There were twenty-five seconds left in the 2016 Sun Bowl when Solomon Thomas put his hand on the ground for what would be the final play of his Stanford career. North Carolina had scored a touchdown only moments before, drawing to within two points of the Cardinal, and now Tarheel quarterback Mitch Trubisky stood across the line from Thomas, crouched below center and awaiting the snap that would determine the outcome of the game. It was over in a blink. Thomas shot out of the starting blocks and burst through the Carolina line almost untouched. Trubisky was on the run immediately, barely a step ahead of his pursuer, and North Carolina's carefully designed play was suddenly a fire drill. Trubisky's mobility will serve him well in the NFL, but it wasn't enough on this play. Thomas tracked him down in only a few strides, grabbed a fistful of his powder blue jersey, and spun him to turf to end the Tarheel hopes and secure the victory for the Cardinal.
Personally, it was a fitting way for the season to end. My coverage of the 2016 Stanford Cardinal football team had begun at Pac-12 Media Day during the third week of July. It's a heavily scheduled event, with players and coaches scrambling from one media obligation to another, sitting for radio interviews, posing for pictures, and answering different versions of the same question over and over and over again.
David Shaw, Christian McCaffrey, and Solomon Thomas jumped through all those hoops throughout the morning, but at lunch time they sat with a small group of Stanford reporters for some relaxed conversation. Coach Shaw told stories from seasons past, and when McCaffrey and Thomas weren't turning questions about themselves into answers about their teammates, they pontificated on any number of more interesting topics -- the strength and uniqueness of the Stanford locker room, the team-wide obsession with Pokemon Go!, and the relative merits of In-N-Out versus Whataburger. (Thomas has a preference for In-N-Out, in case you're wondering, which goes to show that you can take the boy out of Texas, and you can also take the Texas out of the boy.)
So it made perfect sense that five months later, McCaffrey and Thomas were still the two main storylines. McCaffrey, of course, had chosen not to play in the Sun Bowl, and soon after the coaching staff chose not to bring him with the team to El Paso. While it was a disappointment not to be able to watch number five once more, there was a sense among Stanford fans that Bryce Love would do just fine as a replacement.
Stanford's first possession didn't exactly live up to those expectations, however, as Love ran twice for just six yards and the Cardinal had to punt after a three and out.
North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky is just a first-year starter, but on this first drive he showed why many observers expect him to be selected near the top of this spring's NFL draft. He's mobile enough to extend plays and gain yardage on his own, but his primary strength is his rocket arm. He can make all the throws, and he finished this opening drive with an absolute laser. After running back T.J. Logan (also an elevated understudy) carried four times for twenty yards to help the Tarheels all the way down to the Stanford 19, Trubisky went to work on 1st and 10. His favorite receiver, Ryan Switzer, lost Quenton Meeks with a nifty corner post route, and the quarterback put the ball right on his hands for an easy touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Keller Chryst and the Stanford offense came back out looking to respond, and respond they did. Chryst earned one first down with an easy pitch and catch to tight end Dalton Schultz for a sixteen yard gain, then the offense moved the chains again when Cameron Scarlett (next year's short-yardage battering ram) converted a 3rd and 1 to move the ball just across midfield. What happened next was absolutely beautiful. Chryst stood back in the shotgun with Scarlett and Love in his left and right pockets. Receivers Trenton Irwin and Francis Owusu lined up to the right of the line of scrimmage, and at the snap both ran routes across the field to the left, clearing out the defenders. Love circled around on a wheel route into the vacated space, easily outran defensive lineman Tyler Powell, gathered in Chryst's pass at the twenty, and cruised in for the touchdown. (It should be noted that Irwin was also two steps behind the defense; a pass in his direction would've yielded the same result.) It was a play that reminded Stanford fans that the offense isn't dead. We'll see this play again next year, I promise.
With both teams scoring back to back, it might have felt like we were headed for a shootout, but that wouldn't be the case. Even Stanford's most dominant defenses during this era have often yielded early scores, but defensive coordinator Lance Anderson has proven himself to be a master of in-game adjustments. He and the defense went to work immediately. Carolina's first three plays following the Stanford touchdown looked like this: three yard loss, two yard loss, two yard loss. After their opening 71-yard possession, the Tarheels would gain a total of 37 yards for the rest of the half, with two possessions actually losing yardage.
Stanford's third offensive possession began innocently enough with one first down earned by a Chryst scramble and another given by a North Carolina penalty. On 1st and 10 from the Carolina 27, the game -- and possibly Stanford's 2017 season -- took a dramatic change. Chryst faked a handoff to Love and dropped to pass, looking towards the end zone and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. The pass looked to be intercepted, but somehow wound up in J.J's hands for an apparent touchdown -- until replays showed that the ball had clearly hit the turf for an incompletion.
Instead of getting a cool drink on the sideline and celebrating what would've been a 14-7 lead, Chryst returned to the huddle for another play, and it would be his last football play for quite some time. He kept the ball on a read option and ran ahead for a nice eight-yard gain, but to gain that last yard he'd had to plant his right foot and cut back to the left just before being tackled. Even before he hit the ground his hand went to his right knee. There has been no official confirmation even ten days later, but sources close to the team have said that Chryst suffered a torn ACL and will likely miss the 2017 season. It is a devastating twist of fate for a player who was improving with each week on the job and would likely have made great strides during the spring and summer months, but it is also, sadly, the nature of the game.
Ryan Burns came in to replace Chryst, the offense went backwards with a penalty and a sack, but Conrad Ukropina cleaned up the mess with a 44-yard field goal to give Stanford the lead at 10-7.
The Stanford defense came back out and continued to frustrate Trubisky and the Carolina offense. After completing three passes to move into Stanford territory, Trubisky made a mistake. On 3rd and 4 from the Stanford 44, Trubisky locked onto a receiver coming across the middle, but he didn't see Stanford safety Dallas Lloyd. Lloyd didn't have to do much; he simply sat in his zone, and the receiver ran his route directly at him. All Lloyd had to do was step into the pass and then return it 45 yards to the Carolina 20.
The offense looked to cash in the turnover for some points, but when things stalled after three plays, it looked like they'd have to settle for a 36-yard field goal. Inexplicably, Ukropina -- without question one of greatest kickers in Stanford history -- hit the left upright for the fourth time this season. I'm guessing you could give him a hundred balls and he wouldn't be able to hit the upright four times. Regardless, the Cardinal was turned away.
The rest of the first half produced more dominance by the Stanford defense and mediocrity by the Stanford offense. Only when Trubisky ran into an official and fumbled the ball away to Stanford did the Cardinal manage any type of threat, and that was only because they had recovered at the Carolina 18. Even so, the offense was unable to take full advantage of this good fortune. A completion to Michael Rector earned a 1st and goal at the 6, but a holding penalty and then an inexplicable illegal forward pass by Burns (he had run a full four yards beyond the line of scrimmage before passing), pushed them all the way back to the 16. This time Ukropina avoided the upright and pumped his 33-yard attempt right down the middle for a 13-7 lead.
After North Carolina began the second half with a drive that ended with a missed field goal, the Cardinal took the field and Bryce Love reminded fans that the Stanford offense won't be lacking electricity in 2017. He took an inside handoff on 1st and 10 from the 34 and skipped through the line of scrimmage before bursting into open space and sprinting all the way to the Tarheel 7 for a 59-yard gain. Things were looking up, but once again the offense went backwards. The next play was a seven-yard loss (Burns gave the ball to Love on a read option when he should've kept it), that was followed by a false start, and then finally Burns was flagged for intentional grounding. (This was his second grounding penalty. Taken along with his illegal forward pass, it was clear that Burns was more than rusty.) To make matters worse, Francis Owusu was open for a potential touchdown on the following play, but Burns missed him. Again it was Ukropina to the rescue, this time from 43 yards out, and the score was 16-7.
North Carolina would get a field goal of their own on their next possession to pull to within six at 16-10 and then engineer a long 68-yard drive for a touchdown on the possession after that, and suddenly the Tarheels had a 17-16 lead. More troubling than that, the Stanford offense was stagnant. Fans had looked forward to this bowl game as an opportunity for the offense to showcase some of the versatility we hoped to see in 2017, but instead the unit had reverted to what we had suffered through in October. While North Carolina was scoring ten points to take the lead, the Stanford offense produced two uninspiring three and outs, and it felt like the defense would have to win the game. The offense didn't look capable.
Mitch Trubisky and his offense took the field after that second three and out with an opportunity to step on Stanford's throat. On 2nd and 9 from his own 14, however, Trubisky stepped on his own toes and made a fatal error. Tailback T.J. Logan skipped out of the backfield looking to run a wheel route, and Trubisky thought he was as open as Love had been when he had run a similar play back in the first quarter. But he wasn't open. Dallas Lloyd had taken a few steps towards the line of scrimmage before the snap, and when he saw the tailback circling out on the wheel route, he immediately broke to pick up Logan. Trubisky never saw him coming. Lloyd jumped the route, made the easy interception, and skipped untouched into the end zone for the touchdown his team so desperately needed. That play was the cap to a perfect final game for Lloyd, the 25-year-old fifth-year senior who arrived on the Farm as a quarterback and eventually became one of the team's defensive leaders. The two-point conversion attempt failed, so the Cardinal had a 22-17 lead.
Lloyd's touchdown not only put North Carolina in a hole, it seemed to awaken the Stanford offense. After the Cardinal defense forced a punt from the Tarheels, Burns and the offense took over at their own twenty with 10:30 to play in the game and came up with exactly what they needed -- a long, slow, clock-burning, point-producing drive. The play of the drive came early, on a 1st and 10 from the Stanford 37. With Cameron Scarlett lined up in the wildcat, the Cardinal sent a clear message to the Tarheels -- we're going to run the ball relentlessly and squeeze every second we can out this clock.
But that wasn't the plan at all. After lulling the 'Heels into complacency by running one vanilla run after another out of the wildcat, Shaw finally got tricky. With Burns safely slotted out to the left, Scarlett took the direct snap and handed it to Love, who came jetting through the formation from right to left. Love then tossed the ball to Burns, who was curling back into the backfield. All of this trickeration pulled the safeties in just long enough to allow Owusu to get behind them, and Burns dropped a nice ball into his arms for an easy 41-yard gain all the way down to the Carolina 22.
All of those good feelings -- or at least most of them -- evaporated when the offense ran into more troubles in the red zone. Runs by Burns, Scarlett, and Love gave the Cardinal a 1st and goal at the one and a near certain touchdown -- until disaster struck. Scarlett was stoned on consecutive plays, and suddenly it was 3rd and goal. After a Stanford timeout to get what one would assume would be the perfect play, the play to score a touchdown, the play to put the game on ice, Love took a pitch from Burns and was pulled down for a four-yard loss. It was the exact opposite of the perfect play. With the ball on the right hash, the play was run to the short side of the field into a defense that was overloaded to that side. One of the first questions to Shaw during his postgame presser would be about that play, and he admitted that he had seen the same thing everyone else had: the play was doomed even before the snap. He had rushed down the sideline trying to get a timeout, but he hadn't gotten there in time and the play blew up.
So again it was left to Ukropina, and again Ukropina put three more points on the board, giving his squad a 25-17 lead with 3:23 to play.
Solomon Thomas and the defense shut down Carolina's next drive fairly quickly. He was flagged for his third offsides of the game (he was so ferocious all afternoon that the Tarheel tackle had to cheat a bit by lining up six inches deeper than he normally would, causing Thomas to lineup incorrectly), but Thomas ended the drive and forced the punt by bull rushing his blocker and barreling into Trubisky for the sack.
Stanford's final offensive possession lasted all of three plays and twenty-six seconds, and the Tarheels had one more chance. A beautiful punt by Jake Bailey had pinned them back at their own 3, but Trubisky went to work immediately, connecting on his first three passes, the big one being a 44-yard bomb to Bug Howard that put the 'Heels on the Stanford 28 with 1:02 to play. Three plays later he hit Ryan Switzer at the 1, and three plays after that Trubisky extended a play long enough for Howard to find some space in the end zone -- touchdown Tarheels.
Down by two with 25 seconds to play, Trubisky stayed on the field for the two-point conversion. Once again, it was fitting. Solomon Thomas had dominated the game to such an extent that any hopes of his return to Palo Alto for the 2017 season had long since been abandoned. He was ready for the NFL, but first he had one more collegiate play, one more chance to carry his team to victory. After he broke through the line and swung Trubisky to the ground to secure that 25-23 win, Thomas barely paused. He tossed Trubisky down like a rag doll, then popped back to his feet and sprinted upfield past the twenty, past the thirty, and almost to midfield before curling back towards the Stanford sideline and collapsing into the embrace of his two primary coaches, David Shaw and defensive line coach Diron Reynolds. A few seconds later, perhaps realizing that his time in the Cardinal and White had come to an end, Thomas climbed atop the Stanford bench, pounded his chest in celebration, and saluted the Stanford fans in attendance.
Five months earlier, as he and I stood up from our lunch table beneath the Hollywood sun, I had thanked him for representing the University so well. I told him that he made us all proud. Thomas shook my hand, looked me dead in the eye and said, "Thank you, sir. That really means a lot to me."
No, Solomon. Thank you.