When I'm watching Stanford play, I'm just like any fan, except for one thing. Throughout the game there's a small corner of my brain that's always working on the recap. As a game winds through its peaks and valleys, the mood in that corner changes along with the fortunes of the Cardinal, and possible ledes and through-lines materialize and are discarded as needed. Unlike any game in the five-year history of this site, Saturday night's nail-biter between Stanford and Washington State created more mental rewrites than I could ever have imagined.
This was always supposed to be a walkover for the Cardinal. Even though Washington State had shown signs of improvement and carried a 5-2 record into the game, all of the numbers pointed in Stanford's favor. The Cougars' run defense was awful, their offense couldn't control the clock, and they had lost seven games in a row to the Cardinal. There was little reason to believe that this game would be any different, so it was no surprise when Christian McCaffrey had early success, running for 34 yards on the first two series, the second of which ended with 32-yard field goal from Conrad Ukropina to give Stanford an early 3-0 lead.
The Stanford defense also started out well, forcing three and outs on Washington State's first three possessions of the game. Luke Falk, a high-volume quarterback if ever there was one, was 1 for 6 and was sacked twice on those nine plays, and it felt like it might be a long night for him.
Midway through the first quarter, however, something changed. Suddenly the holes that McCaffrey had grown used to over the past six weeks were gone, as the Wazzu front seven began to win the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Stanford offense was in disarray, and two consecutive drives ended with Kevin Hogan turnovers, the first a fumble, the second an interception.
That interception seemed to give Falk and the Cougars life. They still weren't able to earn a first down, but they were already in field goal range, and kicker Erik Powell split the uprights from 46 yards out to tie the score at three.
With the rain thickening and the Halloween crowd urging them on, the Wazzu offense began to click while Stanford's sputtered. Over the past several years the Stanford defense has always operated with one prime directive: Keep the ball in front of you. The idea is that with the defense bending, yielding short passes but making sure tackles, the opposing quarterback has to work harder. Instead of burning the defense with a deep ball, he has to complete several passes to move his team downfield. The law of averages works against most college quarterbacks in these situations, but Falk is the most accurate passer in the Pac-12, statistically speaking, and he was able to make those connections, at least until it mattered most.
He completed six consecutive short passes to move his team deep into Stanford territory on their first possession of the second quarter, but once he got to 1st and goal, he was 0 for 2 and the Cougars settled for another field goal from Powell to grab a 6-3 lead. (If that seemed unsettling for Stanford fans, it's because that was the first deficit the Cardinal had faced since the second quarter of the USC game, more than a month ago.)
It was more of the same Falk's next time out. This time he completed his first two passes of the drive for 6 and 27 yards, but once he got to the red zone he was 0 for 2 with a sack, forcing a third Powell field goal, this one from 47 yards out. After another failed Stanford effort, Falk directed another efficient Washington State drive in the last minute of the first half, this time going 3 of 6 for 56 yards and putting his team in position for yet another field goal, this one a chip shot from 28 yards out.
As the two teams headed to the locker room with the score 12-3, everyone wearing Stanford red was absolutely stunned. Head coach David Shaw quickly rattled off a list of all the things that had gone wrong, and later said that he didn't even feel like the game had started. Nothing was going as planned.
Even so, as ugly as that first half had been, things could have been much worse. The offense had been awful, but thanks to the red zone strength of the defense, the Cardinal faced only a nine-point deficit. Halftime adjustments on both sides of the ball would turn things around, wouldn't they?
Except they didn't.
Washington State took the second half kickoff and did exactly what they had done throughout the second quarter. Falk completed five of his first six passes to four different receivers, effortlessly moving the ball through the Cardinal defense, but once he got to the Stanford 11, two incompletions doomed the drive. Eric Powell hit his fifth field goal of the night, and the deficit swelled to 12.
Stanford only trailed 15-3 with almost an entire half of football to play, but there were concerns. After being unstoppable for weeks, Christian McCaffrey had been a non-factor in the first half. Washington State had clearly decided that even though they might lose, they were not going to lose to McCaffrey. Every one of the the Cougars' first half kickoffs was short, as they happily gave the Cardinal excellent field position to eliminate the potential of a lightning strike from McCaffrey, and when he was handed the ball in the backfield, the entire defense keyed on his every move. Each time McCaffrey crashed into the line, only to fall back as if hitting a brick wall, a little piece of hope washed away in the rain.
On Stanford's first possession of the second half, however, David Shaw announced that things were going to be different. With all eyes of the defense drilling into the backfield, Hogan threw a quick wide receiver screen to Bryce Love for an easy 14-yard gain, and the entire offense (and fan base) seemed to exhale.
Three plays later, facing 3rd and 6 from the Wazzu 41, Shaw got even move creative. Hogan lined up in the shotgun with McCaffrey to his left and surveyed a balanced defense in front of him. When Hogan and McCaffrey both flowed to the left at the snap on a read-option look, the defense flowed with them expecting a pitch to McCaffrey. When Hogan faked that pitch, they all bit like dogs. Defenders who had lined up to Hogan's right had over-pursued so much that they were now on the left side of the play, so there was no one left to account for the quarterback as he sprinted up the middle of the field and into the void. Hogan was pulled down at the 2 after a 39-yard gain, but it didn't really matter.
Two plays later Remound Wright leapt into the end zone for the first touchdown of the game and the 22nd of his career, good for eighth-best in Stanford history.
A stop from the defense would've preserved that positive momentum, but instead the Cougs matched that Stanford score with a touchdown of their own, and they did it quickly. They covered 75 yards in just four plays, the last of which was a 19-yard touchdown pass to Gabe Marks. Marks actually stepped out of bounds before catching Falk's pass, which is illegal, but the official on the spot felt that he had been pushed out by the defender. It was the type of call that could've gone either way, but this time it went to the Cougars. It wasn't the first questionable decision by the officials, and it wouldn't be the last. But the call stood, and Washington State's lead was back to twelve at 22-10.
On Stanford's ensuing drive it quickly became clear that the game plan had been thrown out the window. McCaffrey was still in the backfield, but Kevin Hogan was now the focal point of the offense. He converted a key third down with a 16-yard scramble to move into field goal range, then rumbled for six more on a designed sweep four plays later. He failed to convert a 3rd and 4 from the 14 when he missed a wide open Austin Hooper, but Ukropina nailed the field goal to keep the positive feelings going and bring Stanford to within 22-13.
This time, however, the Stanford defense rose to the occasion and threw down a key three and out, giving the ball back to Hogan at the Stanford 41. He wouldn't need to keep it long. He settled into the shotgun with Wright to his left and McCaffrey to his right, and at the snap McCaffrey cut through the backfield on a more traditional read-option play. Once again the entire defense flowed to McCaffrey, and once again Hogan kept the ball and ran through a massive hole in the middle of the line. He made a nice move to swerve around the only linebacker in the area, then darted out towards the right sideline. Cornerback Marcellus Pippins had an angle and looked to make the play, but Hogan stuttered to a stop, cut back to his left, and left Pippins in a heap on the ground before racing the rest of the way untouched for a 59-yard touchdown.
There's a point which cannot be emphasized enough. David Shaw has been criticized in the past for sometimes stubbornly adhering to an offensive gameplan that isn't working, but on this night he put those complaints to bed forever. One player was taken away, so Shaw simply chose another weapon and the Cougars couldn't answer.
With time running down in the third quarter and his lead having shrunk to only two points, Luke Falk came back out onto the field looking to regain control. But on 2nd and 8 from his own 18, he made things worse. He looked to the left and stared down his receiver, and cornerback Quenton Meeks made him pay. Meeks was sitting in a zone with nothing to do but read the quarterback, and he was able to leap high into the air to make the interception.
A year ago at this time Meeks was probably busy finding a date for his homecoming dance; now he's one of a stable of young defensive backs on the Stanford roster who will give Pac-12 quarterbacks headaches for years to come. Meeks is already making an impact, and we'd see more for him before the night was over.
The interception and Meeks's 14-yard return set up the Cardinal on the WSU 17, so Shaw naturally leaned heavily on Hogan once again. On the second play of the fourth quarter from the 6, now in a de facto wildcat, Hogan took the shotgun snap and leaned a bit to the left, then cut back to the right and bounced into the end zone untouched for his second score of the game. The score was 27-22, and the Cardinal had the lead for the first time since the early going.
Perhaps energized by Hogan's running, the Stanford defense charged out onto the field and seemed ready to take control of the game. Brennan Scarlett knocked down Falk's first down pass, and Falk was forced to scramble for his life on second down before throwing another incompletion. All that scrambling led to a holding penalty, but rather than give the Cougar offense two downs to get twenty yards or so, Shaw chose to decline the penalty, bringing up 3rd and 10. With the game potentially hanging in the balance, Falk seemed to falter, throwing his pass behind his receiver. Freshman Gabe Marks had to reach behind him and gather in the ball, juggling it into his arms as he hit the turf. It was a spectacular catch, and the Cougars were still alive. Twelve plays later they were in the end zone.
The Cougars had used 15 plays to cover 81 yards in 6:18; after the two-point conversion failed, Washington State led by one, 28-27.
As the Stanford offense trotted out onto the field with 7:56 to play in the game, I thought I knew how the rest of the game would play out. The Cardinal would grind their way down the field, using up most of the clock in the process, and either a field goal or a touchdown would give them the lead in the closing minutes. I had no doubt in my mind.
When the drive stalled after just five plays, I began to think dark thoughts. I wondered how I would summon the energy to write about a game that would end Stanford's national championship hopes. With only 5:08 to play, surely Washington State would run the ball a few times, forcing Stanford to decide between burning timeouts or watching the clock wind down. It would take only one or two first downs to give Stanford it's first conference loss.
But then I remembered who was at the Washington State controls, and I was hopeful again. Mike Leach flies against convention and refuses to alter his play calling, even when doing so would increase his odds of winning. Sure, he had Falk hand the ball off on first and second downs, but on 3rd and 3 he went back to his old pirate ways, and there was Falk dropping back to pass and eventually taking a sack. A Stanford holding penalty saved the Cougs temporarily, but an incomplete pass on the next play stopped the clock, and then things got even worse -- or better, depending on your perspective.
The Cougars broke the huddle on 2nd and 10 with three wide receivers out to the right, not the look of a team that was up by a point and just three and half minutes from victory. Falk looked towards those triplets as soon as he took the snap, and one of the defensive backs, our man Meeks, recognized the bubble screen immediately and cut in front of the receivers to where he knew the ball was going. Falk threw it right to him, and suddenly all things were possible.
The Cardinal took over on the Washington State 39, just a single first down away from field goal range. Hogan handed the ball to McCaffrey on the first play, and McCaffrey slowly made his way to the left with what seemed like the entire offensive line in front of him. He waited patiently for each block to take hold, and then the jetted through an opening, found the sideline, and tip-toed his way to a thirty-yard gain and 1st and goal.
With a field goal in his back pocket, Shaw wisely chose to run the ball three times, twice with McCaffrey and once with Hogan, but they weren't able to get the ball into the end zone. The Cardinal settled for a field goal and a 30-28 lead... but there was still 1:54 left on the clock.
Considering Washington State's high-speed offense, it didn't seem likely that the clock would become an issue, and the Cougars began moving the ball immediately, converting an early 4th and 1 to keep their hopes alive. Two plays later, it looked like the game was over. Falk dropped back to pass on 2nd and 7 and was immediately under siege from a ferocious Cardinal pass rush. Solomon Thomas hit Falk hard, jarring the ball loose, and linebacker Joey Alfieri pounced on the loose ball. The officials ruled the ball a fumble, and Nerd Nation rejoiced. That ragged first half had turned into nothing more than a close call that would be just a forgettable footnote should the Cardinal run the table and make it into the playoffs. Hogan would come out onto the field, take a knee, and the game would be over.
But then the officials were talking in the middle of the field, and the announcers were wondering if maybe Falk's arm had been going forward. The replay seemed inconclusive at best, but it looked as if Falk had started his throwing motion, then stopped a split second before being hit and losing the ball. It looked like a fumble, but then the officials were ruling otherwise and giving the ball back to the Cougars.
I can't imagine what it must've taken for the defense to refocus (it was hard enough for me, and I was just sitting on the couch), but somehow they did, and Alfieri pressured Falk into another incompletion, driving him to the turf in the process. It was 4th and 7 at the Washington State 41, and the game was hanging in the balance, just as it had been for the past hour or so. Falk took a quick drop, fired a laser over the middle to Dom Williams for 23 yards, and suddenly the Cougs were in field goal range at the Stanford 36.
To say that throw was heroic would be an understatement. Falk had taken punishment all night long, but never more violent than on this last drive. He was knocked to the ground several times, and the cumulative effect of those blows was clearly beginning to take a toll. Now, however, he was in position to win the game and take control of the Pac-12 North. Another pass to Williams gained seven more yards, and a short rush for two more spotted the ball at the Stanford 27 with four seconds left on the clock.
Erik Powell had already hit five field goals on the night, two from deeper than this 44-yarder, but this one would be different. A field goal here would end Stanford's seven-game winning streak over the Cougars, give Washington State the inside track to the Rose Bowl, and, no doubt, release a flood of fans onto the field for the biggest football celebration the Palouse had seen in more than decade. We'll never know if was the weight of all of that or if it was simply a gust of wind blowing in from the prairie, but Powell hooked his kick wide right by a considerable margin, and it was Stanford celebrating instead of the Cougs.
It will be tempting for some to dissect this 30-28 win and use it as evidence of Stanford's flaws, but I'd argue that it highlights the Cardinal's strengths. Kevin Hogan passed for only 86 yards, but he ran for more than a hundred, and took the team on his shoulders when things looked bleakest. Christian McCaffrey was bottled up for most of the night, but he still managed to top the century mark for the sixth game in a row, one shy of the Stanford record. The Stanford defensive line hasn't been able to pressure quarterbacks as in the past, but they pulled down Falk three times. The defensive backs allowed more than 350 yards passing, but they came up huge when it was most necessary. In short, this is a work in progress, and it's only getting better.
Most importantly, the Cardinal survived. Should Hogan and company ride this winning streak all the way through the Pac-12 Championship Game, there will certainly be a place waiting for them at the College Football Playoff table, and there will be no asterisk attached to this win.
Even though no one could've predicted a game this dramatic, the Cardinal was able to survive and advance, and that's all that matters.