at 7-7.
Neither offense was able to do anything through the rest of the half, and the teams went into the locker rooms even at seven, but it certainly felt like the Cardinal was poised for the win. They had outplayed the Utes in the first half -- even if only marginally -- and had it not been for that fumble they'd have had at least a seven-point lead.
The second half could've been an opportunity for the Cardinal (or the Utes, for that matter) to assert themselves on the offensive side of the ball and take control of the game, but it didn't happen. Neither offense was able to use the halftime break to make any noticeable adjustments, and the game continued in the direction in which it had been headed during the first half.
There were glimmers of hope for both sides, however. Utah took the opening kickoff and moved the ball reasonably well, driving 25 yards and overcoming an eleven-yard sack from Anderson along the way, but they were eventually forced to punt from just shy of midfield. (As an aside, no recap of this game could be complete without mention of Utah punter Tom Hackett. The second half devolved into a game of field position, and Hackett was the most powerful weapon in either team's aresenal. He punted nine times, averaging 44.7 yards per kick, but that doesn't tell the whole story. He punted like man throwing darts in a British pub, placing each ball exactly where it needed to be, either angled out of bounds or lofted high enough to eliminate any return, pinning the Cardinal deep in its own end time after time. Aside from two punts from deep in his own territory and another that landed less than a yard into the end zone for a touchback, he gave the ball to the Cardinal at their own 5, 2, 3, 16, 10, and 6 yard lines. Aside from defensive beasts Anderson and Orchard, Hackett was the best player on the field all afternoon.)
But back to the glimmers of hope. Stanford's first drive of the second half saw them run nine plays for 54 yards, earning four first downs along the way (one a 19-yard gain by McCaffrey on a 3rd and 15), but Ben Rhyne eventually had to come out and punt from the Utah 43.
Utah picked up two first downs before punting on its next possession, but after that the defenses took over. Starting with Stanford's last possession of the third quarter and stretching almost five minutes into the fourth, neither offense was able to earn a single first down. Over the course of four possessions, the two teams combined to run 12 plays for a total of -6 yards.
Late in the third quarter, I tweeted this:
I'm beginning to think we should just go to overtime right now and save everyone a whole lotta time.— Go Mighty Card (@GoMightyCard) November 16, 2014
For a while it looked like that was exactly how things would play out, but then something amazing happened -- the Cardinal mounted a drive that looked like Stanford drives of yesteryear. Starting on their own 6, the Cardinal commenced pounding the rock on a drive that took the ball into Utah territory. There were contributions from multiple parties, but the most surprising was Kelsey Young, the forgotten man in the Cardinal's forgotten backfield. He carried the ball four times for 30 yards on this drive (he'd finish with 7 carries for 52 yards, his best overall game (he had one carry for a 55-yard touchdown against Arizona two years ago)), but these weren't jet sweeps or sprint outs. This was hard running, following his linemen into the heart of the Utah defensive front, churning out tough yardage to move the sticks and keep the clock moving. This was Stanford football.
As promising as the drive was, it was marred by penalties. Remound Wright was deservedly flagged for a personal foul for kicking a Utah defender during the scrum after he was tackled. The Cardinal was able to recover from that with a 20-yard gain from Montgomery on the next play, moving the line of scrimmage all the way to the Utah 37, but Lee Ward was called for holding on the very next play, putting the Cardinal in a 1st and 20 hole at the Utah 47.
Two plays later Coach Shaw found himself at a decision point, facing 4th and 7 at the Utah 34. In the wake of Stanford's eventual defeat, there would be much criticism of Shaw's choice to punt the ball here. Some fans had hoped he would've sent in Jordan Williamson to attempt what would've been a 51-yard field goal that might've won the game, and those arguing for that cited Williamson's eventual field goal from the same distance in overtime to support their argument, but that's a foolish line of thinking.
Here were Shaw's options in that moment. He could send out Williamson for the field goal attempt knowing several things. One, Williamson's previous career long was 48 yards, last accomplished in the opening game of 2013. Two, even though he had kicked well the last time out against Oregon, this has hardly been a consistent year for him. Three, if he had missed -- a strong likelihood -- Utah would've taken over at their own 34, just thirty yards out of field goal range with less than two minutes remaining. It wasn't the daring decision -- fans always want their coaches to be daring -- but it was the right decision. No question.
Stanford's drive had been a good one even if it hadn't produced points. They had used 14 plays to travel 60 yards, but more importantly they had wound 8:44 off the clock, leaving just 1:38 for the Utes. When Ben Rhyne pinned them back at the 7 and the Stanford defense forced a three and out, suddenly the Cardinal had another chance. Hackett's longest punt of the day (49 yards) put the ball at the Stanford 35, but even with no timeouts and only 34 seconds on the clock, there was still hope.
A short completion to Michael Rector did more harm than good, as it ran off fifteen seconds without earning a first down and forced Hogan to burn a down by clocking the ball, but for just a moment it looked like it wouldn't matter. Rector split out wide on third down and got the single coverage they had hoped for. He beat his man down the field, and Hogan put the ball right on his hands at the 15, but Rector dropped it. It would've been a great catch, but I'm guessing it's a catch Rector would expect to make. Shaw gave his opinion after the game, and it was clear: "Dropped passes. That kills you... At the end of the game, with a chance to go ahead, we dropped the ball."
And finally, it was overtime. The Utes took the ball first and -- after two and a half quarters of ineptitude -- needed only one play to score. Travis Wilson found Kaelin Clay streaking down the right sideline and dropped it into his lap for an easy touchdown -- the first score for either team since midway through the second quarter -- and a 14-7 Utah lead.
The Cardinal would have to answer to extend the game into a second overtime, and answer they did. First Remound Wright pounded the ball straight ahead for eleven yards, then two plays later they got tricky again. This time Hogan took the snap and took two hard steps to his right, but then planted his foot and looked back in the other direction -- where Hooper was wide open inside the ten yard line. Hooper made the catch and trotted into the end zone untouched. Apparently these two high-powered offenses just needed four quarters to warm up. Now they were unstoppable, and the score was tied at 14.
The second overtime period didn't start well for the Cardinal. Nate Orchard trucked his way through Andrus Peat, the conference's best left tackle, and pulled down Hogan for a critical sack and an eight-yard loss. The next two plays saw an incompletion and a loss of one, and Stanford faced fourth down from the 34, nineteen yards from a first down and 51 yards from a field goal. Neither option could've been too comfortable for Shaw, but he sent Williamson out immediately, and Williamson promptly hammered it through the center of the uprights, naturally. It was the longest field goal of his career, and it would easily have been good from at least 55 yards.
With a 17-14 lead, the defense could win the game if they could put up a zero, but at the very least they needed to keep the Utes out of the end zone and force a field goal to keep the game going. Unfortunately, they weren't able to do that. Travis Wilson was perfect on this possession, rushing for seven yards and completing all four of his passes. His last pass of the day came on 3rd and 1 from the Stanford 3. The Cardinal needed just this one stop to force a field goal attempt and keep the game alive, and even though they hadn't yet stopped the Utes in overtime, this was still the vaunted Stanford defense, the best unit in the Pac-12. Forced to honor the threat of the run, they lined up in man coverage. It was the coverage that Wilson wanted, apparently. Kenneth Scott was lined up in the slot with Alex Carter in coverage across from him. Carter looked to be defending against a corner route, but Scott broke to the post instead on a simple slant. When Wilson's pass hit him in the chest, Carter was probably five yards away from him. The game was over. Utah 20, Stanford 17.
It was a crushing loss for Stanford, who find themselves still wandering the streets like Diogenes, looking for one more honest win to gain bowl eligibility. Only three months ago there was talk of winning a third-straight Pac-12 title and contending for a national championship, but now that the hopes can only be for a generic bowl game there are voices calling for David Shaw's head.
Instead of burning down the program because of what's happened over the past ten games, it might make more sense to consider the departing group of seniors who helped elevate Stanford Football into the upper reaches of the sport. While this group has three games yet to play in Berkeley, Pasadena, and a location yet to be determined, Saturday was their last game in Stanford Stadium.
- David Parry arrived at Stanford without a scholarship and finishes his career as the heart of the defensive line.
- Wayne Lyons believed in Stanford enough to announce his commitment when there wasn't even a head coach, committing just a few days after Jim Harbaugh left for the NFL but before Shaw was hired.
- James Vaughters arrived from Tucker, Georgia, and helped transform the defense from a weakness to a strength. He was a beast on the field and a leader in the locker room, stepping into Shayne Skov's shoes and leading his team in the C-House chant after Stanford victories. The hope here is that he'll get to lead that chant two or three more times.
- Ty Montgomery announced himself as a true freshman with huge performances against Notre Dame and in the Fiesta Bowl, and he'll leave as one of the most prolific offensive players in the program's history.
- Jordan Williamson endured the Fiesta Bowl disappointment, rebounded to strike the biggest Stanford field goal in more than 20 years when he hit the game-winner to defeat Oregon in overtime in 2012, and emerged as Stanford's all-time leading scorer.
- Henry "The Hammer" Anderson battled through injuries before finishing with a glorious senior year, one worthy of first-team All-Pac-12 recognition. As noted above, his final game in Stanford Stadium was the greatest sixty minutes of his career.
- Jeff Trojan didn't see the field during his first three years at Stanford, but fans will never forget the two on-side kicks he recovered to seal the win over Oregon in 2013. And here's a little known fact -- every single pass ever thrown to him resulted in a completion.
- Jordan Richards started three games at safety as a true freshman, then became a fixture at the position over his final three years. His teammates elected him as one of the team captains, and he represented the team and the University well with thoughtful interviews as a junior and senior.
- A.J. Tarpley first announced himself to Stanford fans midway through his freshman year when he recovered a fumble in the end zone to clinch that epic overtime win over USC in 2011, and he quickly became a defensive stalwart, playing every game in his four-year career.
- Lee Ward did the dirty work at fullback and on special teams for four years before finally being rewarded in the best way possible, with his first career touchdown on Senior Day.
While it will be difficult to watch this season's most important postseason games with nary a mention of the Stanford Cardinal, it won't begin to compare to how strange it will be to watch Stanford football next fall without those seniors on the field.
[Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images]