By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 14, 2015
Once the carnage in Boulder ended Saturday, with the Cardinal football team earning a 42-10 victory in its final road contest of the regular season, the postgame scene played out much as it normally does. After the coaches and their teams shook hands, and after the Stanford players congratulated one another, they gathered in front of the visitors section and sang the university’s alma mater.
What happened next, however, was rather…unusual.
A few Stanford fans high up in the stands began a chant. “Six more games!” they cried. “Six more games!”
I furrowed my brow: The only games left in the regular season are Oregon tonight, Cal in the Big Game on Nov. 21 and Notre Dame on the 28th. A visit to the Pac-12 championship game, which is not yet guaranteed, would bring the total to four games. But college football teams play only one postseason game…
…usually. That’s when it hit me: These fans were cheering for Stanford to make the College Football Playoff, win its semifinal game and advance to the national championship game. Four plus two equals…
I laughed. Then I joined in with the handful of people yelling “Six more games!” And then I tweeted about it.
Stanford, which was initially ranked 11th by the College Football Playoff selection committee, rose to seventh after pasting the Colorado Buffalo. Other than Baylor, at No. 6, the Cardinal is the highest-ranked team based on a campus west of the state of Oklahoma. Although the 2015 football season started in ignominy for head coach David Shaw’s squad, the team is on track for its best season in 65 years, when Clark Shaughnessy helmed a 10-0 season.
Ah, but that’s getting ahead of things. Let’s focus on the immediate past.
The Cardinal came out in typical fashion, scoring on the first drive of the game. Do-everything sophomore Christian McCaffrey, a Colorado native, ran for nine yards on the first play from scrimmage, and quarterback Kevin Hogan completed throws to five different players. The 15-play, 81-yard drive ate up more than seven minutes and was capped by a one-yard Remound Wright touchdown.
Colorado responded with an efficient six-play, 75-yard drive in which the Buffalo reached third down just once. Other than a spectacular 36-yard catch-and-run from Sefo Liufau to Nelson Spruce, the hosts kept it on the ground. Donovan Lee tied the game with a four-yard rush to complete a drive that lasted less than two minutes. Neither team was able to score again in the opening period; as it turned out, in fact, Colorado would only put one field goal on the scoreboard over the remainder of the game.
On third and three in the opening minute of the second quarter, Hogan burned the Buffalo defense by running for 20 yards. (The Cardinal would convert an astounding six of seven third downs in the period.) But the next three entries in the play-by-play summary were nightmarish: McCaffrey rushed for minus-2 yards, Stanford incurred a five-yard delay-of-game penalty and Hogan was sacked for a loss of one yard.
Then, on third and 18, the Cardinal was able to render all that moot. Hogan dropped back from the Colorado 43, glanced briefly to his right and looked over to Michael Rector streaking along the left sideline. The quarterback put up a rainbow that the senior wideout reached up for and gently juggled before securing the ball at the 10-yard and taking it into the end zone, all with hardly any adjustments to his stride. Conrad Ukropina’s extra point made the score 14-7.
Colorado drove to the Cardinal 19, but its field goal attempt went wide right. (Shades of Washington State.) Two plays later, McCaffrey picked his way through traffic, turned upfield and blazed a trail along the right sideline. He gained 40 yards, and he might have gone farther had it not been for defensive back Jered Bell heroically sprinting in from the far side of the field to push the Stanford sophomore out of bounds.
On fourth down at the Buffalo 6-yard line, Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren sent in the same type of heavy-load package from which Wright had scored the game’s first touchdown. But instead of handing off the ball, Hogan zipped a pass to tight end Dalton Schultz, who had released from the line and found his way to the end zone all alone while the black-shirted defenders guarded against a run. The sophomore’s first career touchdown put Stanford up, 21-7.
Four plays later, with a little over a minute left in the half, an extremely ill-considered long pass from Liufau was picked off by Dallas Lloyd at the Stanford 43. On first down from the Buffalo 26, Hogan threw a high ball to a streaking Austin Hooper on the right sideline; the junior tight end turned back toward the line of scrimmage, went up for the pass and came down with it at the 1-yard line.
On third and goal, Hogan faked a handoff and scanned the right half of the end zone. Finding no open receivers, he turned to the left and dashed for the end zone, finding an angle that allowed him to evade defenders and score a touchdown with minimal interference. Now Stanford led, 28-7, with a second left before halftime.
The Buffalo still had a few chances to get back in the game, but only one of them would lead to any points. Colorado took the second-half kickoff and reached third and 3 at the Stanford 9-yard line before Kevin Anderson tackled Liufau in the backfield for a two-yard loss. Mike MacIntyre sent in Diego Gonzalez, his kicker, who booted a 29-yard field goal.
The hosts needed an outstanding full-spectrum effort to build on that small victory, but they wouldn’t get it. First Rollins Stallworth recovered an onside kick at the Cardinal 43-yard line; then the black-clad defense found itself flat-footed even though they didn’t fall for Shaw and Bloomgren’s misdirection.
On the first and only play of the possession, Hogan faked an exchange with McCaffrey moving into the right side of the line before handing the ball to Bryce Love, who was zipping to the left after having lined up on the right flank. The freshman speedster picked his way through traffic before activating the after-burners for a spectacular 47-yard touchdown. On Twitter, I speculated that Love is a possible future All-American and linked to a tweet I made after his 16-yard reception late in the Washington game, which is worth quoting here:
— Mumblemore Milliken (@memomoment) October 25, 2015
Back to the matter at hand, which was a seemingly insurmountable 35-10 Cardinal lead.
The Buffalo went three-and-out on their ensuing possession, but Stanford’s next drive ended in terrifying fashion. On the third play, Tedric Thompson intercepted Hogan and made a fabulous 71-yard runback, bringing the ball to the visitors’ 3-yard line. Even worse, senior Cardinal receiver Devon Cajuste sustained a hard hit on the return; he lay on the field for several minutes before standing up and walking to the trainers room on his own power.
Astoundingly, Colorado was unable to capitalize on goal to go from the 3. After defensive end Solomon Thomas tackled Patrick Carr for a two-yard loss, Liufau fired three incomplete passes. It was the last time that Colorado would advance the ball past their own 39-yard line.
Stanford responded with a methodical 13-play, 95-yard drive that used up the last six minutes and 27 seconds of the third quarter. The white-clad visitors scored on the first snap of the final period with one of the trick plays that Shaw and Bloomgren have pulled off repeatedly this season.
First Hogan pitched the ball back to McCaffrey, who sprinted to his right. As he did so, Hooper released from the line and proceeded unnoticed into the secondary. That is, no defender seemed to notice him until McCaffrey cocked his arm and lofted a pretty pass to Hooper, by which point no one was in position to stop the tight end. As the score moved to Stanford 42, Colorado 10, I jokingly asked if the Cardinal had a quarterback controversy on its hands.
In fact, neither starting passer would play a down for the rest of the game. The Buffalo put in their backup quarterback on the ensuing drive, while Stanford substituted Keller Chryst for Hogan. (Ryan Burns got a few rushing plays as well.) The Cardinal had one gain longer than seven yards after McCaffrey’s touchdown, a 16-yard run by Love, while the hosts had only two.
If Stanford fans had any major complaint about Saturday’s game, it was that the second-team offense’s outing was ineffective. Otherwise, the game was a standard-issue Stanford win circa 2015. Hogan was solid — 17-23 for 169 yards (an average of 7.3 yards per attempt) with two touchdowns and an interception, plus 40 yards and a touchdown on nine rushes.
Despite having no highlight plays other than the aforementioned 40-yard run and gadget-play touchdown throw, McCaffrey was his usual outstanding self: 23 runs for 147 yards, three catches for 15 yards, three returns for 58 yards and 220 all-purpose yards. (That excludes the 28-yard passing TD.) The super-sophomore still leads the nation in all-purpose gains with 241.6 yards a game. He has accumulated 2,174 all-purpose yards in nine games and is poised to break Glyn Milburn’s school record — 2,234 yards gained in 13 games — as soon as tonight.
The sole truly surprising element of last weekend’s defensive outing was that Blake Martinez, the conference’s leading tackler, was tied for fourth on the team Saturday with four stops. (Thomas, Anderson and reserve outside linebacker Mike Tyler had five apiece, with Thomas making three tackles behind the line and the other pair having two apiece; Ronnie Harris also had four tackles.)
The defense, which is still a pale imitation of its 2014 counterpart, turned in its customary workmanlike effort. The Buffalo gained 231 yards on 53 plays, an average of 4.4 yards per snap. Colorado converted just two of its 11 third downs; Stanford’s defense leads the league by allowing conversions at a rate of only 35.1 percent.
The offense was 10 of 16 on third down, including 0-3 by the backups in the fourth period, and leads the Pac-12 in that category by converting at a 46.7 percent clip.
In less than an hour, Stanford will host the Oregon Ducks; the last five years, the winner of this matchup has claimed the conference crown. It’s a little early to start cheering for six more games for the Cardinal — but it’s almost time to begin rooting on the Cardinal in a game that has taken on much more importance than anyone might have guessed six weeks ago!