The Cardinal entered the Foster Farms Bowl against Maryland as the biggest favorite of all the teams playing in bowl games, and it didn't take long to see why. After a season of frustrating losses and inconsistent production from the offense, the Cardinal finally put things together in the final two regular season games against Cal and UCLA, and Tuesday night's performance was the team's most complete effort yet.
The Stanford offense took the ball first, as they almost always do, and picked up right where they had left off against the Bruins last month. Like most offenses, Stanford's is at its best when the quarterback is spreading the ball around to all his receivers, and on this first drive Hogan connected with Michael Rector, Jordan Pratt (twice), and Austin Hooper (twice) as the Cardinal moved the ball methodically down the field.
With Ty Montgomery on the sideline with an injured shoulder, freshman Christian McCaffrey has become the trigger man in the wildcat. On first down from the Maryland 15 McCaffrey took the direct snap and handed off to Kelsey Young sweeping through the backfield, a play that loyal readers know I love. Young picked up 11 yards to the 4, and three plays later Remound Wright pounded the ball in from one yard out for a 7-0 Stanford lead.
After excellent kick coverage and a Maryland penalty pinned the Terps deep at their own 6, their offense managed two first downs to move the ball out to the 41 before punting, and a subsequent three-and-out gave Maryland excellent field position for its second drive, starting two yards shy of midfield.
From there, the Stanford defense was quickly introduced to Maryland's best player, wide receiver Stephon Diggs. Even though a lacerated kidney had kept him sidelined since November 1, Diggs certainly didn't seem rusty. He had caught two passes for eleven yards on Maryland's first possession, but now he was getting loose a bit farther down field. The first play of this drive saw quarterback C.J. Brown hit Diggs on a short crossing route that went for 26 yards, and two plays later Brown found him again, this time for six yards to the Stanford 13.
The first quarter ended before the Terps could score, but Wes Brown ran it in on the third play of the second quarter to tie the game at seven. I'm quite certain that Maryland fans watching felt like the game would be close all night. (Diggs certainly did; the cameras caught him bobbing his head and woofing on the sidelines after the touchdown, clearly telling all who would listen that he was on fire. He'd finish with 10 catches for 138 yards, the best game of his season and one of the two or three best of his career.) But Stanford fans had seen this before. It hasn't been unusual for opposing offenses to have early success before defensive coordinator Lance Anderson turns the screws and locks things down. So even as the Terrapins tied the score, I fully expected them to struggle to return to the end zone.
The Cardinal needed to reclaim its hold on the game, and Hogan and the offense wasted little time. Patrick Skov scooped up a short kickoff and plodded twenty-nine yards (if it's possible to plod twenty-nine yards), setting Stanford up on the Maryland 49. It took only five plays to reach the end zone: Hogan to tight end Greg Taboada for 28 yards, two runs from McCaffrey for 9 and then 3 yards, Hogan to Wright for six, and finally Wright for three yards and his second touchdown of the game. It was beyond easy.
After a Maryland three-and-out used up just 1:24, the offense was right back out onto the field, this time starting at their own 30. The first play was a thing of beauty. (There were lots of beautiful plays on this night, believe me.) With Hogan in the shotgun, McCaffrey lined up in the left slot and swept through the backfield at the snap. Hogan faked the handoff as McCaffrey sprinted past, but then headed upfield immediately. The defense had wisely keyed on the freshman, so Hogan found nothing but green (well, brownish green) grass in front of him. He rambled for thirty yards, almost untouched, to the Maryland 40.
Two plays later, in a play that vividly recalled the days of Fleener and Ertz, tight ends Austin Hooper and Eric Cotton both put their hands in the dirt on the right side of the line. Cotton ducked out to the right, pulling some coverage with him, and Hooper ran a simple seam route up the middle of the field. There was a linebacker in coverage, but he was five yards behind Hooper. Hogan put a laser right on his hands, and Hooper ended up with a 37-yard gain inside the five. Two plays later -- guess who? Remound Wright ploughed his way into the end zone for his third touchdown and a commanding 21-7 lead.
A quick note about Wright. Since the coaches decided after the Utah debacle to give him the bulk of the carries that had been going to Kelsey Young and Barry Sanders, he's been pretty dominant. In the last three games (Cal, UCLA, and Maryland), Wright has totalled 46 carries for 205 yards -- and nine touchdowns. It's not quite time to start looking ahead to 2015, but personally I'm looking forward to the Thunder and Lightning backfield of Wright and McCaffrey.
Maryland followed that score with another three-and-out, and when a booming punt pushed McCaffrey all the way back to his 17, it looked for a moment that the Terps might be able to take a breath. But then the Colorado Kid reminded us why we all get so breathless every time he touches the ball. He fielded the punt while drifting backwards, then made the first man miss and streaked up the middle and then towards the left sideline for a nifty 29-yard return.
Five plays later, after Wright converted a long 4th and 1, McCaffrey struck again. Hogan hit him with a backwards pass to the right, and McCaffrey was immediately wrapped up by a Maryland defender. The Kid shrugged him off, though, and sprinted back around to the left. By the time he reached the left side of the field he had a convoy of blockers, including Hogan, and McCaffrey was able to turn a likely five-yard loss into a 22-yard gain. He had been given a handful of smoke and produced a bouquet of roses.
Hogan closed out the drive a few plays later with a strike over the middle to Devon Cajuste for an eight-yard touchdown and a 28-7 lead. More than a minute remained before halftime, but the game was over.
Maryland received the opening kickoff of the second half, but they punted the ball away before a minute had wound off the clock, and the Cardinal offense started doing what it did all night, marching the ball effortlessly down the field. On 2nd and 8 from the Stanford 27, Hogan rushed up the field for a 14-yard gain on a quarterback draw, and then Wright rambled freely off tackle, untouched for most of the way before he lowered his shoulder and powered through a couple Maryland defenders to tack on another five yards for a 35-yard gain, proving to the Terps that he's more than just a short-yardage back.
But just when it looked like the referees were going to have to stop the fight, the Cardinal turned the ball over. Hogan lined up under center on the next play and just as he turned and began to extend the ball to Daniel Marx, who was dotting the i, the ball clipped fullback Lee Ward who was heading into the line of scrimmage to make his block. The ball came loose and Maryland's Darius Kilgo recovered it at the Maryland 27.
No worries, though. The Terps turned the ball right back over before Hogan and company were even able to get their breath back. We'd heard about C.J. Brown's propensity for making bad decisions, and we saw it up close on second down. Brown rolled to his right, and even though the defense wasn't giving him anything, he tried to loft a pass over the middle, but the ball was overthrown by at least five yards and landed in the lap of safety Kyle Olugbode. (It was the senior's first interception in his final game, a theme we'd see repeated later on.) He returned it 18 yards to the Maryland 34.
Hogan struck quickly. He hit Hooper for 16 yards down to the nine, and then he found Cajuste with a laser over the middle for the receiver's second touchdown of the day. Suddenly it was 35-7.
If things felt out of hand at that point, it got even worse a bit later. The Terrapins actually managed a first down and pushed the ball out to their own 49, but on 2nd and 8 true freshman Harrison Phillips -- a likely starter next season -- bullrushed his way through the middle of the line and pulled down Brown for a sack, looking for all the world like a lion pulling down a wildebeest.
The fourteen-yard loss essentially crippled the Maryland drive, and when they lined up to kick it away on fourth down they suffered the indiginity of having a punt blocked by a backup quarterback. Dallas Lloyd, who is still the emergency quarterback after being coverted to safety this season, laid out for the block, making the rout almost comical.
But the offense couldn't manage a first down, and Jordan Williamson's 37-yard field goal attempt was buffeted by the swirling winds and pushed wide right -- a small (very small) victory for the Terps.
After yet another defensive three-and-out, Kevin Hogan came back out onto the field for what could be his final time as a Stanford quarterback. A series of runs from McCaffrey, Sanders, and Hogan pushed the ball to the Maryland 25, and then an absolutely poetic pass from Hogan to Cajuste near the sideline put the ball in Wright territory, at the four yard line.
But instead of Wright, it was senior Ricky Seale. Seale was a four-star cornerback recruit coming out of Escondido High School near San Diego, but Stanford signed him as a running back. He was never able to find his spot. When talking about his running back rotation two years ago, Shaw told me that he didn't even like talking to Ricky Seale because he felt so bad for him. In his words, Seale was good enough to start for most schools in the Pac-12, but there just weren't enough carries to go around at Stanford. This season was his busiest, but he totalled only 57 yards on 23 carries.
He ends his career with 53 carries for 171 yards, but thanks to David Shaw he also ended his career with a touchdown. With Wright on the sideline, Seale carried just short of the goal line on first down, then pushed it in on second down for his first career touchdown in his last career game. It was 42-7, but this last score was about Ricky Seale, and his teammates greeted him with a hero's welcome when he returned to the bench. It was a nice moment.
Next came Maryland's big highlight of the night, a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown for Will Likely. The only Stanford player even to get close to Likely was Jordan Williamson. Likely burst through the pack to the right, and Williamson went for the slide tackle, but missed. After that it was smooth sailing for Likely, and the Terrapin fans had something to cheer about, which was nice.
Evan Crower came in to finish the game for Hogan (third stringer Ryan Burns would eventually be rewarded with a single snap on the Cardinal's final drive), and after an initial three-and-out he would engineer a scoring drive on his second possession.
That drive started out in Maryland territory after another eye-popping play by McCaffrey. He fielded a Maryland punt at his own 24, but when he was immediately wrapped up by Maryland's Jacquille Veli, he shook off the would be tackler like a seventh grader shrugging off his backpack at the end of a long day. He sprinted off to his left and found the sidelines, then hurdled the Maryland punter for an extra five yards before being pushed out of bounds at the Maryland 45 after a 31-yard gain. The cameras quickly found the elder McCaffrey in the warmth of a luxury suite, and mugging for the camera, Easy Ed pointed down at his son and struck a Heisman pose. No one would be surprised.
Nothing much else of note happened after that, except for a nice moment when walk-on senior linebacker Torsten Rotto picked up his first career sack, pulling down Brown for a seven-yard loss on the Terps' final possession. Brown was able to survive that sack, however, and he worked with Stephon Diggs to put together a nice drive. After being quiet for much of the second half, Diggs came to life against a defense made up of walk-ons and third-stringers, catching three balls for sixty yards, almost half his total for the game. The last football play of Brown's five-year Maryland career was an easy two-yard touchdown run, capping the drive and bringing the final score to 45-21.
Back when the season started there were thoughts that the Cardinal might be playing in the Rose Bowl for the third year in a row, this time in the national semifinals, so it's impossible to ignore the air of disappointment that floats lightly over this five-loss campaign. But I'll ignore it anyway.
The Cardinal put together a masterpiece on Tuesday night, and in doing so they pointed the way to a 2015 season full of hope. There are still question marks surrounding the offense, specifically the NFL decisions of Kevin Hogan and left tackle Andrus Peat, but most of the pieces return. Devon Cajuste announced on Wednesday that he'd be coming back for his senior season, and he'll pair with Michael Rector. Austin Hooper, Eric Cotton, and Greg Taboada are already the best trio of tight ends in the Pac-12, and that doesn't even include freshman Dalton Schultz, the most highly touted tight end ever to sign with the Cardinal. Even if Peat departs for the draft, Stanford will still return four starters on the offensive line, and those who would battle for the fifth spot are all incredibly talented. Running the ball behind that unit will be McCaffrey and Wright, as well as Young and Sanders, and maybe even Cameron Scarlett, a well-regarded high school senior who committed to the Cardinal two weeks ago.
There will be more holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball -- Alex Carter announced on Wednesday morning that he plans to forgo his senior season in favor of the NFL -- but there is lots of young defensive talent that hasn't even seen the field yet.
While 2014 was a season of inconsistency and, at times, frustration for the Cardinal, the outlook is bright. Stanford football is here to stay.
Sadly, though, as we do each year, we have to say goodbye to several departing seniors. Henry Anderson, Joe Hemschoot, Blake Lueders, Kyle Olugbode, David Parry, Ben Rhyne, Ricky Seale, A.J. Tarpley, Jordan Williamson, and Lee Ward are all fifth-year seniors who lived through inarguably the greatest five-year stretch in the history of Stanford football. Their teams went to four consecutive BCS bowl games, winning two of them; won two Pac-12 championships; and finished on Tuesday night with a fifth straight bowl appearance, this one a decisive win.
All of them will be missed, as will Ty Montgomery, Jordan Richards, and James Vaughters, three seniors who never redshirted and were probably my three favorite players on this year's team. They leave as three of the brightest stars to have played at Stanford.
For me, this is the appeal of college football. I enjoy nothing more than rooting for these players who represent my University so well, and when they move on I wish them well. Some will only grow to be bigger stars, the way Andrew Luck and Richard Sherman have, others will become steady NFL players, like Cam Fleming or David DeCastro, but most will simply move on to the next phase of their lives. It doesn't really matter. Each one of them will be a Cardinal for life.