By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 7, 2014
It’s hard to lose in more agonizing fashion than the Stanford football team did on Saturday.
The Cardinal traveled to South Bend, Ind., with a great deal at stake. If Stanford’s team was to make the inaugural college football playoffs, it would essentially need to win out its schedule. The squad also had a chance to avenge the 20-13 overtime loss that it suffered in its last trip to Notre Dame, in 2012 — a controversial affair in which Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor appeared to score what would have been the game-tying touchdown on a play that was whistled dead by the officials.
Stanford’s 2014 edition has had a bifurcated identity. The defense is the Cardinal’s Dr. Jekyll: Entering the weekend, it led the nation in scoring defense (6.5 points per game), total defense (198 yards per game) and passing defense (74 ypg). The team had permitted just four plays of 20 yards or longer this season, second fewest in the land.
But the offense… Oh, the offense. The unit that scored 45 points against U.C. Davis and 35 against Army in games 1 and 3 managed just 10 points in a loss to USC and only eked out 20 in a nail-biter of a road win at Washington. Despite being led by a veteran quarterback — Kevin Hogan, who has now made 24 consecutive starts dating back to 2012 — and having a deep corps of receivers, the group was managing fewer than 250 yards per contest.
Worse yet, the offensive line, which has four new starters, has struggled to establish a running attack. The team was averaging 165.5 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown per game. It’s not quite right to say that a formerly very physical Cardinal offense is neutered without a dependable rushing offense, but the unit is certainly much less consistent.
Head coach David Shaw is arguably exacerbating the ground attack issues by regularly rotating running backs. The team’s leading runners, Barry J. Sanders and Remound Wright, had netted 153 and 151 yards respectively, making for per-game averages of just 38.2 and 50.3 yards.
Part of the blame for the offense’s unreliability can be laid at the feet of Hogan, who now shows a tendency to miss throws to open receivers at crucial moments. In Pac-12 conference games against USC and Washington, he accumulated a total of one touchdown. (He also threw an interception in those contests.) Hogan’s development as a player seems to have stagnated.
Given all this, there was plenty of reason to worry about the trip to Notre Dame, even though the collective record of Notre Dame’s first four opponents (Rice, Michigan, Purdue and Syracuse) amounted to a measly 8-13. The fact that the game was played in unfamiliar conditions — a downpour and temperature of about 41 degrees Fahrenheit — only enhanced Stanford fans’ anxieties.
The Cardinal took a 7-0 lead into the second quarter, but that was due more to its defense than its offense. The team’s first two drives netted zero yards on six plays. The third possession racked up 37 yards, but it ended when an underthrown Hogan long ball to Ty Montgomery was intercepted on third down and 12 to go.
Fortunately for Stanford, on the next play, senior cornerback Ronnie Harris forced Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson to fumble. Kyle Olugbode, a strong safety, recovered the ball.
Stanford was in business at the Notre Dame 12-yard line. After a short pass to Montgomery, Hogan took a keeper 10 yards for the touchdown. The team wasn’t able to build on that start, however.
After the squads exchanged punts, Golson led the Irish on a drive that penetrated deep into Cardinal territory. On third and 5 from the Stanford 6, linebacker Kevin Anderson applied pressure to Golson, whose ball was picked by strong safety Jordan Richards.
But Hogan’s unit gained just two yards, and the Cardinal was forced to punt. Notre Dame began its next drive from Stanford’s 38-yard line, advanced 14 yards and then attempted a 41-yard field goal that missed.
Stanford’s response was almost as inept as the Notre Dame drive that preceded it. The Cardinal moved 38 yards, with almost half of the gains coming on an 18-yard catch and run to freshman superback Christian McCaffrey. But when Shaw elected to try a field goal on fourth and 7 from the Irish 25, the ball was snapped over the holder’s head. Kicker Jordan Williamson prevented a Notre Dame score by covering the ball.
The Irish would capitalize on this miscue. On third and 10 from midfield, Golson saw a big gap in Cardinal coverage and rushed for 33 yards. Two plays later, the Irish quarterback lofted a short pass to Chris Brown, who was unguarded while crossing over the middle on a shallow route. Brown took it in for a 17-yard game-tying touchdown — only the second touchdown surrendered by the Stanford defense on the season.
The game settled into a defensive struggle from there.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Hogan threw a pass behind Montgomery that Cole Luke was able to pluck for the Irish at the Cardinal 29-yard line. But the hosts suffered yet another misadventure with their kicking game. Kyle Brindza mishit a short field goal attempt after his holder couldn’t handle the snap. A.J. Tarpley caught the football around the 5-yard line and began running upfield.
For one glorious moment, it seemed that Tarpley — whose fumble recovery against USC in 2011 sealed a victory in a triple-overtime game — might be able to take it to the house. Unfortunately, the Irish special teams were able to knock him out of bounds at the Stanford 44.
Would the Cardinal attack, which to that point had garnered 25 yards in the second half, be able to finish the task that Tarpley started? Alas, ’twas not to be. Cardinal Nation watched anxiously as Hogan missed two pass attempts and Montgomery attempted to rush the ball for a two-yard loss. Stanford was forced to punt for a season-high seventh time on the day. It was the team’s eighth three-and-out.
Notre Dame responded with a 50-yard drive. It stalled at the Stanford 28-yard line, but this time the Irish special teams got the job done. Hunter Smith caught and placed the ball cleanly and Brindza’s 45-yarder was good, giving the hosts a 10-7 lead.
Was all lost? Not quite. Hogan passed for three first downs, with Cajuste making receptions of 12 and 23 yards and Michael Rector grabbing one for five yards. On third and goal from the Notre Dame 11, Wright ran up the middle for the go-ahead touchdown. Williamson’s extra point made the score Stanford 14, Notre Dame 10, with 4:11 left to play in the game.
Then the defense, which had been so marvelous all afternoon, suffered its worst letdown of the contest. Golson completed an 11-yard throw to William Fuller and a 17-yard pass to Corey Robinson. A pass interference call on Stanford defender Aziz Shittu gave the Irish a first down at the Cardinal 22-yard line.
The possession came to fourth down and 11 to go at the Stanford 23. The Cardinal dropped eight in coverage, and when Golson looked to his first option, on the right side of the field, the receiver was blanketed. But then Golson moved to the other side of the pocket and spotted Ben Koyack all alone in the back left corner of the end one. He lofted a ball, and no defender arrived in time to prevent the touchdown reception. Brindza’s kick gave Notre Dame a 17-14 lead with 61 seconds remaining to play.
Friends, I’d like to tell you now of a glorious comeback led by Hogan. But I can’t.
After moving the line of scrimmage 26 yards, to the Notre Dame 49-yard line, Stanford called its third and final timeout with 11 seconds left. On the next play, in a futile attempt to avoid a sack by Elijah Shumate, Hogan tossed an incompletion. He was called for intentional grounding, appropriately, and the game ended there.
This was a brutal loss for Stanford — no two ways about it. The defense, which is so magnificent, limited a potent Notre Dame team to just 17 points in adverse circumstances. The Cardinal offense, as noted, had an experienced quarterback and numerous receiving weapons — unlike the 2012 loss in South Bend, when the inexperienced and less-talented Josh Nunes was under center and a much less threatening group of players were lined up wide.
Shaw and his offensive staff have a lot of work to do. They’ll have to consider whether it’s time to start handing the reins over to Hogan’s eventual successor. They’ll also need to pick their top two running backs and start feeding them the bulk of the carries. There’s probably little that can be done to speed the improvement of the young offensive line, but giving two primary runners a consistent opportunity to learn how to read that line’s blocks couldn’t possibly hurt.
As for the fans, well, we’ll have to come to grips with the disappointment of narrowly missing yet another chance to ding the chrome domes that are emblematic of college football’s most storied program.
Some of us will also have to fight for the temptation to call for Shaw’s head, which has been popular in certain quarters ever since the excruciating Fiesta Bowl finish in 2012. Shaw is a good coach — but he’s also an inexperienced head man, one who’s still learning how to push the right buttons on offense.
I have no knowledge of the inner workings of Stanford, but I suspect Shaw would have to have either two or three truly disastrous seasons or some kind of scandal before the administration would consider firing him. And that’s the right approach, to my mind: Not only is Shaw an alumnus who has repeatedly expressed his loyalty to the university when other employers have come calling, he’s a two-time conference coach of the year with a 37-8 record in less than three and a half full seasons. That makes for a winning percentage of 82.2 — reason enough to let Shaw work through some admittedly very serious problems with his offense.
When the Utah Utes beat the Cardinal last October, I wrote, “[I]f Stanford wins out, the worst it can do is return to the Rose Bowl.” That still seems to be the case for the Farm’s 2014 gridders.
To quote myself again: “The bottom line is that Stanford must fight to make this a special year.” That’s still true. And with a defense as good as this team has, an offense that regularly scores 24 points might be all that Shaw needs to propel his team to postseason prominence.
There’s a lot of football yet to be played, and my expectations for Stanford are still high. Keep the faith, Cardinal fans.