It was the perfect day, with a buzz and excitement filling the Stanford sections throughout the Rose Bowl. Alas, it quickly fizzled along with all hope of a repeat Rose Bowl victory as Stanford came up short on its most crucial fourth-and-1 of the season. Of course, the fizzle didn’t start and end with that play. There was a tangible shift in confidence and certainty of a Stanford victory as the Cardinal ended the third quarter without having produced any points.
Analysts can speculate all they want about why head coach David Shaw called the game as conservatively as he did, but we’ll never really know. That doesn’t mean we have to stop questioning and debating it, though, because it truly was baffling.
Honestly, it was a coaching debacle and there was an apparent crisis of confidence in his team leaders. Why was Shaw seemingly afraid to pass in the second half and if he was so adamant to not pass, why wouldn’t he rely on the seventh-ranked rusher in the country, Tyler Gaffney, to make or break the Card’s most decisive play of the season?
Stanford used three straight running plays to set up the critical fourth-and-1 and then saw Ryan Hewitt stuffed running down the middle after Gaffney was stopped on the previous third-and-short. Shaw took the game out of the hands of his quarterback and his best running back.
Michigan State is statistically one of the best defensive teams in the nation for limiting its opponents’ rushing and passing yards to just over 86 and 165 yards per game, respectively. So when the mix of passing and rushing was working so well for the Card in the first half, why did it stop and rely so heavily on the run game for the remainder of the game? Stanford just didn’t adjust well to the Spartans’ defensive pressure.
When Ty Montgomery got hurt at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the passing game was completely halted. It seemed as if Shaw was having a change of heart and losing faith in Kevin Hogan. Even if he was afraid of a turnover during that crucial fourth quarter, he certainly chose a bad time to lose faith in his quarterback. It was evident that for whatever reason, Shaw was not willing to put the game in Hogan’s hands when everything was on the line.
You could blame the lack of passing on the absence of Montgomery, but is Stanford so lacking in depth that with Montgomery hurt, the offense falls apart? No. Shaw could have utilized Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector or Kodi Whitfield.
Overall, Stanford didn’t play physically or assertively. It was almost as if the Card was playing not to lose, rather than playing to win. It would have been worth taking more chances with passing, even if they didn’t come to fruition, as long as Stanford was making adjustments and putting it all on the line. Instead, it chose the conservative route. I’m not doubting that the players put their heart and soul into that game — especially the seniors in their fourth and final BCS bowl — but didn’t the coaches owe it to their players to mix it up a bit and stop the fruitless running game?
In the end, the lowly three points managed in the final three quarters of the game and penalty flags flying often were not representative of Cardinal football. The seniors deserved to go out with a bang, but unfortunately, Stanford didn’t demonstrate the “intellectual brutality” that those seniors helped foster.
All that being said, the season can’t be disregarded, as the Cardinal did pull off huge victories against Oregon and Arizona State to win the Pac-12 title. The seniors and fifth-year seniors — Gaffney, Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner, to name a few — are a testament to the success of Stanford football with and without Andrew Luck. And when the program was in question, they didn’t skip a beat but just continued to play their game and develop into the leaders that the Card needed. So while they deserved a better send-off than the Rose Bowl game offered, they leave Stanford at its high point at height that they created and that will hopefully be sustained by the classes that follow.
Ashley Westhem has been unable to get a good night’s sleep since the Rose Bowl, continually questioning what could have been. Suggest some insomnia cures at awesthem ‘at’ stanford.edu.