Crashing back to Earth: Revisiting reality after the 27-21 defeat at Utah

October 15, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 15, 2013

There’s no way around it. The Stanford football team’s 27-21 loss on Saturday evening to Utah was thoroughly disappointing.

The hosts outhustled and outcoached the Cardinal on virtually every level, and it showed. Name a category and the Utes owned it. They led in total yards (410-389), rushing yards (176-143), time of possession (32:54–27:06), penalties (Utah was flagged four times for 30 yards; Stanford, 6-33), turnovers (Stanford lost two fumbles, killing both of the Cardinal’s third-quarter possessions; Utah quarterback Travis Wilson was picked once) and fourth-down conversions (1-1, compared to 0-1 for Stanford).

The good news was that, despite lackluster play in the second and third quarters, fifth-ranked Stanford had a chance to win in the final minute. The bad news, of course, was that coach David Shaw’s squad could not pull it out despite being more heralded and more talented than Utah.

Just how flat was the team in the game’s middle 30 minutes? Look at the yardage and third-down conversions:

• First quarter: Stanford — 140 yards, 2 of 3 on third down; Utah — 157 yards, 1/3.

• Second quarter: Stanford — 59 yards, 0/3; Utah — 111 yards, 2/4.

• Third quarter: Stanford — 28 yards, 1/2; Utah — 109 yards, 3/4.

• Fourth quarter: Stanford — 137 yards, 3/5; Utah — 17 yards, 0/3.

In other words, during the first and fourth quarters, the Cardinal amassed 277 yards and went seven of eight on third down, while the Utes traveled 174 yards and went one for six. In the second and third quarters, Stanford accumulated 87 yards and was one for five; Utah went 220 yards and converted five of eight third downs.

The Cardinal went three-and-out three times and traveled at least 30 yards six times; Stanford scored just 14 points on those long drives. Utah had a quartet of three-and-outs but scored 24 points on its five long drives.

Here’s how the Cardinal’s extended drives went down:

• First quarter, seven plays, 75 yards, 3 minutes 24 seconds, Tyler Gaffney one-yard touchdown run.

• First quarter, six plays, 60 yards, 2:36, Jordan Williamson missed a 38-yard field-goal try.

• Second quarter, seven plays, 53 yards, 3:34, punt.

• Third quarter, eight plays, 30 yards, 2:57, Kevin Hogan fumble.

• Fourth quarter, five plays, 52 yards, 0:56, seven-yard Hogan touchdown pass to Devon Cajuste.

• Fourth quarter, 13 plays, 82 yards, 7:06, turnover on downs.

If any one of Stanford’s scoreless series had resulted in just three additional points, the outcome of the game may well have changed.

As happens, Cardinal fans focused on questionable play-calling on Stanford’s final drive, a series that began on the Cardinal 12-yard line and ate up more than seven minutes.

On second and six at the Utah 10-yard line, Hogan rushed for four yards. On third and two, Hogan — who had played indifferently at best for much of the game — threw a little behind Charlie Hopkins in the end zone. The junior tight end, a converted defensive lineman who has a grand total of one catch for four yards in his career, could not reel in the ball.

Facing a do-or-die fourth and two, Stanford called its final timeout with 51 seconds remaining in the game. On the snap, Utah linebacker Jared Norris rushed in unchecked from the left side of Stanford’s line, and Hogan hurriedly tossed up a long ball that neither Cardinal receiver in the end zone — fullback Ryan Hewitt and tight end Luke Kaumatule — had a realistic chance of reaching.

Only 47 seconds remained in the game, and all that was left for Utah to do was to kneel twice and savor a season-defining upset victory.

Why didn’t Stanford run on third down? Gaffney, who finished with 16 rushes for 108 yards, carried four times for 19 yards on the drive. Since one timeout remained in the Cardinal’s pocket, the decision to throw on that down is rather mysterious.

But the game hardly came down to one questionable play-call. Think of Stanford’s other mistakes.

Take Ty Montgomery’s third-quarter fumble, which followed a five-yard completion from Hogan. That enabled a 47-yard drive that culminated in a 23-yard field goal by Utah’s Andy Phillips.

Don’t forget Hogan’s fumble on the ensuing possession, which Trevor Reilly recovered on Nate Orchard’s sack — a result, it seemed to me, of the quarterback not giving priority to ball security. Although Utah only gained two yards on the ensuing series, it allowed Phillips to hit a 48-yard kick.

If Utah only had gotten one of those field goals, or if Williamson had hit his 38-yard attempt, Utah might have only had a three-point lead going into the final minute, and a short kick would have been all that was needed to tie the game.

Hogan had some electrifying throws, including a pinpoint-accurate 39-yard strike to Michael Rector that went entirely through the air. But after that play, which came on the drive that ended in Williamson’s missed kick, Hogan threw just two passes that gained more than 20 yards.

Both came in the final period. The first was a short throw made to Montgomery behind the line of scrimmage; the senior wideout’s stellar running resulted in a 45-yard gain that set up Stanford’s last touchdown. And on the final drive, Hogan’s throw into double coverage was plucked by Kodi Whitfield for a 23-yard completion.

While Hogan fared better than he did in the 31-28 win over Washington, he also made some questionable decisions. Two of his incompletions probably should have been picked by Utah. Some of the quarterback’s runs also seemed tentative and awkward. And in addition to the fumble that the junior lost, he had one early in the fourth quarter, again on a sack by Orchard, that lineman Andrus Peat recovered for the Cardinal.

So Hogan’s final passing line — 15 for 27, 246 yards and a touchdown — is a bit misleading. His performance was below average, and it could easily (with a pick or two) have been worse.

On offense, just two players distinguished themselves: Gaffney and Montgomery. The receiver not only caught eight balls for 131 yards, he had three long kickoff returns — a 100-yarder for Stanford’s second touchdown plus two others that collectively went for 60 yards.

Defensively, Ed Reynolds (six solo tackles) and A.J. Tarpley (three solo tackles and one tackle for a loss) each chipped in a dozen total stops. The invaluable Shayne Skov had nine stops and two tackles behind the line of scrimmage; Ben Gardner and Trent Murphy also each had two TFLs, with Murphy recording the Cardinal’s lone sack. Senior inside linebacker Joe Hemschoot intercepted Wilson in the red zone in the third quarter, and he might have taken it to the house if he hadn’t gotten his legs tangled up. (Cornerback Alex Carter took down Wilson’s target, enabling Hemschoot to pick the ball on the rebound.)

So where does this loss leave the Cardinal? The team is 5-1. That’s the same record it had halfway through the regular season in 2010, one game worse than at this point in 2011 and one game better than at this point a year ago. Just to review: Stanford went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl in 2010, finished 11-2 with a narrow Fiesta Bowl loss in ’11, and won the Rose Bowl to cap last season with a 12-2 record. 

Frankly, a national championship is now likely out of reach. As the excellent Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury-News has written numerous times, no one-loss Pac-10 or Pac-12 team has ever played for a national title in the Bowl Championship Series era.

But let’s be honest: A national championship was always — well, if not quite a pipe dream, then a bit of a reach.

Still, if Stanford wins out, the worst it can do is return to the Rose Bowl. As I tweeted on Sunday, think back to 2009, when the Cardinal finished 8-5 with a Sun Bowl loss. If someone told you then that Stanford would play in three straight BCS bowls, and that it would have a chance in 2013 to make that four consecutive major bowl games, how many Farm faithful would have had the gumption to turn their noses up at that?

Of course, going 11-1 is far from assured. The only obvious pushover in the next six games is cal. (I’ve revoked the Golden Bears’ capital-c privileges until they string together two consecutive football wins.) Moreover, Oregon appears to be its typical formidable self.

The bottom line is that Stanford must fight to make this a special year.

The team and its fans knew that already. But the loss to Utah drove home that cold, hard reality in a most unpleasant fashion — one that’s impossible to ignore.

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