Determined Cardinal does just enough to prevail in a 23-20 road win over Utah

October 11, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 11, 2017

All-world runner Bryce Love found just enough space against a smothering Utah defense to secure a key 23-20 road win for the Stanford football team on Saturday evening in Salt Lake City. The Cardinal moved to 4-2 and 3-1 in the Pac-12 while handing Utah (4-1, 1-1) its first loss.

The Cardinal struck first on a seven-play, 71-yard opening possession highlighted by a 54-yard connection from starting quarterback Keller Chryst to sophomore tight end Kaden Smith. When the series stalled at the Utah 4-yard line, Jet Toner came on to make a 21-yard field goal.

After an exchange of punts, the hosts took advantage of great starting field position — the 50-yard line — to mount a five-play drive. Zack Moss (15 carries, 79 yards) scored from the 2-yard line to put the Utes ahead, 7-3.

After a sequence of punts and unsuccessful field goal attempts — Toner from 27 yards out for Stanford, Matt Gay from 50 for Utah — the Cardinal offense began to find a bit of a rhythm.

The Cardinal’s first series of the second period started with Love running twice, first for a gain of two yards and then for a two-yard loss. This was indicative of the challenge Love faced, as the Utes’ frequently stacked the box and swamped Stanford’s stellar junior tailback. But then backup passer K.J. Costello averted a punt by throwing to Trenton Irwin for 25 yards on third and 10.

That may have helped loosened up the defense, or else perhaps the Utes made an error in their defensive play call. On the very next snap, Utah seemed to anticipate a pass to the right. Love, standing on Chryst’s left side in a shotgun formation, took the handoff, evaded one apparent blitzer and found a lot of green around the left side of the line. The Wake Forest, N.C., native was pushed out of bounds at the 7-yard line after a 39-yard run.

On the next play, Chryst took the ball across the goal line when the Utes bit on a run-action fake to Love running off of left tackle. That gave Stanford a 10-7 lead.

A pair of three-pointers followed. Utah mounted an 11-play, 63-yard drive in which Moss ran for 16 yards on first and 15 and Troy Williams threw to Rae Singleton for 36 yards on back-to-back plays; the series ended in a 30-yard Gay kick. Stanford responded with an 11-play, 62-yard series that began with a 19-yard Love gain and saw Chryst complete medium-range throws to Irwin and Dalton Schultz. Toner then kicked a 46-yarder with six seconds remaining in the half to put the visitors back on top, 13-10.

The hosts botched the first possession of the second half when, attempting to punt on a three-and-out, a bad snap resulted in an 11-yard loss. But Stanford was unable to capitalize on a drive that started on their opponents’ 15-yard line and had to settle for bumping their advantage to 16-10 when Toner hit a 29-yard kick.

Utah came back with the longest series of the evening, a 15-play, 62-yard campaign that ate up seven minutes and 51 seconds. The Utes reached the Cardinal 2-yard line with no gain longer than a 15-yard Williams run. But Peter Kalambayi sacked Williams for an 11-yard loss on third and goal, thanks in no small part to a fierce pass rush from Bobby Okereke, so Gay came back on to kick. The 30-yarder, Gay’s second, cut the hosts’ deficit to 16-13.

A different type of Stanford team — one led by, say, an Andrew Luck or a Kevin Hogan — would have pounced on this opportunity. But the ensuing Cardinal drive ended in a punt, so Utah got the ball back with 14:40 to go in the fourth quarter. But the Utes also stumbled, misfiring on four of five pass attempts and rushing for only one yard on the other play, so the ball was returned to the visiting offense.

This time, the unit worked some of its Loving magic. Chryst made the handoff and then ran a bootleg as a decoy. Love, of course, had the ball, and the most resistance he had coming off tackle was when a lineman nearly caused him to stumble while blocking a would-be tackler. The tailback recovered beautifully and turned on the jets for a 68-yard touchdown run that put the Cardinal in charge, 23-13, with 12 minutes on the clock. Love would end the night with 152 yards on 20 carries (7.6 ypc), which paired nicely with his two receptions for 14 yards.

The Utes were hardly finished, of course. But after Quinton Meeks intercepted a ball that Williams unwisely threw while being pulled down to the ground by Eric Cotton, the Cardinal offense turned in a three and out. When Utah’s offense came back out, Williams threw a long ball that Justin Reid picked for his fifth interception of the year.

However, given another opportunity to put the contest out of reach, Stanford’s offense generated just 12 yards on five plays. Again, the ball went back to the Utes.

Stanford’s defense hadn’t been super, as I tweeted around this time, but they had clearly worn down the Utes. The hosts made a number of stumbles, bad throws and needless drops over the latter part of the final quarter.

With three and a half minutes left, Williams kept on pushing his team forward, thanks in no small part to a pair of personal fouls on Stanford that saw key defenders Kalambayi and Harrison Phillips ejected for targeting. (Phillips committed his penalty on fourth down, an especially grievous mistake.) Eventually, Williams threw an 18-yard dart to Darren Carrington II for a touchdown with 40 ticks on the scoreboard, and Gay kicked a crucial extra point despite having to halt and restart his run-up when the snap was bobbled.

The ensuing onside kick proved to be unsettlingly dramatic, as a pair of Stanford players didn’t quite manage to get a firm grasp on the ball before it was surrounded by members of both teams. When the bodies were unstacked, it was in the Cardinal’s possession, and the team kneeled twice to come out of Salt Lake City with a gutty 23-20 victory.


Helpful links

Stanford-Utah box score — ESPN
Stanford-Utah team statistics
Stanford-Utah play-by-play
Stanford-Utah interactive box score —
Stanford-Utah static box score
Stanford 2017–18 football roster
Utah 2017–18 football roster
Game (and some other) tweets — @memomoment

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