EL PASO — The Stanford football team waited eight years to play in a bowl game, but it will have to wait longer to achieve its first bowl win since 1996. The Cardinal (8-5, 6-3 Pac-10) fell to the Oklahoma Sooners (8-5, 5-3 Big 12) 31-27 on New Year’s Eve at the Sun Bowl, which happens to be the site of Stanford’s last bowl win.
Stanford came into the game at a large disadvantage due to redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck’s finger injury, which was expected to severely limit his ability to play against Oklahoma. Despite numerous reports during the week of the game that his finger was improving, Luck did not dress for the game. The Cardinal instead had to rely on fifth-year senior Tavita Pritchard to lead the offense.
Although Pritchard has a great deal of starting experience, including the famous 24-23 upset of USC in 2007, he seemed overmatched by the Sooner defense, which ranks in the top 10 nationally in scoring, red zone, total and rushing defense.
Pritchard had not started a game in over a year, and his rust showed early on when he threw an interception on the third play of the game. The Sooners wasted little time in cashing in Stanford’s mistake, as redshirt freshman quarterback Landry Jones threw a 30-yard strike to sophomore Ryan Broyles for the first score of the game.
Jones quickly returned the favor, though, throwing an interception to senior safety Bo McNally, who returned the ball 55 yards to the Oklahoma 14. Stanford cashed in that turnover as well, scoring on a one-yard run by junior fullback Owen Marecic.
Oklahoma then drove the length of the field, picking up 73 yards on 11 plays. Despite Jones completing all seven of his passes on the drive, Oklahoma was forced to settle for a field goal. On the attempt, freshman kicker Patrick O’Hara hit the upright, but the play was blown dead for a false start, and O’Hara converted his second chance.
Following another interception by Pritchard and a punt by Oklahoma, Stanford converted its best offensive play of the game. Pritchard rolled out from his own 39-yard line, avoiding the rush of All-American defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, and heaved a prayer upfield. Junior wide receiver Ryan Whalen adjusted to the severely underthrown pass and caught it in triple coverage, breaking multiple tackles and taking the ball all the way to the Oklahoma 19. Heisman runner-up and Doak Walker winner Toby Gerhart punched in the next play for a 19-yard touchdown, putting Stanford ahead for the first time in the game, 14-10.
The lead did not last long, though, because Jones and Broyles connected four times on the next drive, capped by a 13-yard touchdown. Stanford then responded with a 79-yard drive that ended with another impressive run by Gerhart, who evaded several tacklers, only to fumble into the end zone. Multiple Sooners had a chance to recover the fumble for a touchback, but Gerhart dove into the pile and found the ball to score the touchdown.
Up 21-17, Stanford held Oklahoma deep in Sooner territory, and senior cornerback Richard Sherman came in untouched to block the punt. Stanford took over at the Oklahoma 11, but was forced to settle for a field goal by junior kicker Nate Whitaker after a clipping penalty put the offense in a whole. The Cardinal held the Sooners scoreless on their final drive of the half to go into halftime leading 24-17.
Unfortunately for Stanford, though, the lead at halftime was the last of the game for the Cardinal. Oklahoma scored on the first drive of the second half when Jones hit Broyles for a third touchdown, and the Sooners never looked back.
The Cardinal could not manage any offense in the third quarter, and the Sooners scored another touchdown on a one-yard run by junior running back DeMarco Murray. Stanford received an enormous break when freshman cornerback Johnson Bademosi appeared to interfere with Broyles on a punt return, but the referees picked up the flag and awarded the ball to Stanford. Despite the break and a crucial personal foul penalty against Oklahoma, Stanford could only manage a field goal by Whitaker two minutes into the fourth quarter, making the score 31-27.
After both teams exchanged punts, Oklahoma embarked on a 17-play, 75-yard drive that used up over six minutes. O’Hara missed a 32-yard field goal, though, allowing Stanford one final drive with a chance to win the game.
The Cardinal could not even manage a first down, however, as Pritchard threw into coverage multiple times and Stanford could not convert on fourth down. Oklahoma ran the rest of the clock out to secure the victory.
Stanford’s disadvantage on the scoreboard was minuscule compared to its deficit on the stat sheets. Oklahoma outgained Stanford 477 yards to 262 yards for the game, converting 28 first downs to Stanford’s 13.
The Cardinal’s biggest disadvantage was in the passing game, where it could not stop the Sooners. Jones finished the game completing 30 of 51 passes for 418 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. On the other hand, Pritchard only completed eight of 19 passes for 117 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
“That was the difference in the game, really, because our defense shut down the run,” said Stanford Head Coach Jim Harbaugh. “[We gave up] too many big plays, too many easy plays, too many yards in the passing game.”
Broyles caught a team-record 13 passes for 156 yards with a Sun Bowl-record three receiving touchdowns, and was named the Sun Bowl Most Valuable Player. Gerhart had a good day on the ground for the Cardinal, rushing 32 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns.
After the game, Gerhart was ambiguous about his future plans: “I’m not sure yet. I’ll talk about it with the coaches and my family and decided where to go from there.”
Most people expect Gerhart to enter the NFL Draft this year, but whether or not he stays at school, Stanford is optimistic about its future.
“Our guys fought as hard as they could,” Harbaugh said. “They’ve been to the top of the mountain, looked over and seen what’s on the other side and said, ‘This is where we want to be.’”