By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 31, 2016
Stanford football closed out its 2016 season with a down-to-the-wire 25-23 victory over the University of North Carolina in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas.
Fittingly, the game played out like a revue of some of Stanford’s 2016 highlights and lowlights. Among the latter, the opening-series three-and-out struck a familiar chord, and the team’s inability to score a touchdown in five red-zone trips called to mind the Cardinal’s offensive futility of the for much of September and October.
Among the former were a few dynamic, if isolated, moments from the passing game as well as the elusive quickness that backup running back Bryce Love had flashed a few times throughout the season and the surprising toughness that he demonstrated when he got the start for an injured Christian McCaffrey in Stanford’s 17-10 win at Notre Dame.
In the end, the Stanford squad won the exact same way it had in the opening weeks of the season: Thanks to the contributions of a salty defense that stepped up when the offense faltered.
Speaking of McCaffrey, he was absent from this game, too, having declared his intention to enter the NFL draft after the Rice game and subsequently opted out of playing in the Sun Bowl. He had to feel good about that decision after not one but two Cardinal players sustained injuries that at least one former athlete blamed on the stadium’s artificial turf.
The Tar Heels drove 71 yards on their first possession, which culminated in Mitch Trubisky tossing a 19-yard touchdown to Ryan Switzer, who had gotten open at the goal line on a crossing route. Six plays later, the Cardinal got on the board when junior quarterback Keller Chryst lofted a ball about 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. Love caught it in stride and zoomed along the right sideline for the score.
The defense forced a UNC punt on the Tar Heels’ second series, and Chryst and company started from their own 44-yard line. On the series’ sixth play, on first and 10 from the Carolina 27-yard yard, Chryst dropped back and unleashed a bomb to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside in the end zone.
The sophomore receiver was closely guarded by UNC cornerback M.J. Stewart, and the two tumbled to the ground together; after rolling over, Arcega-Whiteside held up the football. The Cardinal was initially awarded a touchdown, but the call was rightly reversed upon review.
On the very next play, Chryst got hurt as he was pulled to the turf after an eight-yard run. (Later, linebacker Casey Toohill would also leave the game after landing awkwardly on the field.)
Chryst’s injury led to senior Ryan Burns, who had attempted all of one rush and three passes since the Oct. 22 debacle against Colorado, playing under center for the Cardinal. The team ultimately settled for a 44-yard field goal by Conrad “Ol’ Reliable” Ukropina, giving the white-clad club a 10-7 lead late in the first quarter.
North Carolina’s attempt to respond was foiled by strong safety Dallas Lloyd, who jumped a route and easily picked off a Trubisky ball, returning it 45 yards. But the drive ended in failure for Stanford when Ukropina’s 36-yard attempt hit the left upright, the fourth time he’s done so this season.
The white-clad defense forced another North Carolina punt, which the Tar Heels downed at Stanford’s 8-yard line. The ensuing series resulted in the Cardinal facing fourth down and 39 yards to go at its own 25-yard line after the team was flagged for holding and Burns drew an intentional grounding penalty on consecutive plays.
UNC’s drive was again thwarted, this time by a flukey play in which a scrambling Trubisky accidentally grazed an official in an attempt to evade Lloyd. The ball came loose and was recovered at the Tar Heel 18-yard line by sophomore defensive end Dylan Jackson.
Burns threw a high pass that Michael Rector, playing in his final collegiate game, bobbled but eventually corralled for a 12-yard gain. (That was Rector’s final NCAA catch.) But the Cardinal was flagged for holding and Burns fired incomplete two times, so Ukropina was summoned again. This time, his 33-yard kick was successful, giving the Cardinal a 13-7 lead. The play also broke a tie between Ukropina and John Hopkins for most field goals in a season (Hopkins had 19 in 1988).
The Tar Heels opened the second half by driving to Stanford’s 34-yard line, but their kicker missed a 51-yard attempt.
That was immediately followed by the longest gain of the game: A spectacular 59-yard run over left tackle by the speedy, shifty Love, who got a key block at the line of scrimmage from fullback Daniel Marx. But first and goal at the UNC 7 turned into fourth and goal from the 26 thanks to a negative-yardage run by Love, a false start on Stanford and a sack of Burns that was compounded by his second intentional-grounding penalty of the game. Ukropina kicked once again, and his 43-yarder gave Stanford a 16-7 lead.
In reponse, UNC drove to the Cardinal 20-yard line. This time, Nick Weiler hit a 37-yard kick, reducing Stanford’s lead to 16-10.
The Tar Heels were rallying, however modestly, but Stanford was fading. After Burns and friends went three and out, UNC ran the ball seven times on a nine-play, 68-yard drive. The possession ended in a 5-yard scoring run by Jordon Brown, who escaped the grasp of at least three different Cardinal defenders on his way to the goal line. Weiler’s extra point put Carolina back on top, 17-16.
When the Cardinal offense turned in its second straight three-and-out, Carolina seemed primed to add to its lead. But Dallas Lloyd begged to differ. Once again, he jumped the route, this time tip-toeing along the left sideline for a 19-yard touchdown return. Burns’ two-point conversion pass to Arcega-Whiteside was batted away, leaving Stanford with only a 22-17 lead with most of the fourth quarter still to play.
UNC drove to the Cardinal 27-yard line before junior inside linebacker Bobby Okereke corralled Trubisky for Stanford’s first sack of the day.
The 13-yard loss forced the Heels to punt, priming Burns, Love and colleagues for a drive that would ice the game. And indeed, Burns had his finest moment of the contest on this drive. With running back Cam Scarlett set to receive the snap in a wildcat formation, Burns lined up at wide receiver. Scarlett handed off to Love, who ran toward the left sideline and tossed the ball to Burns. The quarterback drew his arm back and fired a 41-yard bomb that senior receiver Francis Owusu caught at the UNC 22 as he dove to the ground.
Stanford eventually moved to the 1-yard line. But UNC’s defense repelled rushes by Love, Burns and Scarlett, and the Cardinal was forced yet again to settle for a field goal. Ukropina’s 27-yarder, his fourth of the day and school-record 22nd of the season, put coach David Shaw’s squad ahead, 25-17 with 3:23 on the clock.
UNC didn’t need a miracle, but it did need a touchdown and a two-point conversion. But they couldn’t get a first down. After Stanford jumped offside to set up third down and five, Solomon Thomas sacked Trubisky for a 10-yard loss, forcing the Heels to punt after an 83-second possession.
But here again Stanford’s offense faltered. Love got three straight carries, but he couldn’t get a fresh set of downs. UNC called two timeouts and forced Love out of bounds after his third run, preserving precious seconds.
Jake Bailey was called upon to punt. He turned in a beauty, a 56-yarder that teammates downed at the 3-yard line. If North Carolina were to tie the game, it would have to travel 97 yards and score a touchdown and a two-point conversion in 94 seconds.
The Heels would get the touchdown, despite multiple drops of Trubisky balls that would otherwise have been touchdowns. Eventually, he connected with Switzer on 27-yard pass that set up goal to go from the 1-yard line. A few plays later, Trubisky eluded senior outside linebacker Peter Kalambayi and hit Bug Howard in the end zone with 25 seconds remaining in the contest. Now all UNC needed was a two-point conversion…
But when the ball was snapped, Thomas instantly broke through the line in pursuit of Trubisky. The junior quarterback, who had shown impressive awareness of the pass rush all game long, nearly stepped out of Thomas’s grasp with a cut toward the center of the field, but the defensive lineman grabbed hold of the blue jersey and detained him long enough for a host of white shirts to pull him to the ground.
Thomas’s play didn’t register on the box score, which showed him finishing the game — and, likely, his collegiate career — with five solo tackles, two assists, a sack and a tackle for a loss. But it helped him earn player-of-the-game honors, and it enabled his offensive teammates to assume victory formation and kneel once to kill the clock.
It also helped Stanford reach a 10-3 mark on the year, even though the team played the game without the all-world McCaffrey and was without its starting quarterback for most of the contest.
Cardinal fans surely didn’t enter the year hoping for a Sun Bowl victory, not after routing Iowa in the Rose Bowl on the first day of the year. But we can hardly complain about a 10-win season. And we certainly can’t say that the 2016 finale was lacking for drama.
Hail, Stanford, hail!
Stanford-UNC box score — ESPN
Stanford-UNC team statistics
Stanford-UNC interactive box score — GoStanford.com
Stanford-UNC static box score — GoStanford.com
Stanford 2016–17 football roster
UNC 2016–17 football roster
Stanford-UNC video highlights — ESPN
Stanford-UNC video highlights — Pac-12 Networks
Stanford-UNC video highlights — other