Stanford was a great fourth-quarter team in 2012, scoring 70 points to its opponents’ 39 in the final frame. That production late in games helped the Cardinal go 8-2 in contests decided by a touchdown or less last season. However, Stanford hasn’t been nearly as invincible in the fourth quarter in 2013. Though the Card has scored 34 points in just five fourth quarters, it has also surrendered 49, 10 more than it did in its 14 games last season. The offensive line hasn’t always gotten the push Stanford needs in late short-yardage situations, and the secondary has given up a lot of yards through the air at the end of the game. Those issues were front-and-center in the team’s close win against Washington, so we asked football writers David Cohn, Winston Shi and Do-Hyoung Park: Has the Cardinal lost its clutch?
David Cohn: I have to be honest: This question seems to be in line with the Baylessian model of trolling. For those of you who do not know the reference, Skip Bayless of ESPN’s First Take has made a career over the last 10 years by offering some truly troll-worthy commentary on LeBron James’ supposed lack of mental toughness, Tim Tebow’s ability to be a starting NFL quarterback with a 48 percent completion rate and so on. Substitute “LeBron James” for “Stanford” in this question and you have the classic Bayless “debate” topic.
As such, I am sure you can tell where I am going with my answer: The notion that Stanford has lost its “clutch gene” is absolutely ludicrous. First of all, each team and each game within a season is its own unique entity. More specifically, 2013 Stanford has a different profile of strengths and weaknesses when compared to last year’s team, and the game situations that the Card has faced in 2013 is consistently different from the circumstances encountered by the Cardinal in 2012.
This year’s team is most noticeably different from last year’s version on offense; the Cardinal in 2013 has averaged nearly 40 points on offense—including a 55-spot against Washington State—and has put up 42 and 31 points on top-25 opponents Arizona State and Washington, respectively. In contrast, last year’s team, on average, scored 10 fewer points per game and exceeded 30 points on only two Pac-12 teams that were not utterly awful last season (that means you, Colorado).
As a result of the increased firepower on offense, Stanford has gone into the fourth quarter of every game this season with a double-digit lead, including a 32-point lead against Arizona State. On the other hand, the Cardinal down the stretch in 2012 often found itself behind or clinging to the narrowest of leads; 2012 Stanford trailed Oregon, Oregon State and UCLA—in the Pac-12 Championship game matchup—heading into the fourth quarter, while the Card clung to a 7-point lead against Washington State, a 4-point advantage against Washington and a measly 1-point lead against Arizona going into the final frame.
Obviously, the strategies and focus on offense are completely different when a team is holding a comfortable lead versus a situation in which that same team is protecting a slim lead or even trailing. Stanford in 2012 had to be more aggressive on offense in the fourth quarter, namely by allowing Kevin Hogan to throw downfield far more frequently, in order to pull out a victory. However, the Cardinal in 2013 has needed to preserve wins by consistently running the ball, extending drives and trying to run out the clock. In short, points should not be the concern when a team has a large lead.
Ultimately, even if you are not convinced by my analysis above, Stanford’s record this season is really the only set of numbers I need to argue this question: 5-0. That record seems pretty clutch in my eyes.
Winston Shi: Any Stanford fans worrying about the clutch factor are definitely overreacting. I agree with David that Stanford is playing a different game than it was last year, and it’s ultimately better to be on the good end of garbage time than not have garbage time at all. Stanford had a lot of close games last year and a couple of slips in the secondary could have brought on a losing record, and it’s good that the Cardinal is enjoying larger margins of victory. It’s certainly better than freaking out because SJSU nearly took it out in week one. But I’d also like to highlight a few other things.
Through five games, Stanford has faced better competition than it did last year. This year’s Washington would beat 2012 Washington by three touchdowns. Arizona State and Washington State have improved as well. There have been issues in garbage time against Army and Arizona State, but garbage time by definition is irrelevant; in five games, there has been only one game in which Stanford has been truly tested, and Washington should really be a top-10 team. I think Stanford taking its foot off the gas is not a sign of lack of clutch, but a sign of respect for its defense and its opponents. Nobody who has watched Stanford in its first four games can say that Stanford wasn’t in control of the games. Even in the ASU game, look at Kevin Hogan coming back in to close things out. He was absolutely in command.
This is not to say that Stanford always puts the pedal to the metal. David Shaw has shown throughout his career that he’s only going to run as many plays as necessary, and if we’re being honest, four touchdowns is enough to tighten up the playbook against ASU; three against Army and SJSU; and so on. Stanford is capable of doing better than how it did against Washington and on the right day the Card might annihilate the Huskies, but the score of the game was close enough to what one could reasonably expect. I’m not worried about Stanford. Stanford was clutch last year and with most of last year’s team intact, it’ll be capable of that once again. If Stanford loses, it will be because it’s faced a worthy opponent, not because it couldn’t rise to the occasion.
Do-Hyoung Park: While both David and Winston seemed pretty confident in their assertions that Stanford is completely fine, I’m going to be honest here: While I don’t have any evidence that suggests that Stanford has “lost its clutch,” its play late in games this season as it has gone about protecting its leads has definitely made me worried.
“Clutch” is an interesting concept in sports. It’s not by any means a quantifiable concept (except for maybe two-out RBI in baseball) but even any casual sports fan knows that the ability for a player or a team to come through “in the clutch,” that is, in the most important situations with the game on the line, the pressure mounting and fans rabidly screaming, is one of the most exciting things that a fan can experience.
Now, think about that and look at Stanford’s football season so far. As David mentioned earlier, Stanford has yet to trail going into the fourth quarter of any of its games so far this season. As a matter of fact, it has had double-digit leads going into the final frame in each of its five victories. Those aren’t clutch situations by any stretch of the imagination. We simply haven’t seen Stanford in any situations in which it has had to decisively show its mettle thus far this season, and so I’m not going to jinx it by speculating or making any judgment calls regarding what we might have seen if Stanford had found itself in such situations. We’ll see plenty of that moving forward with big games against UCLA and Oregon looming on the horizon. Time will tell.
But what does worry me is Stanford’s play while protecting its leads and this is where I’ll disagree with Winston’s statement that Stanford has been in control. There was obviously the fourth-quarter meltdown debacle against Arizona State, and this past Saturday’s matchup against Washington reinforced the fact that Stanford’s secondary has been very porous late in games. And the offense hasn’t been much better, struggling to move the ball with any efficacy whatsoever. Heck, it couldn’t even pick up one first down that would have sealed the game against Washington.
Shaw’s play-calling hasn’t really helped much in that regard. I was interacting with fans via Twitter after the game on Thursday, and one point that a fan brought up was that Stanford’s play-calling hasn’t been very conducive to protecting leads. Shaw’s insistence to stick to the ground, while fundamentally reasonable, has not been justified by the run game’s play on the field late in games. A team needs to move the ball 10 yards on every set of downs to keep the ball and kill clock. And while running it down opponents’ throats has worked in those situations in previous years, it hasn’t worked this year. And what worries me is that Stanford is refusing to mix it up with more creative, less predictable play-calling to move the chains.
And with a near-loss to Washington only averted by a pass that was just inches too low, I think that unless that changes, the Card will slip up at some point. No team is perfect, and I think such mental mistakes could eventually doom a team that made its big run last year coming from behind every game instead of holding leads.
David and Winston are a bit worried about Do’s lack of clutch writing. To ease their concerns, contact David and Winston at dmcohn ‘at’ stanford.edu and wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu, respectively, and to help Do improve his clutchness, email him at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.