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Football: Kicking woes doom Stanford in Fiesta Bowl heartbreaker

 

It was going to be perfect.

 

Tied 38-38 with Oklahoma State, a flawless two-minute drill from Andrew Luck in the final game of his college career set up a 35-yard field-goal attempt with three seconds left to win the Fiesta Bowl. All it would take was redshirt freshman kicker Jordan Williamson to seal the storybook ending for Luck and the Stanford football team.

 

It was going to be perfect.

 

But Williamson’s kick—from the middle of the field, with no wind and the half-orange, half-red student sections setting the backdrop—twisted wide left.

 

Moments later in overtime, after another missed field goal from Williamson, Cowboy kicker Quinn Sharp put home a 22-yard field goal to give Oklahoma State the 41-38 win in one of the most thrilling—and heartbreaking—bowl games of the season.

 

The No. 4 Cardinal (11-2, 8-1 Pac-12) pushed back and forth with the No. 3 Cowboys (12-1, 8-1 Big 12) all night long, with the two explosive offenses combining for over 1,000 total yards and 79 points. But even with a near-perfect day from Luck in his swan song for the Cardinal—he completed 27 of his 31 passes for 347 yards, two touchdowns and an interception—it still wasn’t enough.

Redshirt freshman kicker Jordan Williamson, who had missed just three field goals all year, missed three field goals in the Fiesta Bowl including the would-be game-winner and another in overtime as Stanford fell to Oklahoma State, 41-38. (MICHAEL KHEIR/The Stanford Daily)

 

“We didn’t finish, and that’s not just the kick at the end,” said head coach David Shaw. “We didn’t finish the game, the game that we’re capable of.”

 

“I play football to win,” Luck said. “I think everybody up here will say the same thing. Yeah, I’m sure I’ll watch the film and see where I can get better or see what I did well. But at the end of the day, we lost. I’m as much to blame as the next guy.”

 

Certainly, Luck and the offense’s stats suggested otherwise, with Stanford totaling 590 total yards of offense as Luck’s near-perfect day was complemented by 177 yards rushing and two touchdowns from junior running back Stepfan Taylor as well as 120 yards receiving and a touchdown from freshman wideout Ty Montgomery.

 

However, against an Oklahoma State team that got dominant offensive performances from quarterback Brandon Weeden, who was 29-of-42 for 399 yards and three touchdowns, and receiver Justin Blackmon, who had 186 yards and three touchdowns, Shaw took care to point out that the loss could not be placed on Williamson’s shoulders in a game that was an offensive shootout.

 

“Offensively, we talk about it all time: we cannot settle for field goals against a good football team,” Shaw said. “Whether you make them or you miss them, against a good team, it is inconsequential. Good teams score touchdowns. If you kick the field goal, now you are back behind the eight ball.”

 

While the Fiesta Bowl did eventually live up to all of its hype, as it was expected to be a duel between two of the most complete and dangerous offenses in the nation, the first few minutes of the game were surprisingly highlighted by solid defense, as both the Cowboys and the Cardinal couldn’t muster any points in the first 10 minutes of play.

 

After a 41-yard field goal attempt from Williamson sailed wide left on the Cardinal’s first drive of the game, junior cornerback Terrence Brown intercepted the first pass of the night from Weeden to give Stanford a chance at redemption and a short field. However, Oklahoma State sacked Luck on third down and put the Cardinal out of field-goal range.

 

After trading punts, Luck finally put the Cardinal on the board when he faked a handoff, stepped back and hit Montgomery, who streaked past the Cowboy defense for a 53-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead with 4:16 left in the first quarter.

 

After the next three series—a rare Luck interception bookended by two Cowboy punts—the game took on a new complexion: offense on, defense off.

 

On the Cardinal’s ensuing drive, it was all Jeremy Stewart, as the senior running back got the Cardinal into Cowboy territory with a 34-yard run, then capped off the seven-play, 87-yard drive with a 24-yard touchdown run to make it 14-0.

 

Oklahoma State, which had been outgained by a margin of 221 yards to just 27, responded by feeding Blackmon, who hauled in a 43-yard touchdown pass, then, just moments later, shucked Brown off his back and outran the rest of the defense for a 67-yard touchdown to tie the game at 14.

 

Stanford and Oklahoma State then traded brisk scoring drives before the half to send the game to halftime tied at 21.

 

The Cardinal came out of the locker room in ideal fashion, sacking Weeden on third down to end the Cowboys’ first drive, then plodding down the field before Luck hit redshirt sophomore tight end Zach Ertz for a 16-yard touchdown that gave Stanford the lead once again, 28-21.

Junior running back Stepfan Taylor had the best game of his career at the Fiesta Bowl, carrying the ball 35 times for 177 yards, both career highs. It wasn't enough, though, as Stanford lost in overtime. (SIMON WARBY/The Stanford Daily)

 

The teams traded field goals to make the score 31-24, but it was only a matter of time before Blackmon struck again. After gaining just 15 yards in the third quarter, the two-time Biletnikoff Award winner tied a Fiesta Bowl record with his third touchdown catch of the night to tie the score at 31 with 11:53 to go.

 

Needing a critical drive, the Cardinal reeled off a 13-play touchdown drive that took seven minutes and 21 seconds off the clock, ending with a Taylor touchdown to make the score 38-31. The touchdown put the ball back in the hands of the Oklahoma State offense with 4:26 left in the game.

 

That was far more than the Cowboys needed, as Weeden whisked the offense down the field in less than two minutes to tie the score at 38.

 

With 2:35 left on the clock and the ball on his own 20, the game was now Luck’s to win.

 

Luck completed all five of his passes for 50 yards, and Taylor added three runs for 13 yards to set up the game-winning field-goal attempt.

 

But it just wasn’t to be. Even with the dramatic setup in the final game of a superstar’s career.

 

“Obviously it didn’t work out,” Luck said. “It’s no one person’s fault. There’s so many opportunities throughout the course of the game to change it, and we had the chance to stick the dagger in them [at the end of regulation], and we didn’t do that.”

 

For the program-changing recruiting class of 2008, which includes the NFL-bound Luck, the rare defeat comes as a sour ending to a four-year career that saw the Cardinal program reach unprecedented heights and notch a 23-3 record in the last two seasons.

 

“It’s hard to reconcile a loss in the last game of the year,” Luck said. “But I’m so proud to be able to represent Stanford, so ever grateful to be a part of this locker room, and I’ll miss these guys dearly.”

 

Despite his excellence in the Fiesta Bowl and in 2011, Luck departs the program like a hero from an Ernest Hemingway novel—with the final moments of the story leaving an unsatisfying conclusion to a dedicated, brilliant effort—a fact he was acutely aware of.

 

“It’s a game of football,” he said. “I don’t believe in fairy tales any more now that I’m older.”