By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 11, 2016
There were a number of encouraging omens for the Stanford football team entering Saturday night’s home contest against Washington State, despite the fact that the Cardinal was coming off of a crushing 44-6 road loss to the University of Washington.
Item: Stanford was tied with Alabama, Boise State, Clemson and Louisiana State for having the fewest home losses since 2010 — four apiece. The team hadn’t dropped an October contest at Stanford Stadium since 2007.
Item: Under head coach David Shaw, Stanford had a perfect 5-0 record against Washington State.
Item: Stanford had beaten WSU eight straight times, going back to 2008.
Item: Under Shaw, the Cardinal had won 13 times and lost just once in games following a loss.
Item: On Saturday Stanford broke out its all-black uniforms, which debuted in 2010, for only the eighth time in history. The team was undefeated when wearing these dark-hued duds, including a 41-22 win over USC in the 2015 Pac-12 championship game.
However, as San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Tom Fitzgerald aptly observed before Saturday’s game, “past performance is no guarantee of future success.”
About 15 minutes after Fitzgerald’s tweet, I posted a tweet of my own that reflected my baseless yet increasing anxiety about the upcoming game:
Actually, my foreboding wasn’t entirely baseless. The Cardinal had been beaten, and beaten very badly, by the Washington Huskies in their previous game. In that contest, UW had played the kind of physical football that used to be a Stanford trademark. By contrast, Washington State had soundly defeated Oregon last week. The Cougars owned a two-game winning streak over the Ducks, which is something that even Stanford, the reigning conference champions, could not claim. And the Cardinal had injuries that would hold out several significant players.
For all that, Stanford flashed a bit of promise as the game began. Granted, the offense generated just 10 yards of offense on its first two possessions, with the second one culminating in a missed 49-yard field goal attempt by the normally reliable Conrad Ukropina.
On the other hand, strong safety Dallas Lloyd intercepted WSU’s outstanding junior quarterback, Luke Falk, on the Cougars’ second play from scrimmage. And the defense limited the Cougs to just 15 yards on the visitors’ second possession, so that was good.
But things started going off the tracks for Stanford on the team’s third drive. Immediately after quarterback Ryan Burns completed a 10-yard pass to Bryce Love and a 16-yard pass to Michael Rector on consecutive plays, he handed off to Christian McCaffrey, who was stopped after a 1-yard gain by junior linebacker Frankie Luvu.
Then, on second and 9, Luvu sacked Burns for a four-yard loss. Bad as that was, it could have been worse, because Burns lost the ball as he went down. Fortunately, he was able to recover it, but his third-and-13 pass targeting Taijuan Thomas was incomplete, and Stanford had to punt.
On the very next snap, Falk hit Jamal Morrow for a 45-yard gain, instantly putting the Cougars into Stanford territory. Two plays later, WSU faced third and 8, but Falk found River Cracraft for 27 yards, setting up first and goal. And two plays after that, Falk threw to Tav Martin Jr. to give Washington State a 7-0 lead.
Stanford managed a 43-yard Ukropina field goal on the answering drive. But that would be one of a very few things that the Cardinal would do right for the remainder of the half.
On the ensuing drive, Falk threw incomplete on third and 7 at the home team’s 29-yard line. But instead of kicking, Cougars head coach Mike Leach elected to go for it. Falk found Martin open in the flat and threw a strike to him. Martin was able to pick his way through traffic and dove to the pylon for WSU’s second touchdown, which put the visitors up, 14-3.
The Cardinal soon moved to their 49-yard line on a 12-yard Burns-to-Rector connection — but then disaster struck. As Burns scanned the field in vain for an open target, middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer shot through the gap on a delayed rush and yanked the quarterback to the ground, knocking the ball loose for Burns’s second fumble of the game. This time, however, Pelluer recovered the pigskin, and WSU was in business in Stanford territory for the third time in a row.
The drive came to nought as Erik Powell missed a 35-yarder wide left. And yet…
And yet the possession kept Stanford’s defense on the field for an additional three minutes and seven second. And yet Stanford’s hapless offense proved unable to capitalize on what has become an increasingly rare stop by the Cardinal defense.
Burns marched the team 53 yards to the WSU 27 on eight plays. But after the quarterback failed to connect with Dalton Schultz and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside on second- and third-down throws with three yards to go, Shaw summoned Ukropina for the field goal attempt from 44 yards out.
A successful kick would have cut the score to a somewhat manageable eight points — in other words, it would have made it a one-possession game. However, Ukropina, who entered the game with a school-best career field goal percentage of 86.7 (26 of 30), didn’t make the kick. Amazingly, just like Ukropina’s first-quarter miss, this attempt banged off of the left upright.
Football is famously known to be a game of inches, but in the case of Ukropina’s misses, that’s hyperbole: Had Ukropina’s kick been angled a millimeter or two to the right when he tried those two field goals, Stanford would have faced no worse than a 14-9 deficit.
The third quarter got off to an inauspicious start. Falk and company sliced their way through the home defense. The Cougars took a 21-3 lead on James Williams’s two-yard rushing touchdown, capping a 10-play, 81-yard drive highlighted by Falk’s 30-yard strike to Cracraft.
Stanford was running out of time to get back in the game. That was not to happen on the ensuing possession. Burns drove 45 yards on four plays but made a terrible decision as he was being rushed by defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa. Rather than eat a sack, or toss the ball harmlessly out of bounds, Burns threw blindly to the middle of the field and was intercepted when linebacker Isaac Dotson made a diving catch at WSU’s 22-yard line.
WSU now had an opportunity to take a virtually insurmountable 28-3 lead. But those hopes were snuffed by the Cardinal defense, which faced about as close to a do-or-die spot as a unit can in the third quarter. On the first play, cornerback Alameen Murphy tackled Gerard Wicks for no gain after he caught a ball from Falk. On the following play, junior linebacker Joey Alfieri sacked Falk for a 13-yard loss to set up third and 23 from WSU’s own 9-yard line.
When Falk overthrew his receiver on third down, cornerback Frank Buncom grabbed the ball. The sophomore, who was making his first career start, then returned the errant throw 26 yards for a defensive touchdown. The extra point made the score 21-10 and sparked hope in the breasts of Stanford fans the world over.
What’s more, by playing the woulda-coulda-shoulda game, Stanford fans could easily imagine Ukropina’s missed kicks sailing through the uprights, which would have cut the deficit to a very modest 21-16. But such Panglossian optimism doesn’t help win games, especially when the defense can’t shut down drives.
When Falk returned to the field, the Cardinal defense not only was unable to stop the Cougars, they couldn’t even bring up third down until the 12th play of the drive, when WSU had third and goal from the Stanford 7-yard line. That situation soon improved significantly for the Cardinal when WSU was flagged for consecutive false starts.
Despite those gifts, Stanford bungled the chance to limit WSU to a field goal when free safety Zach Hoffpauir let Gabe Marks run behind him, leaving him unguarded in the end zone. Falk exploited this mistake by lofting a 17-yard touchdown pass that easily cleared the heads of the defense. The 11-play, 75-yard drive left Washington State with a 28-10 lead, essentially wiping out whatever good had been done by Buncom’s interception return.
Would the Stanford offense answer with less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter? The answer proved to be a resounding no as Stanford surrendered its fourth sack of the game when Mata’afa tackled Burns for a two-yard loss on third and 5 at the Stanford 23. The Cardinal punted, facing no other realistic option.
The defense came back on and mounted minimal resistance. The Cougars traveled 73 yards in nine plays, taking a 35-10 lead on Falk’s 16-yarder to Cracraft with 11:28 to play in the fourth quarter.
Shaw inserted Keller Chryst, who threw five straight times. Unfortunately, he only completed one throw, to Trenton Irwin for 11 yards, forcing Stanford to punt yet again after allowing the defense less than a minute of rest.
WSU was now in clock-burning mode; up by four scores, they rushed three times for five yards and punted. Chryst came back on and ran the ball twice. Then he attempted a truly reckless pass to Michael Rector, who was surrounded by defenders; one of them, Shalom Luani, intercepted the throw and returned the ball 45 yards.
The Cougars, starting at the Cardinal 10, simply rushed three straight times. Wicks scored on the last of these, with a 2-yard carry, and WSU took a 42-10 lead.
Burns came back on with just over five minutes remaining in the game and led an eight-play, 67-yard drive that finished with a 1-yard scoring pass to Arcega-Whiteside as time ran out. But this was truly a garbage-time touchdown, padding the statistics but otherwise having no effect on the outcome. When all was said and done, the scoreboard read 42-16, and Stanford had suffered only its second two-game losing streak under Shaw.
The team looked bad against both of the Washington schools, repeatedly committing mistakes. For the second game in a row, Stanford was outgained (424-213 against UW, 458-296 vs. WSU); outrushed (214 to a paltry 29 against UW, 100 to 61 against WSU); beaten in time of possession (Washington held the ball for 32:32; WSU, for 30:29); and committed more turnovers than the opponent (2-0 vs. Washington, 3-2 against Washington State).
In other words, almost nothing seems to be going right, and the Cardinal find themselves heading to South Bend, Ind., for a matchup against another struggling team. But even though Notre Dame is just 2-4, Stanford has played so badly over the past two games that it’s hard to imagine them beating anyone. The season, which started with such promise, is in very perilous territory.