Fright night: Stanford vs. Washington State and the second-half squeaker

November 3, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 3, 2015

I continue recapping Stanford’s 30-28 victory at Washington State on Saturday night. We pick up early in the third quarter, right after the hosts took a 15-3 lead on kicker Erik Powell’s fifth (!) field goal of the evening.

Coach David Shaw’s team hadn’t trailed an opponent since game 3 against USC; they hadn’t previously been losing by this large a margin to that point in 2015. Fans watching the game surely worried that the offense wouldn’t be able to respond, especially since both the passing and ground attacks had been feeble at best.

But Kevin Hogan and comrades responded in inspiring fashion, as the veteran quarterback connected with freshman speedster Bryce Love for a 14-yard gain on the offensive unit’s initial play in the second half. Two plays later, on third and 6 from the Washington State 41-yard line, Hogan faked a pitchout to Christian McCaffrey going left before bursting up the middle and sprinting for the goal line. Only a desperation diving try by cornerback Marcellus Pippins prevented a touchdown. The 39-yard run was the longest of Hogan’s career.

Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren turned next to — say it with me, Cardinal true believers! — fifth-year running back Remound Wright on goal to go from the 2. He was stifled on his first rush, but on second down, Wright went over the top for the touchdown. Suddenly, Stanford’s deficit was a much more manageable 15-10.

The sense of relief Nerd Nation was experiencing would be short-lived, as WSU needed four plays 94 seconds to score their first touchdown of the contest. Wazzu quarterback Luke Falk, who finished the day 35 for 61 with two touchdowns and two picks, passed to Gabe Marks for a 19-yard touchdown. That put the Cougars up again by a dozen points, 22-10.

Stanford moved the ball on its second possession of the half but settled for a 32-yarder by Conrad Ukropina, his second try (and second success!) of the game from that distance. Since Falk was ineffective on the ensuing series, firing three incomplete passes, the Cardinal still had plenty of opportunities.

The team made the most of those chances with a play that was much like Hogan’s 39-yard scramble, only more so. On first and 10 at the Cardinal 41, the veteran out of McLean, Va., faked a handoff to McCaffrey, who was again going left, and once again headed up the middle. WSU’s Shalom Luani was guarding the lane, but Hogan cut toward the right sideline, and the safety could only dive ineffectually toward the quarterback’s feet. Pippins, who had been guarding wideout Michael Rector, could have made the stop, but Hogan juked to his left and the defensive back skidded to the ground, just like Luani had seconds earlier. (Pullman was deluged with rain that Halloween night.)

With no one left in his way, Hogan — his ankle surely healthy now after being tweaked by the Trojans back in September — completed a 59-yard touchdown run. That made the score 22-20, and Stanford still had plenty of life left.

And Stanford’s tide would continue rising. WSU’s possession ended after just two plays when Falk unwisely targeted Dom Williams. Not only was the receiver guarded closely by Alijah Holder, who recorded a pick-six vs. UCLA, Quenton Meeks was optimally positioned underneath to jump up and snag the ball. His 14-yard return set up a first down at the hosts’ 17-yard line. On first and goal from the 6, Hogan cut up the middle and scooted into the end zone untouched for his second rushing touchdown of the evening. That gave Stanford a tenuous 27-22 lead with 14 minutes and 19 seconds remaining in the game.

Unfortunately, the lead was not to last. The Cougars came out guns blazing — WSU rushed just four times in the 15-play series — and marched 81 yards. The drive culminated in a three-yard touchdown reception by River Cracraft.

The Cougars had retaken the lead, 28-27. What happened next proved pivotal in the contest’s outcome.

WSU coach Mike Leach, quite sensibly, decided to attempt a two-point conversion. On the Cougars’ first try, Falk’s throw was intercepted in the end zone. But the Cardinal was called for roughing the passer, giving the hosts a second attempt from closer in.

This time, Falk zipped the ball to John Thompson on a shallow crossing route. Senior free safety Kodi Whitfield was covering the wide receiver, and after reaching out as if to try to break up the throw, or to take away the ball, he wrapped up Thompson and yanked him down. Kevin Anderson was playing zone coverage nearby, and he swooped in to insure that Thompson went to the ground without putting the ball across the plane of the goal line. Their effort was successful, holding the score steady at 28-27.

Stanford had to punt on the following series, which gave Wazzu the chance to extend its lead on a possession that began with about five minutes to play. But after the Cougs advanced to their 45-yard line, Meeks struck again. The freshman, who seemed to know where the ball was going, jumped the route and intercepted a throw targeted to the right side of WSU’s line.

Of course, generating a turnover is one thing; cashing in is another. The early indications were extremely promising, as McCaffrey took a handoff on a sweep left, picked his way through traffic and turned on the jets as he streaked to Wazzu’s 9-yard line. It was an impressive run, not least because of the way he kept his feet inbounds as Cougars attempted to knock him from the field of play.

Unfortunately, the offense stalled there, and on fourth and goal from the 2, Ukropina came on for his third field-goal try of the night. The 19-yarder was true, giving the Cardinal an ever-so-narrow 30-28 lead with 1:54 left in the quarter.

With the game on the line, Stanford’s defense twice forced Washington State into fourth-down situations. Both times, the Cougars won a fresh set of downs, most impressively on fourth and 7, when Falk hit Williams for a 23-yard gain.

On third and three from the Cardinal 29, with less than a minute to play, WSU handed the rock to its leading rusher, Gerard Wicks. He gained two yards, bringing up yet another fourth down. The player on the stop, of course, was none other than Blake Martinez, who topped all defenders in the game with 11 tackles, 10 of them solo. (The stellar linebacker, a squad co-captain, has 91 overall tackles and averages 11.1 a game; he is third nationally in the category and leads the conference by a significant margin.)

Washington State called timeout with four seconds on the clock and summoned Powell. He’d had a fine night — five field goals attempted, all made, including a 46-yarder and a career-long 47-yarder. A successful boot here, from 43 yards out, would secure a win for the Cougars.

As the Cougars prepared for the kick, Shaw called timeout. It was an obvious attempt to freeze Powell, whose last field goal attempt had been early in the third period.

As much as I wanted Stanford to win, I had trouble rooting for Wazzu sophomore to shank. Still, the Cardinal needed a miss.

I looked at the alignment of the field and noticed that Powell would need to guide the kick to his right — a straight-ahead try would be likely to go wide left. But if the kicker nudged the ball a little too far to the right…

“Slice it,” I rooted. “Slice it!”

The teams came back out and lined up in their formations. Stanford senior safety Dallas Lloyd jumped up and down in an attempt to distract the sophomore specialist. The snap and the hold came off cleanly. The kick was up and it was…

Was it good? Was it not? I thought the ball might have missed to the right, but I couldn’t tell for sure. ESPN’s camera panned down, and I held my breath, until I realized that the officials were extending their arms to the side, an indication that the kick was no good!

I shouted inarticulately and pumped my fist, a lone man watching a late-night West Coast football game in a noisy, crowded bar on Halloween. (The sound on the game was off; dance music was pulsing throughout the bar, and I had earplug in.)

I later viewed the highlight and heard play-by-play announcer Bob Wischusen aptly sum up the miscue: “He had all the distance you could ever need. But a left-footed kicker from the left hash [mark] — and he just overhooked it.”

And Stanford escaped, 30-28, to maintain an unblemished 6-0 mark in Pac-12 play and a 7-1 overall record.

I’ll wrap up my recap by considering some of the game’s implications in a forthcoming post

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