It really isn't as bad as you think it is. Stanford's 44-6 loss to Washington started out bad and got worse quickly and consistently over the course of three hours last weekend. Friday nights are typically reserved for high school football, and the Stanford team that travelled to Seattle to take on the Huskies resembled an overmatched high school squad, struggling in all phases of the game and showing glaring weaknesses in areas which have typically been strengths. But it really isn't as bad as you think it is.
The upstart Washington Huskies entered the game 4-0 and thought by many observers to be the favorites in a Pac-12 North division that had been ruled by Stanford and Oregon for the past half decade. This wasn't just a big game, this was possibly the biggest game for the Huskies in a quarter of a century, since their dominant days of the early 90s, and both the players and the crowd knew it.
If Coach Chris Petersen could've planned the game's opening few possessions, he wouldn't have been greedy enough to script what actually happened. Stanford's Ryan Burns was sacked on the game's first play, Stanford's best player, Christian McCaffrey was stoned for no gain on the next play, and Burns was sacked again on third down. Three plays, negative seven yards. The crowd was in delirium, and things were only getting started.
Building on that momentum, quarterback Jake Browning brought out his offense and marched down the field as if the Stanford defense were merely apparitions, not the fundamentally sound, hard-hitting unit we've become accustomed to over the past several years. Calmly seeking out preferable matchups against back-up cornerbacks and sluggish linebackers, Browning found one open receiver after another. The first third down he faced was 3rd and goal from the Stanford 3, but even though he was finally pressured a bit, he was still poised enough to hit Dante Pettis in the back of the end zone for a touchdown and a 6-0 lead. The extra point would be blocked, but the Huskies wouldn't miss it.
The Stanford offense looked ready to respond. McCaffrey opened with a nice nine-yard gain, then Burns hit tight end Dalton Schultz for five yards and a first down, but punter Jake Bailey was back out on the field three plays later after another failed drive. (In what should've been a sign of the disaster to come, Bailey shanked a nineteen-yard punt. Even Bailey, one of the team's most consistent performers through its first three games, would have an inconsistent night.)
If Washington's first touchdown drive was easy, this second possession was even easier. Browning needed only five plays to move 55 yards, hitting speedster John Ross for 28 yards on the first snap, then finding Pettis for 17 more two plays later to move the ball deep into Stanford territory, before handing the ball to Myles Gaskin for a four-yard touchdown and a 13-0 lead.
I wasn't watching any of this live. I was sitting in the stands at a high school football game doing my best to avoid the score when a text message slipped past my defenses at 6:26, precisely, I'd later realize, as Gaskin walked into the end zone. "This is awful," it read. For the next few hours I rationalized this warning away -- Well, I thought, the game started poorly, but surely we could recover from an "awful" start, right?
But as I sat four hours later watching the first 26 minutes of the recording, I saw the truth. Even after just eleven minutes of the first quarter, I knew it wouldn't get better. And it didn't.
Coach David Shaw probably felt something similar. Keller Chryst came in at quarterback for the Cardinal's third series, and the offense showed some signs of life for the first time -- kind of. After a false start penalty put the Cardinal into a 2nd and 14 hole, Chryst completed a nice pass to Schultz for fifteen yards and a first down, but three plays later he threw an interception that would've ended the drive were it not for a Washington personal foul for roughing the passer. That second life didn't last long, however, as the Cardinal eventually found itself at a crossroads -- 4th and 2 at the Washington 35.
Even though there was still lots of game left, it felt like an important moment. A 52-yard field goal attempt would've been foolish, and a punt would've seemed like surrender, so Shaw kept the offense out on the field. It may have felt desperate, but it was a desperate situation.
Chryst lined up in a shotgun formation with McCaffrey alongside him, two receivers and a tight end to his right, and another receiver split to the left, but when the ball was snapped, he was sacked almost immediately. Watching live, the play just didn't look right. Chryst caught the ball in his stomach, not with his hands, as if he hadn't been expecting it, but he had clearly just asked for it, clapping his hands together as he had on each previous snap. It's possible that the crowd noise had sabotaged the entire play, but I've got a different theory. Lineman Joe Mathis was able to rush up the middle and pull Chryst down because he wasn't blocked. The only member of the offensive line who moved on the play was center Jesse Burkett. Both guards and both tackles remained in their stances until they noticed the defense rushing past them like water through a splintering dam, and Chryst was clearly surprised to find the ball in his gut. I don't think the ball was supposed to have been snapped. The only explanation for all this is that the plan must have been to draw the aggressive Husky defense offsides in order to pick up the first down, but Burkett simply forgot. (The other possibility is that the rest of the offensive line and the quarterback were confused, and Burkett was the only one thinking straight. This, however, seems unlikely.)
None of that really matters, though. The Huskies took over at their own 38, drove for a field goal, forced a three and out from Stanford, then drove for a touchdown, and the teams headed to the halftime with the score Washington 23, Stanford 0.
It seems ridiculous now, but when the Stanford defense forced its first punt of the game after the Huskies went three and out on the opening possession of the second half, my mind began to wonder about the possibility of a comeback. With good field possession after the punt, surely the Cardinal offense could put some points on the board, maybe even a touchdown. And what if the defense could stop the Huskies again after that? Another score could pull the Cardinal even closer. In my fantasy world the score was already 23-14, but reality came crashing down when Washington's punt hit Stanford's Ben Edwards in the back and was then recovered by the Huskies. Shaw would later reveal that this was the one true instance where crowd noise had been a factor; McCaffrey had been screaming at Edwards to get out of the way, but Edwards hadn't heard him.
Washington wasted little time twisting the knife. After a 15-yard pass interference penalty moved the ball to the Stanford 25, Browning handed the ball to Gaskin four times in a row, and the Huskies had a 30-0 lead. The game had been over for a while, but now it was really over. Stanford would finally get on the scoreboard with a J.J. Arcega-Whiteside touchdown late in the third quarter to make it 30-6 (they went for two, which was adorably optimistic), but the Huskies scored on their next two possessions to make the final score 44-6.
I spent most of the second half wondering when I had last seen a Stanford team suffer such a lopsided loss. As the chart below shows, there haven't been many defeats this bad, and none worse since the dark days of Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris.
|2014||Shaw||at #5 Oregon, 45-16||Unranked, 5-3||8-5|
|2011||Shaw||vs. #6 Oregon, 53-30||#3, 9-0||11-2|
|2010||Harbaugh||at #4 Oregon, 52-31||#9, 4-0||12-1|
|2007||Harbaugh||vs. #23 Arizona State, 41-3||1-2||4-8|
|2006||Harris||vs. #9 USC, 42-0||0-8||1-11|
|2006||Harris||at Arizona State, 38-3||0-7||1-11|
|2006||Harris||at UCLA, 31-0||0-4||1-11|
|2006||Harris||at #21 Oregon, 48-10||0-0||1-11|
|2005||Harris||at #1 USC, 51-21||4-3||5-6|
|2004||Teevens||at #4 Cal, 41-6||4-6||4-7|
|2003||Teevens||vs. Notre Dame, 57-7||4-6||4-7|
|2003||Teevens||at Oregon State, 43-3||4-4||4-7|
|2003||Teevens||at Oregon, 35-0||2-3||4-7|
|2002||Teevens||vs. #10 USC, 49-17||2-6||2-9|
|2002||Teevens||at Arizona State, 65-24||1-1||2-9|
|2000||Willingham||vs. #23 Oregon State, 38-6||2-3||5-6|
|1999||Willingham||at Texas, 69-17||0-0||8-4|
|1998||Willingham||at #20 Oregon, 63-28||1-2||3-8|
|1996||Willingham||vs. #4 Arizona State, 41-9||2-4||7-5|
|1994||Walsh||vs. #15 Oregon, 55-21||3-5-1||3-7-1|
|1992||Walsh||at #2 Washington, 41-7||#15, 6-2||10-3|
|1991||Green||vs. #4 Washington, 42-7||0-0||8-4|
|1990||Green||at #25 Oregon, 31-0||2-5||5-6|
|1990||Green||vs. #13 Washington, 52-16||2-4||5-6|
|1987||Elway||vs. #11 UCLA, 49-0||6-2||8-4|
But when you consider that the Cardinal arrived in Seattle as the defending Pac-12 champions, undefeated and ranked seventh in the country, it's easy to make the argument that this was the most stunning loss of the Harbaugh-Shaw Era. The truth, however, is that only the margin, not the loss, is stunning.
Stanford was never going to win this game. Never. Consider all that was going against them:
- Five starters were out injured -- cornerbacks Quenton Meeks and Alijah Holder, wide receiver Francis Owusu, tight end Greg Taboada, and fullback Daniel Marx.
- Quarterback Ryan Burns was making just his fourth career start, the first against a ranked team, the first in such in a hostile environment.
- The Huskies were playing the biggest game of their lives in front of a rabid crowd.
These aren't excuses, they are simply facts. But if Meeks and Holder had been healthy, perhaps they'd have lost by thirty instead of thirty-eight. If Owusu and Taboada had been active, maybe they'd have lost by 21 instead of 30. If Marx had been available, maybe McCaffrey would've scored a touchdown or two and the margin might've been as low as ten.
But the Huskies dominated the Cardinal so thoroughly that none of those issues, whether you see them as facts or excuses, can realistically be considered key to the game. Here's how bad it was:
- Total yards, 424-213 in favor of Washington.
- Rushing yards, 214-29 in favor of Washington.
- Time of possession, 32:32-27:28 in favor of Washington.
- Browning's QBR: 97.4; Burns's QBR: 17.7.
Worse than that, Stanford wasn't even good at the things it normally does well. McCaffrey rushed for only 49 yards. The offensive line allowed eight sacks. The team had 11 penalties for 100 yards. It was perhaps the most un-Stanford-like performance we've seen in years, easily surpassing last year's loss to Northwestern.
But it's not as bad as you think.
This was an absolute perfect storm of a loss, a loss so bad that it can easily be brushed aside. Washington is better than Stanford, but they aren't 38 points better. The Huskies played their absolute best on Friday night, executing the Cardinal with perfect execution and playing at a level that they certainly won't match again.
While the Huskies seem headed to the conference championship game (it's doubtful that they'll lose twice more), the Cardinal could conceivably sneak into the Rose Bowl again. If Washington is as good as they look, and most agree that they are, they won't have much trouble with the rest of their schedule. If they can make it through back to back road games at Utah and Cal a month from now, they'll find themselves undefeated and ranked second or third as they head into the conference championship game, where they'll likely wax a team like UCLA or Utah (again).
Stanford, meanwhile, could still be the second-best team in the conference, and the meat of the schedule is in the rearview mirror. Yes, Ryan Burns has struggled, but perhaps those struggles are because he's faced three of the top four passing defenses in the Pac-12 as well as the top defense in the Big 12. Yes, Christian McCaffrey has been contained, but expect him to run wild over the next two months -- aside from Washington State and Colorado, every defense he'll face from here on out is below average -- far below average -- with national rankings (in order) of 33, 94, 20, 91, 88, 118, 104, and 124. (Quite honestly, I'll believe in those Washington State and Colorado defenses when I see them.)
So it isn't time to panic. David Shaw is 13-1 in his career following losses, and I have no doubt that he and his staff have spent the past seven days focused on improving that mark to 14-1.