Like most college football fans, I spent much of the summer looking forward to my team's season opener. Sure, there were mild concerns -- the Cardinal would be traveling all the way to Evanston, Illinois, to play a Big Ten team in a game that would kick off at 9:00am -- but none of that did anything to diminish either my excitement or my confidence for a victory. The enthusiasm that all Stanford fans felt during that final three-game stretch of the 2014 season had carried over to this summer and fall, and expectations were high for this campaign.
But it wasn't only the Cardinal faithful who were high on Stanford. Objective experts were naming the Cardinal as potential Pac-12 champions, and one of the three analysts on ESPN's flagship College Game Day pregame show (Desmond Howard) actually picked Stanford to win the national championship. I repeat -- expectations were high.
When the game finally started, ending those months of anticipation, it seemed there was reason for all that optimism. Last year's wunderkind, Christian McCaffrey, took the opening kickoff and produced a nice 24-yard return. A few plays later McCaffrey had his first carry and ran between the tackles for an easy seven-yard gain and a first down. The drive continued from there, precise, methodical, and efficient. Quarterback Kevin Hogan completed his first four passes, and five different skill players (McCaffrey, Austin Hooper, Rollin Stallworth, Francis Owusu, and Remound Wright) figured prominently. The drive stalled on the Northwestern 12 when Hogan wasn't able to connect with McCaffrey in the end zone, but there was no cause for concern, not really. Conrad Ukropina came on to drill a 29-yard field goal, and the Cardinal had a 3-0 lead. Business as usual.
When the Northwestern offense came out on the field, things looked even better. Remember, at this point in the day it was the defense that was the big concern. With only inside linebacker Blake Martinez and cornerback Ronnie Harris returning from last season's starting eleven, no one was sure whether or not we'd see the defense we had grown used to over the past three years. After a short rush for three yards, a flare pass for two more, and an incompletion, the Cardinal defense had its first three-and-out of the season. In this moment, after that strong opening drive for the offense and the quick work done by the defense, all was right in the world. If you had told me that this would be the high point for the entire game, I never would have believed you. Never.
Stanford's next possession was uneventful. A face masking penalty gave the Cardinal a first down out at their own 33, but Coach Shaw chose to go conservative, handing the ball to Remound Wright on 3rd and 14 before punting the ball away.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson came out for his second series as a college quarterback, and this one went well for him. With Thorson running twice for six yards and later converting a key 3rd and 7 with an eleven-yard pass to Christian Jones, and the strong running of Justin Jackson, the Wildcats were able to move deep into Cardinal territory. Of particular concern was Jackson. Twice the Cardinal defense had the Wildcats facing third and short, and both times Thorson handed the ball to Jackson, who responded with runs of 16 and 19 yards. He carried the ball four times for 42 yards on the drive, a preview of things to come.
If there has been one criticism of the Stanford defense over the past few years, it's been the unit's surprising inability to force turnovers. In 2014 they ranked third in yards allowed per game and second in yards per play, two of the key metrics used in evaluating a defense, but they were a stunning 121st in takeaways. In 2013 those rankings were 14th, 10th, and 103rd. That's absolutely preposterous, and the defensive coaches rightly noted this as a point of emphasis for the Cardinal heading into 2015, but we saw more evidence of these struggles against Northwestern.
On 2nd and 7 from the Stanford 14, Thorson threw into the end zone, looking for tight end Dan Vitale. Instead of Vitale, his pass hit safety Kodi Whitfield in the hands. You remember Kodi Whitfield, the one-time wide receiver who made what is probably the most spectacular catch in the history of Stanford football two years ago to score a touchdown against UCLA. This time he dropped the potential interception; two plays later Jack Mitchell hit a 31-yard field goal to tie the score at three. That dropped interception was more than just a missed opportunity; it cost the Cardinal on the scoreboard.
After that things got strange, and then they got stranger. The Cardinal produced a troubling three-and-out with two rushes and a sack of Kevin Hogan, and their next possession wasn't much better, as they earned a first down but only netted seven yards on the "drive" after another sack and a three-yard loss by Wright.
Northwestern took over at their own 20, and suddenly the Wildcats looked like the Cardinal, or at least the image we have of Cardinal football in our heads. They won the battle at the line of scrimmage, featured a dominant tailback (Jackson would finish the game with 28 carries for 134 yards), and relied on a poised, efficient quarterback to make it all work. Thorson was the key on this drive. After opening with a twelve-yard designed run to earn a first down at his own 32, he made a nice throw to Jones to convert on 3rd and 6, and a few plays later he came up with a five-yard completion on 3rd and 5.
Heading into the game, I'm certain the defensive gameplan involved putting this first-time quarterback into third and long, situations in which he'd almost certainly crumble against the vaunted Stanford defense. So when Northwestern faced 3rd and 7 at the Cardinal 42, it seemed that Thorson was falling right into that trap. But instead Thorson cooly took the snap in the shotgun, immediately headed upfield on a designed run, and took advantage of a huge hole. He raced all 42 yards untouched for the first touchdown of the game, and Northwestern had a 10-3 lead. (For the game, when facing 3rd and 5 or longer, the Wildcats converted six of thirteen times. Thorson was 5 of 11 for 67 yards, plus this 42-yard run, and he also converted a 4th and 7 with a nine-yard pass. I don't think those are numbers that Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson would have imagined.)
That Thorson touchdown was probably the moment when Stanford fans realized this game wouldn't be the walkover they were used to seeing in the year's first game. Stanford had won seven straight season openers in relatively comfortable fashion, including blowout wins of 39-13, 52-17, 57-3, 34-13, and 45-0. So as Thorson and his teammates celebrated his score, I wasn't necessarily worried about losing, but I knew it wouldn't be easy.
The Cardinal offense did nothing to assuage these feelings of concern. On the second play of the next series Hogan handed the ball to McCaffrey, and just as he looked to be earning a first down, just as I was relaxing a bit, the ball popped loose and was recovered by Northwestern. The Wildcats weren't able to make Stanford pay for this turnover with points of their own, but it was clear that the team in purple was gaining confidence with every play. Stanford's three-and-out on its next possession only made matters worse, and the two teams eventually headed to halftime with the Wildcats ahead by a touchdown.
The second half started on a more positive note as the Cardinal defense forced a quick punt from the Wildcats, and McCaffrey opened the Stanford possession with a nifty 27-yard run into Northwestern territory. Surely this was the moment when everything would start tipping in Stanford's direction. The coaching staff had made the necessary halftime adjustments, and the Cardinal's superior talent would begin to pay dividends. It was only a matter of time, wasn't it?
But it didn't work out that way. McCaffrey ran for five more yards on the next play, but after two incompletions from Hogan, who never found his rhythm at all, the Cardinal faced 4th and 5 at the Northwestern 37. This part of the field is often referred to as "no-man's land." A long field goal attempt is usually ill-advised, and a punt wouldn't gain enough of a field position advantage. Given these two undesirable options, coaches often decide to keep the offense on the field and go for the first down. There's little to lose. Historically, though, David Shaw has chosen to punt in these situations, so it came as no surprise when he did the same here. Fans on Twitter were up in arms even before the ball was snapped, and when Alex Robinson punted the ball into the end zone for a touchback and a 17-yard net gain, the reaction was predictable.
The rest of the third quarter was uneventful, aside from some unfortunate penalties on the Stanford offense, both of which derailed drives. On 2nd and 9 midway through the quarter, they were hit with an illegal substitution penalty when they broke the huddle with twelve men. Pushed into 2nd and 14, the drive stalled two plays later. On their next possession, facing a critical 3rd and 1, they were hit with the same five-yard penalty. Instead of easily converting a 3rd and 1, they failed on 3rd and 6 and punted the ball away.
Thorson and the Wildcats made the Cardinal pay for that failure as they drove the ball down the field, leaning heavily on Justin Jackson. Remember when Stanford football's blueprint for success began with getting a lead and ended with a steady helping of Toby Gerhart or Stepfan Taylor or Tyler Gaffney? Imagine that in purple, and you know what happened next. Thorson opened the fourth quarter with a two-yard run, then he handed the ball to Jackson for five consecutive plays. Jackson pounded his way forward for 35 yards, moving his team all the way down to the Stanford 2 before the drive stalled and Northwestern had to settle for a chip shot field goal and 13-3 lead. (It should be noted that the 3rd and goal play was another ball that should've been intercepted, this time by sophomore Alijah Holder. Both Northwestern field goals could've been avoided had Stanford defensive backs simply held onto the ball.)
The clock showed 12:21 still to play, but since the game's opening drive -- which seemed like a distant memory -- the Cardinal had done nothing to imply that they had ten points left in them. But in this fourth quarter, perhaps realizing the gravity of their situation, the Stanford offense finally started showing some signs of life. They ran only 62 plays in the entire game, but 24 of them came in the fourth, when they were staring down the barrel of a disheartening loss.
Wide receiver Devon Cajuste, who had presumably spent the first three quarters sitting behind glass marked "Break in Case of Emergency," caught a 13-yard pass from Hogan on the Cardinal's first possession of the quarter, and there was hope. Given adequate protection for the first time in a while, Hogan dropped back in the pocket on the next play and had time to let the pass patterns develop. Finally he spotted Michael Rector behind the defense and hit him perfectly in stride at the twenty yard line. But Rector, who hadn't played in the first half either, simply dropped it. Had he pulled it down cleanly he likely would've scored and cut the lead to 13-10, but he didn't.
The drive continued, however, and Ukropina eventually nailed his second field goal of the day, bringing the score to 13-6 with 7:26 to play and keeping Stanford's slim hopes alive.
In situations like this over the past few seasons, the Stanford defense always seemed to come up with a stop, but they had been on the field for much too long. Northwestern had controlled the tempo, holding the ball for 9:19 in the second quarter and 9:57 in the third. On this drive, the most important drive of the game, the defense didn't have much left to give. They put the Wildcats in a tough 3rd and 8 from their 27 early in the drive, but Thorson floated a beautiful fade down the right sideline and into the hands of Miles Shuler for a 25-yard gain and a back-breaking first down. Jackson carried the ball three times in the next four plays, moving the ball all the way to the Stanford 32, and the eventual field goal bumped the score up to 16-6. Just as important as those three points, the Wildcats had burned 3:48 off the game clock, leaving Hogan and the Cardinal with less than four minutes to score more points than they had in the previous fifty-six.
Hogan went to work from his own 28, hitting Cajuste on the first two plays to earn a first down, later finding Hooper to convert a fourth down, and eventually leading the Cardinal to 2nd and goal at the five yard line. But the drive had been a bit too slow and methodical, and only 1:10 remained on the clock. It would take a score and an on-side kick and another score, but there was something close to hope...
And then it was gone. Hogan dropped back on 3rd and goal and looked to the left towards Austin Hooper in the end zone. But his pass had too much ground to cover and Kyle Queiro was able to step into the route and make what turned out to be an easy interception to seal the win for the Wildcats. Northwestern 16, Stanford 6.
So how bad was this defeat? In the immediate aftermath it certainly felt like more than just a football game had been lost. Only three hours earlier the Cardinal had been on the short list of schools with national championship aspirations, and suddenly all of that was gone. (Events elsewhere in the conference didn't help much, either: Oregon was busy scoring their usual fifty points, Cal scored more than 70, and the Bruins unveiled true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, whose performance was good enough that UCLA's PR department is almost surely putting together a Heisman campaign as we speak.)
Here are some facts:
- The Cardinal failed to score in double digits for the first time since 2007, ending a 95-game streak that was tops in the nation.
- The Stanford offense, once known for its dominant power running game, still has not produced a 100-yard rusher since the 2013 Pac-12 championship, a stretch of fifteen games.
- Kevin Hogan averaged an anemic 4.4 yards per passing attempt and finished with a QBR of 24.8 out of 100.
- Stanford was outgained 330 to 240 and outrushed 225 to 85.
- Stanford ran only 62 plays; Northwestern ran 79.
- The defensive line earned three penalties, two of them for lining up in the neutral zone.
- The offense earned two penalties for having twelve men in the huddle.
Initial reaction in many corners was to blame Coach Shaw and his staff for all of this, but I'd argue that this game was too awful for all the blame to be placed in one corner of the program. Certainly it's incumbent upon Shaw to craft a game plan that gives his players a chance to succeed, but when he and several players used post game interviews to preach the importance of execution, it was difficult to argue with them. Hogan struggled with his accuracy, linemen missed blocks, and receivers missed passes. If those issues had been eliminated, the coaches would've looked a lot better.
Ah, but here's the good news. I understand that the main concern here is the manner in which the game was lost, but let's focus for a minute on what the 1 in the loss column actually means. The sky is not falling. I promise. This was only one loss, and because it was a non-conference loss, it has no bearing on the Cardinal's chances to win the Pac-12 North. As you're reading this, I promise the Stanford coaches are watching film, reviewing tendencies, and making decisions. I promise the players are lifting weights, going over notes from their coaches, and reviewing their playbooks. While you and I are wringing our hands and lamenting the loss, everyone within the program is focusing on getting better. And consider for a moment how angry and frustrated you were in the closing moments and immediate aftermath of that game. Don't you think that Shaw and his players felt the same way? Don't you think they all desperately need to wash that taste out of their mouths?
The beautiful thing about sports is that redemption is only days away, and this Saturday's home opener against Central Florida offers a chance for exactly that. If the Cardinal can right the ship and earn a victory this weekend and then follow that up with a win on the road against USC, concerns about a loss to Northwestern will begin to disappear. And remember this -- every single day in Columbus, Ohio, roughly a thousand people pull on a t-shirt celebrating Ohio State's national championship, and not a single one of them is bothered that the Buckeyes lost their home opener last season to Virginia Tech, a team that finished 3-5 in the ACC.
The college football season is a long one; this was only one week. It isn't time to storm the castle, so put your pitchforks back in the barn where they belong. Where your Cardinal and White with pride on Saturday night as you cheer your team to victory, and look to the future with hope.