By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 21, 2014
Let’s not mince words. The Stanford team’s 26-10 loss at Arizona State on Saturday night was a full-fledged disaster. Any sense of panic that Cardinal fans had after the demoralizing loss at Notre Dame is now running rampant.
There was, of course, a game sandwiched between those road losses — a 34-17 home victory over Washington State. But the pass-oriented Cougars boast one of the worst defenses in the Pac-12 conference, and everyone knew that Arizona State would pose a much stiffer test.
The game seemed to be going wrong from Stanford’s very first possession. Quarterback Kevin Hogan sandwiched two incomplete passes around a run for no gain by Remound Wright. The Cardinal punted without gaining a first down for the first of what would turn out to be four times.
Arizona State, which had gained 35 yards on its first offensive series, started its second possession at its own 45-yard line. The Sun Devils drove to the Cardinal 21-yard line before a false start penalty and a tackle by junior inside linebacker Blake Martinez stuffed running back D.J. Foster for a loss of six yards on third down. Zane Gonzalez then pushed a 48-yard field goal attempt wide left. The game remained scoreless, but for Stanford fans, there was a sense that the Cardinal had been fortunate to get that far without allowing any points.
The scoring got under way in the second quarter, after ASU started a drive at its own 19-yard line. At one point early in the series, the Sun Devils, who largely worked out of a no-huddle shotgun, racked up first downs on three consecutive plays — a five-yard run by Foster and throws from Mike Bercovici to Foster for 13 yards and to Ellis Jefferson for 20. A few snaps later, Bercovici found Jaelen Strong for a 15-yard gainer, which brought the ball to the Cardinal 21-yard line. On consecutive plays, Deantre Lewis rushed for nine and 10 yards, respectively. Foster capped the 13-play, 81-yard drive with a short touchdown run.
Stanford responded with its best offensive series of the game, driving to the ASU 30 before Lloyd Carrington sacked Hogan for a 10-yard loss on third down. The Cardinal defense then forced a three-and-out, but the game would take a decisive turn for the worse on the Sun Devils’ kick.
Ironically, before the play, the ESPN announcer quoted ASU head coach Todd Graham as saying that if a punt went to Ty Montgomery, Stanford’s excellent wideout and kick returner, then it was a mistake.
There was indeed a mistake involving Montgomery; unfortunately, it was one that he committed. The senior attempted to catch the ball over his shoulder as he ran toward the Stanford goal line. For outfielders in baseball, this is a routine play. For wide receivers in football, this is a trickier affair — doable, and not uncommon, but not a simple feat, either.
On special teams, it’s almost unheard of for a player to field a ball this way, and this incident shows exactly why that is. The reason pigskin grazed off of Montgomery’s hands and hit the ground. A speeding Damarious Randall was able to recover the ball for ASU at Stanford’s 12-yard line.
On the very next play, Bercovici threw to Foster for 11 yards. Moments later, Strong ran a crossing route in the end zone that junior cornerback Alex Carter let go unchecked. Bercovici’s three-yard dart to Strong made the score 14-0 in favor of ASU.
On Twitter, several Stanford fans wondered aloud how the Cardinal — a team that had showed exactly zero propensity for playing from behind, especially when down big — would score two touchdowns. The ensuing possession — another three and out — did nothing to allay their fears.
The only good news coming out of the break, it seemed, was that Stanford would get the ball to start the half. Maybe, just maybe, the Cardinal could cut the margin.
That’s in fact what happened, sort of. On third and two from the ASU 22-yard line, a Hogan pass to Montgomery fell incomplete, and coach David Shaw sent Jordan Williamson out for a 40-yard field goal try. The kick was good, but the score (still) was not: Arizona State led, 14-3.
And the Sun Devils soon restored the margin to two touchdowns. On the next drive, again largely using a no-huddle shotgun, Bercovici passed ASU inside the Cardinal 20-yard line. The white-shirted defenders held Strong to just a two-yard gain on third down and seven from the 9-yard line, averting disaster, but Gonzalez knocked in a 25-yard kick to make the score 17-3.
The Cardinal advanced to midfield on the next drive, but Hogan’s third-down pass fell incomplete, and Ben Rhyne came on yet again to punt.
Stanford downed the ball at ASU’s 4-yard line, but it didn’t seem to matter. The Sun Devils mounted a series much like the one before: Bercovici, working out of a no-huddle shotgun, moved his team to the Cardinal 15-yard line shortly after the beginning of the fourth quarter. The defense then made three straight tackles behind the line of scrimmage: defensive end Blake Lueders stuffed a Lewis run for minus-three yards, outside linebacker James Vaughters sacked Bercovici for a loss of seven and fellow outside linebacker Kevin Anderson stopped Lewis for minus-five yards on a pass play. By the end of the sequence, ASU faced fourth down and 25 to go at the Cardinal 30-yard line.
It was a valiant effort, but Gonzalez was able to hit a 47-yarder to make the tally 20-3 with 12:50 to play in the game. For the first time all game — for the first time all season— in fact, for the first time in nearly three years! — Stanford trailed its opponent by more than two scores.
All the pressure was on the Cardinal offense, and it responded. After an 18-yard kick return by Christian McCaffrey, Hogan hit tight end Austin Cooper for a nine-yard gain. Hogan’s second-down pass fell incomplete, but on third and one, the quarterback scrambled for 31 yards, the longest rush of his career. He followed up with a 22-yard strike to Montgomery, and on the next play (only the drive’s fifth) fullback Patrick Skov scored a 1-yard touchdown. The score was 20-10 with 11:53 to play, meaning that the offensive squad had given the team a chance to comeback.
Stanford’s defense stopped the Sun Devils on the next drive. But the offense spit the bit on the next possession, punting after managing to gain just five yards. The defense — surely tired by this point in the contest — forced an incomplete pass on third and goal from the Cardinal 7-yard line, and Gonzalez knocked home a 25-yard-long three-pointer.
That made the score 23-10 with only 4:07 to play. If the Cardinal were to come back, it needed two touchdowns (still! — or, perhaps more accurately: again!) and it had very little time.
But the kickoff would quash all hope of a rally. At the end of a 19-yard return, defender Deandre Scott forced a fumble, which Ezekiel Bishop recovered at the Cardinal’s 22. The defense yet again prevented another ASU touchdown, but Gonzalez’s 31-yard field goal try was good. The score was 26-10 with 3:29 remaining, and it was all over but the crying.