Buffaloes snatch a 10-5 win on the Farm from an inept, self-defeating Stanford offense

October 23, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 23, 2016

A punchless Stanford football team went down to defeat Saturday, dropping a 10-5 home decision to a resurgent Colorado.

It was only the Buffaloes’ third win in 21 games that the program has played in the state of California. Colorado moved to 6-2 overall and 4-1 in the Pac-12, while the host Cardinal dropped to 4-3 and 2-3.

The Cardinal offense mounted 12 drives on Saturday afternoon, and most of them resulted in a display of futility. The team turned the ball over four times and punted five times, including a trio of three-and-outs. Only five Stanford possessions spanned five or more plays; only three advanced more than 28 yards.

Stanford has now scored four offensive touchdowns in its past five games. Of those, only two — second-half scores against UCLA and Notre Dame — had a material impact on the outcome of the contest.

Quarterback Ryan Burns turned in what I would deem a Burnsian performance, only more so: He made some nifty plays, mainly short- and mid-range throws that he zipped to Trenton Irwin, who finished with seven catches for 88 yards. But these were offset by missed opportunities and adverse plays.

Burns completed 16 of 29 passes for 170 yards (5.9 yards per attempt) with no touchdowns and three interceptions, two of which took place in the final period. He also was involved in two fumbles — one in the second quarter, which Stanford tackle Casey Tucker got back, and another in the fourth quarter, which Colorado linebacker Kenneth Olugbode recovered following a muffed center-QB exchange.

That latter play occurred on first and goal at the Colorado 4-yard line and was part of a devastatingly bad quarter that encapsulated the Cardinal’s performance over the past month.

Colorado led at the break, 7-3. Stanford scored first on (mercifully) a successful Conrad Ukropina field goal from 26 yards out; then Colorado went ahead on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Sefo Liufau to Shay Fields. The margin might have been different if Chris Graham hadn’t missed a 42-yard field goal attempt.

Those three drives accounted for 66 of Stanford’s yards and 136 of Colorado’s. Excepting those series, the Cardinal racked up a paltry 25 yards in the first half, while the visitors had 41.

Colorado would go on to miss field goals on its first two possessions of the second half, a 28-yard attempt by Graham and a 31-yard try by backup Alex Kinney. The latter miss was followed by an exchange of punts, which set up Stanford for a key drive beginning at the team’s 34-yard line with 14:10 left in the game.

Stanford marched 60 yards on eight plays in three and a half minutes, mainly thanks to a quartet of Christian McCaffrey runs that totaled 22 yards and a pair of Burns throws, both to Trenton Irwin, that covered 25. (The Cardinal also got 15 yards from a defensive penalty.)

But it all came to naught when Burns (shades of Kevin Hogan against Oregon last year) couldn’t handle a snap while standing directly behind his center on first and goal from the 4. Instead of either taking a 10-7 lead or narrowing its deficit to 7-6, the Cardinal — which has made 11 red-zone trips, the fewest in the nation — surrendered its second turnover of the game.

The Buffaloes moved 30 yards before Kinney made a beautiful 59-yard punt that was downed at the Stanford 5-yard line. Burns tossed a nice short throw that McCaffrey took 26 yards to the Cardinal 35 to give the team some breathing room. But the rest of the series was miserable.

After a five-yard illegal shift penalty on the Cardinal, Burns threw incomplete twice. The second of those was an underthrown deep ball to Irwin that Colorado defensive back Chidobe Awuzie nearly swiped. As I tweeted that Stanford was lucky that the pass hadn’t been intercepted, Burns was throwing on third and 15 — and this time, disaster struck.

Burns was attempting to hit Francis Owusu, who had turned inside and was running a little shy of the exact center of the field. If completed, it would have made for a first down. However, Owusu was double-covered, and the ball — which probably should never have been thrown — was snagged by a Colorado defensive back. Tedrick Thompson, who had anticipated the play the entire time, took his prize back to the 20-yard line.

The Cardinal defense trotted back onto the field in an impossible position. Stanford was hard-pressed to come back from a four-point deficit; now, with less than seven minutes remaining in the game, it was clear that a Colorado touchdown was going to seal the outcome.

The unit held on third down and 1 to go. Buffaloes coach Mike MacIntyre elected to try to convert fourth down, a decision that paid off when tailback Kyle Evans advanced the ball to the 6-yard line.

But Colorado would only gain one more yard on the series, and after Liufau threw incomplete on third and goal, MacIntyre summoned Graham for Colorado’s fourth field-goal attempt on the day, a 25-yarder. This time, the kick was successful.

This changed Stanford’s situation only slightly: The Cardinal, down 10-3, still needed a touchdown. Now, however, seven points would knot the score rather than put the home team ahead.

The rest of the game played out like some kind of nightmare. Burns threw to McCaffrey for a yard. Then Burns threw incomplete. Then Burns underthrew to Michael Rector on a deep route and Isaiah Oliver intercepted the ball for Colorado.

The Buffaloes, who were pushed back to their 15-yard line, assumed the victory formation and kneeled three times. On fourth down and 23 from their own 2-yard line — MacIntyre instructed Liufau to run the ball through the back of the end zone, intentionally surrendering a safety rather than risk some kind of special-teams mishap. (As Deasdpin noted, the Buffaloes committed a holding penalty on the play; this did not result in two safeties being awarded for one snap, and it wouldn’t have affected the outcome if it had.)

All that was left, with four seconds remaining, was for the travesty to come to an end. Rector essentially fielded the kickoff on his belly, so no time elapsed on the play. “First and 82 from the Stanford 18,” I tweeted morosely.

After the final snap, Burns threw to Irwin for eight yards, after which there were two meaningless laterals — Irwin to McCaffrey, then McCaffrey to Bryce Love — after which the game was over.

What more is there to say about this game? Just that the offense converted five of 14 third-down tries… that the team produced its fewest points since the Cardinal lost 41-3 to Arizona State in Jim Harbaugh’s fourth game as head coach on the Farm… and that this squad is in a world of hurt if it can hold an opponent to 10 points and still find a way to lose.

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