David Shaw began his postgame news conference by reminding us where this team had been. "I can't say it enough. To sit there at 1-2 where we were at the beginning of the season, and fight all the way back to the Pac-12 championship game and fight really hard against a good TCU football team... says a lot about the guys on this team." He was speaking about his Cardinal that had just suffered a narrow 39-37 defeat to the Horned Frogs of Texas Christian, but early in the game it certainly didn't feel like the Stanford postgame presser would include any talk of moral victories.
After a three and out by the Stanford offense to start the game and what looked like another pedestrian three and out by TCU, things got interesting. Texas Christian hails from the land of wide open spaces and wide open offenses in the Big 12, and head coach Gary Patterson opened up his playbook immediately by calling for a fake punt on 4th and 5 from his own 36. There was nothing fancy about the play; punter Adam Nuñez just took the snap and headed up field, but he was met by Brandon Simmons and a host of his friends four yards short of the line to gain, and the Cardinal had the game's first opportunity. But the offense wasn't able to take advantage of the gift given to them by their defense. They managed just two yards, and Jet Toner's 52-yard field goal attempt was wide left all the way.
It wouldn't take long for the defense to come up with another gift. Entering the game there was concern about Texas Christian quarterback Kenny Hill and his ability to extend plays and challenge the defense with his legs, but early on he seemed to be focusing on his passing game. On 1st and 10 from his own 35, Hill showed his limitations in that area. Scrambling to his right and with enough open field in front of him to gain a 1st down at the very least, Hill instead chose the worst possible option. He looked back towards his left and delivered an off-balance pass across the middle. It was the type of play that always ends poorly for the offense, and I expected an interception the moment Hill started his throwing motion. As the ball floated in the air, Frank Buncom IV had more than enough time to swoop down from his safety position to make the easy interception and return it 37 yards to the TCU 23.
After a nine-yard pass from K.J. Costello to Trenton Irwin set up a 3rd and 2 at the Horned Frog 15, there was cause for concern. A TCU stop would be a clear win for the defense and allow the offense to take the field knowing disaster had been averted; even a 3-0 deficit would seem like a positive given their early mistakes. But this time the Cardinal offense would take advantage of the gift they'd been given.
Costello handed the ball to Bryce Love, and the blocking was good enough on the right side of the line to allow him to pick up the 1st down easily and continue inside the five. He was met there by two defenders, along with an official who got in the way, and two more Frogs joined the effort near the goal line, but Love, with some help from a few white jerseys, was able to power his way into the end zone for the first touchdown of the game.
The score was worth much more than the seven points that went up on the scoreboard. Cardinal fans had been fretting over Love's ankle injury since October, and this play reminded us that we needn't have been worried. No, Love hadn't magically regained full strength in that ankle, but he was certainly ready to play.
Trailing by a score, Hill and the Horned Frogs came back out on offense looking to match Love's touchdown. On 3rd and 10 the Cardinal defense seemed to have done its job, but Hill got a little lucky. He looked deep towards wide receiver Jalen Reagor, and his pass floated so dramatically that it felt like it might result in another interception -- but the pass was so badly underthrown that Reagor was able to sneak back inside the defense and make the catch. The pass was so bad, it was actually good, and suddenly TCU was in business at the Stanford 36.
Two plays later Hill got lucky again. In a play that was dangerously similar to the interception he'd thrown on the previous drive, Hill rolled out to his right and again threw back to his left. There was a TCU receiver in the end zone, but there were three Stanford defenders surrounding him. Hill's pass went directly into the arms of Bobby Okereke, but the Cardinal linebacker wasn't able to make the play. As the ball dribbled harmlessly to the turf and Okereke twisted his face in anguish at the lost opportunity, there was a sense that even though Hill had avoided another disaster, the game and the stage might have been too big for him. The TCU drive eventually stalled, but kicker Cole Bunce was able to knock down a 38-yard field goal to get his team on the board at 7-3.
The Stanford response was swift. On 2nd and 12 from his own 28, Costello dropped back and found Connor Wedington on an innocent slant across the middle that turned into an eighteen-yard gain. When Wedington snowboarded his way to Stanford as one of the final pieces in the 2017 signing class, there were two questions about the elite recruit: where would he play, and when would he play? Undoubtedly, he was the biggest surprise on either side of the ball this fall. He found a home at wide receiver and announced his presence immediately with six catches for 82 yards in the season opener against Rice. Although he wouldn't match those numbers again, he was more consistent and made more of a statistical impact than any Stanford true freshman in recent memory aside from Christian McCaffrey, grabbing at least one reception in every game but one. There's tremendous optimism surrounding the future of the Stanford offense, and Wedington is one of the primary reasons.
The next play after Wedington's reception was a 21-yard gain up the middle for Love, significant for more than just the field position gained. The carry put Love over 2,000 yards on the season, making him just the 23rd player in NCAA history (and the second Cardinal) to reach that milestone. After another twelve-yard throw to Wedington, Costello had a 1st and 10 at the 18 and looked towards wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
Lined up in the left slot, Arcega-Whiteside ran a simple route, faking the post to keep the safety inside of him before heading back towards the corner of the end zone. Costello sat in a beautifully clean pocket and casually dropped a perfect pass into his receiver's arms for the touchdown and a 14-3 Stanford lead.
With the Stanford offense beginning to hit its stride, the Horned Frogs reached deep into their bag of tricks on the ensuing kickoff. KaVontae Turpin fielded Jake Bailey's kick on the right side of the end zone, but unbeknownst to the onrushing Cardinal coverage team, TCU's Jalen Reagor was hiding in plain sight, using his purple uniform to disappear as he laid down in the purple end zone. Turpin skillfully drew the defenders towards him, then fired a pass back across the field to Reagor who began streaking down the far sideline for what should've been a certain touchdown. The play didn't work for two reasons: one, Reagor inexplicably let the ball slip out of his hands just as he was turning the corner and looking at nothing but the opposite end zone, and two, more importantly, the Frogs were flagged for an illegal forward pass. So instead of getting a shocking touchdown to put them right back in the game, the Frogs were pinned deep at their own 4. Three plays later they were punting the ball back to the Cardinal.
If there's a series that will haunt Shaw and Costello through the off-season, it probably won't be this one, but neither will they look back on it fondly. With a 14-3 lead and the struggling Horned Frogs having just given them the ball near midfield, the Cardinal offense had a chance to push their opponents to the brink. A ten-yard gain from Love moved the ball to the TCU 42, and then Costello went for the jugular. He needn't have. Donald Stewart ran a post route, and Costello made up his mind early to go to him, probably before he snapped the ball. In Costello's defense, he's thrown more than his share of deep balls into small windows this season, but there was no window at all on this play. Stewart drew double coverage, and Nick Orr made the interception in the back of the end zone, turning away the Cardinal and keeping hope alive for the Frogs.
Some questionable throws from Kenny Hill and another three and out made it look like perhaps the game was headed into blowout territory. It wouldn't take long before that assumption seemed even more accurate. A weak TCU punt gave Stanford the ball just three yards short of midfield with a chance to take control of the game. But after just a few short gains the Cardinal faced a 4th and 1 at the TCU 44.
The conservative David Shaw has been criticized for punting from even deeper in his opponent's territory, but there was never a doubt that he'd go for it here. The play met all his criteria -- short yardage on the plus side of the field with a two score lead. So the Big & Nasty Club rumbled out onto the field and Cameron Scarlett powered his way forward for two yards and a 1st down to keep the drive alive.
Eventually Costello found himself in a critical 3rd and 9 at the TCU 14, a situation which screamed for the Stanford End Zone Fade. Arcega-Whiteside was in his usual spot wide to the right, but this time he posted up just inside the five, looking to secure the first down. Costello's pass was perfect, allowing his receiver to box out the smaller defensive back, and Arcega-Whiteside caught the ball at the three before spinning and lunging to the goal line for his second touchdown of the game and an impressive 21-3 lead for the Cardinal.
Midway through the second quarter, things couldn't have looked better -- expect that they could've. Even though there was absolutely no cause for concern from the Stanford perspective, there was still a lingering sense that there could've been more points on the board, and as the announcers were constantly reminding us, Stanford was facing a high-powered offense with a history of erasing larger deficits than this.
With that in mind, the Hill Frogs came out for what would probably be their most important drive of the game. After watching his quarterback throw the ball all over the field with disastrous results, Gary Patterson asked him to utilize some of his other skills. Hill kept the ball himself on the first two plays of the series, gaining 17 yards, and suddenly everything was different. Two plays later Sewo Olonilua, TCU's linebacker masquerading as a running back, powered his way for 17 yards of his own, and TCU was beginning to look like the team we'd heard about. A few plays after that they were in the end zone, and the game was on. 21-10.
The teams traded empty possessions after that, with the half coming to a close as Frank Buncom notched his second interception of the game, this one in the end zone on a Hail Mary as time ran out, and the teams headed to the locker room, the Cardinal happy with an eleven-point lead, but the Frogs probably happier it wasn't much worse.
TCU took the opening kick of the second half and produced what was probably their best drive yet. After methodically moving the ball up the field by converting a handful of third downs, the Tricky Frogs came out to play again. At the Stanford 27, Hill handed the ball off to Desmon White on a right sweep, but just as White neared the numbers, he planted his foot and looked back to his left. He fired a nice pass back across the field to Hill, who wasn't even really wide open, but the throw was perfect. Hill made the catch and skipped around a couple blocks and down the sideline for the touchdown.
The Frogs missed the extra point, but suddenly the Cardinal's eighteen-point lead had dwindled to five, and all thoughts of a blowout were gone.
The good news, though, was that Stanford still had Bryce Love. Earlier in the game he had set the single season school rushing record, and he had looked as healthy as had since before his October ankle injury. So when Love took the power toss from the Stanford 31 and burst through the center of the line, only needing to brush off an attempted arm tackle before hitting open space, it was no surprise when he sprinted the rest of the way for the touchdown.
Yes, the points were obviously important, but Love's run did more than just push the score to 28-16. If Stanford fans had found their faith faltering, this play reminded us that everything was going to be okay. We had the best player on the field, the ultimate answer to any problem the Horned Frogs might present. Everything was going to be okay.
If Stanford was invigorated by Love's score, TCU certainly wasn't intimidated. The Frogs responded with another long, efficient drive that showcased Kenny Hill at his absolute best. After spending the first quarter of the game looking like a liability behind center, Hill threw the ball on every play of this series, completing 7 of 9 passes for 75 yards. The touchdown came as Hill scrambled in and out of the pocket for what seemed like an eternity before finally throwing a strike to White in the middle of the end zone. Just like that the lead was down to five again, 28-23.
Once again, the Cardinal answered, although the answer wasn't quite as emphatic as it could've been. A nice 50-yard catch and run by Cam Scarlett set up the offense with a 1st and 10 at the TCU 14, but two plays later it was 3rd and 6, and Costello's pass to Kaden Smith fell incomplete. Smith had drawn double coverage and wasn't really open, but there was a much better option had Costello seen it. Tight end Colby Parkinson was split out wide, and after his man came on a corner blitz, a coverage bust left Parkinson unguarded in the corner of the end zone -- but Costello never saw him. It's easy to be critical of the quarterback on a play like this, but all of that happened in the blink of an eye, and Costello was under heavy pressure from the blitz. In years to come I'm sure he'll have the experience to see openings like that, but in his fifth game as the starter it certainly wasn't surprising that he went with his first read.
Even so, Jet Toner came in and nailed the short field goal to make the lead 31-23, and things still felt good. Three plays into TCU's ensuing drive, things began to look even brighter when Desmon White fumbled and Frank Buncom fell on the ball for his third turnover of the game at the TCU 42. But just ten or fifteen yards from field goal range and a two score lead, the Stanford offense gained nary a yard, forcing a punt on the second play of the fourth quarter.
And this is when the wheels fell off.
Jake Bailey's punt had pinned the Frogs on their own 7, but they were unfazed by the situation. Instead of trying to string together a few runs to build field position, the first play call was for a deep route down the right sideline. The speedy Jalen Reagor simply ran past Alameen Murphy, and Hill's pass dropped perfectly into his lap at the Stanford 45; he sped the rest of the way untouched. A two-point conversion attempt failed, and the score was 31-29.
But it would get worse. On 2nd and 6 from his own 35, Bryce Love took a handoff and was stopped for no gain, seeming to bring up a manageable 3rd and 6. But Love had been tackled down onto a defender, meaning he wasn't technically down. Unlike the officials in the Pac-12 Championship game who had erroneously whistled Cameron Scarlett down in the same situation, erasing a possible touchdown, this unit let the play drag on. And on. And on. As Love lay prone atop another player, a TCU defender ripped the ball out of his arms, sending it twelve yards backward where it was alertly covered by lineman A.T. Hall. (While it doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things, it should also be noted that for some reason the NCAA counts this as a 12-yard loss for Love, rather than a team rush, as it should be.)
So 3rd and 6 became 3rd and 18, and to make matters worse, Costello was sacked on the next play, pushing the ball all the way back to the 16.
One of the secret strengths of the 2017 Stanford Cardinal has been the special teams, particularly Jake Bailey. His kickoffs have consistently forced would-be returners to bend the knee, and he led the Pac-12 in yards per punt. Needing a big kick in this situation to flip field position and make things difficult for the Horned Frog offense, Bailey did what he does best. He pounded a 60-yard kick deep into TCU territory, forcing returner Desmon White to catch the ball over his shoulder at the 24 while moving towards his own goal line. From there White shimmied around one defender, looped around another, then hit the sidelines for a sixty-yard dash to the end zone and TCU's first lead of the game, 36-31.
Almost twelve minutes remained in the game, but the momentum had swung wildly in TCU's direction. The Horned Frogs had produced touchdowns of 93 and 76 yards on two consecutive touches of the ball, and it felt like the Cardinal was about to drown in a purple sea. Into the breach stepped K.J. Costello. On 2nd and 8 he hit Arcega-Whiteside for a nice 21-yard gain, then found Scarlett for 35 more on the next play, and suddenly the Cardinal was back in the red zone at the TCU 18.
The Cardinal took a timeout on 3rd and goal from the TCU 4, but if Shaw had just given me a call I could've saved him the trouble of whatever conversation he thought he needed to have with Costello. It was time for the Stanford End Zone Fade, and everyone in the stadium knew it. Arcega-Whiteside split wide to the right, naturally, but in a nice wrinkle Shaw put the even bigger Colby Parkinson in the slot, making things even more difficult for the TCU defense.
All the Frogs could do was line up a shorter defensive back across from Parkinson and Arcega-Whiteside, then leave a safety between the two with the responsibility of tracking the ball and hoping to get to the right man in time to help out. On this play Arcega-Whiteside did what he does -- he scored.
The thing about the Stanford End Zone Fade is that Arcega-Whiteside makes it look far easier than it actually is. All season long I've made the obvious comparison to a power forward boxing out under the basket, but there's a better analogy from a different sport. When Wayne Gretzky was revolutionizing hockey in the 1980s and '90s, he drove goalies and defenses crazy by carrying the puck behind the goal and calmly waiting for the play to develop in front of him. He became so proficient at this that the area behind the net became known as Gretzky's Office.
The right side of the end zone has become J.J.'s Office, and his proficiency there is uncanny. Yes, he's a big receiver, but not abnormally so. At 6'3" and 222 pounds he has a size advantage over any defensive back assigned to him, but he's doing more than just outleaping smaller defenders. He has a feel for where the ball's going to be in relation to his defender, and he has the strength to shield the cornerback while gathering in the pass. Imagine a class bully holding an intercepted note high in the air as a desperate classmate climbs up his back and you get the picture. It seems like half of Dr. JJ's fourteen career touchdowns have come on fades, and half of those have included pass interference penalties. Defensive backs are reduced to grabbing and clutching, but it doesn't really matter. It shouldn't be this easy, but for Arcega-Whiteside it is.
After the two-point conversion inexplicably went in someone else's direction, the Cardinal had to settle for a 37-36 lead, and TCU came back out onto the field with 6:42 to play. They drove steadily down the field before finally being stopped and settling for a 33-yard field goal to regain the lead at 39-37, bringing up the most important drive of the game for the Cardinal.
The future is incredibly bright for K.J. Costello, and he took the field with 3:07 to play and the opportunity to author a comeback that could serve as a springboard for his 2018 season. Regardless of what the result would be, I was looking forward to seeing what he could do in a pressure situation against a quality defense. Unfortunately there wasn't much to see.
The drive began with a delay of game violation. It seems like this has become the most common penalty for the Stanford offense, a necessary side effect of a system which asks the quarterback to make multiple reads and adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Because they seem to be self-inflicted, delay penalties are always frustrating, but this one was particularly galling, coming as it did on the opening play of a drive that would decide the game. The Cardinal wouldn't recover. A five-yard pass to Irwin on 2nd down got those yards back, but a false start on the next play put them back at 3rd and 15. Perhaps feeling the desperation of the moment, Costello tried to force a ball over the middle to a well-covered Kaden Smith. The result was an interception, and the game was essentially over. Texas Christian 39, Stanford 37.
It certainly wasn't a bad loss, but any time a team loses a game it once led by eighteen points, there will be questions. Should blame be placed on the offense? Certainly not. This was a unit that spent much of the season wandering the desert in search of points and leadership, but on this night, playing with a sophomore quarterback with five career starts and an injured hand, it had produced 37 points against one of the top defenses in the country. Although its best player, the best running back in the history of Stanford football, had run for 145 yards and two touchdowns, he had missed the last half of the fourth quarter after sustaining a cut on his hand. He spent twenty minutes inside the medical tent (Love's Office?), but cameras were still able to get shots of blood dripping profusely from his thumb. It would've been nice to have had him on the field for that final possession, but he never returned.
Was the defense to blame? They did give up 39 points, but they were operating at far less than full strength. Starters Eric Cotton and Alijah Holder were out for the game, as were key rotation players Joey Alfieri, Sean Barton, and Terrence Alexander, and there were more losses during the game. Justin Reid, the (accurately) self-proclaimed most versatile defensive back in the nation, spent the second half on the sideline without pads, and Frank Buncom went down in the fourth quarter. Given all that, it's actually fairly amazing that the defense played as well as it did.
Sometimes a game doesn't work out. Sometimes the other team just does what's necessary to win. As David Shaw mentioned after the game, his Cardinal certainly didn't play its best game on Thursday night, but there is much cause for optimism going forward. The 2017 season was supposed to be one of transition as the greatest player in Stanford history had departed and the quarterback position was still in flux. When the team started 1-2, there were many who wondered if the season might already be lost, but these players fought back.
Instead of a step back, we were lucky enough to witness the greatness of Bryce Love, the emergence of K.J. Costello, and the arrival of Walker Little. We marveled at the strength and determination of Harrison Phillips, who likely saved the season with his blocked field goal against UCLA in September. We watched the end of Peter Kalambayi's great Stanford career, and the beginning of Connor Wedington's. We saw the continued growth of Bobby Okereke, and the unsung dominance of Jake Bailey.
Yes, the season ended with a defeat, but that loss cannot obscure the strides that were made this year, nor do they diminish the prospects for the future. Whether you root for Stanford because you're a student or alum or because you've been drawn to the team for other reasons, you'll no doubt continue wear Cardinal on fall Saturdays for reasons that stretch beyond wins and losses. You'll root for the Cardinal because this group continues to be a model program filled with young men of integrity who will one day be doctors, lawyers, asset managers, or even professional football players. You'll root for them for the same reason David Shaw cited during Bryce Love's Heisman campaign. These are players worth admiring. These are players you can point to and tell your children, "Be like them."
When you think about it, there's no reason for any disappointment.