Widgets Magazine
Football outmuscled by Cougars en route to crushing loss at home
Sophomore cornerback Frank Buncom made his first career start on Saturday against the Washington State in absence of starting cornerbacks Alijah Holder and Quenton Meeks. Buncom intercepted a pass from Luke Falk in the third quarter for a 26-yard touchdown that had the potential to redirect momentum of the Cardinal defeat. (RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

Football outmuscled by Cougars en route to crushing loss at home

The nightmare was supposed to be over.

After suffering the worst loss of head coach David Shaw’s tenure the previous Friday, the Stanford Cardinal were ready to move forward from that 44-6 beatdown at the hands of the Washington Huskies. This week was supposed to be about cleaning up an uncharacteristic number of miscues for a famously disciplined program, getting healthier with an extra day of rest and regaining some confidence on the field behind a friendly home environment.

Instead, in an “Inception”-like turn of events, the Cardinal were jolted by that bad dream in Seattle only to wake up inside another one.

On Saturday night against the visiting Washington State Cougars (3-2, 2-0 Pac-12), Stanford (3-2, 2-2 Pac-12) once again suffered a blowout loss — this time a 42-16 humbling in front of a home crowd that dwindled into nonexistence by the middle of the third quarter.

Statistically speaking, the Cardinal showed signs of improvement on both sides of the ball from their disastrous outing in Seattle; the offense gained 296 total yards after putting up a Shaw-era low of 218 the week before while the defense registered three sacks after coming home empty-handed against the Huskies.

However, a variety of miscues — both physical and mental — once again allowed this season’s holy grail of consistency to evade Stanford’s grasp.

“We did not play well, and for every positive, we had a negative, and that’s not the sign of a good football team. It’s not the sign of a Stanford football team,” Shaw said after the game.

“The bottom line for us right now is we can’t overcome the negative plays and mistakes that we make,” Shaw added. “When someone else makes a mistake, our opponents make a mistake, we’re not doing a good job of taking advantage of that.”

Stanford’s trend of failing to capitalize on opportunities emerged almost immediately after the opening kickoff. Following a three-and-out on their opening possession, the Cardinal received a golden opportunity to draw first blood after fifth-year senior safety Dallas Lloyd intercepted Cougars quarterback Luke Falk on Wazzu’s second offensive play of the game.

The Stanford offense regained possession on Washington State’s 36-yard line, but managed to gain just three yards on three plays before the normally automatic Conrad Ukropina bounced a 50-yard field goal attempt off the upright. Ukropina would go on to miss another field goal off the post later in the half as well.

The Cougars offense failed to generate much production on their first two drives, which ended in the aforementioned interception and a punt, respectively. On their third series, though, Falk and the rest of the Air Raid attack settled into a rhythm and began dropping dimes all over the field, orchestrating a nine-play, 80-yard drive at the end of the first quarter and another nine-play, 75-yard possession at the beginning of the second that both ended in touchdown passes to sophomore Tavares Martin, Jr.

When it was all said and done, Falk turned in a masterful performance, completing 30 of 41 passes for 357 yards and four touchdowns while also throwing two interceptions. Amongst Falk’s many targets, senior River Cracraft especially stood out, grabbing all seven of his targets for 130 yards and a touchdown.

While Shaw acknowledged that his defense did a better job of applying pressure to Falk than they did last season, the senior signal caller’s savvy prevailed.

“[Falk] has been highly underrated because of the great quarterback play that’s been in this conference,” Shaw said. “But all the guy has done is complete a lot of passes for a lot of yards. He’s that veteran quarterback that’s seen every blitz, and you can’t rattle him… he’s going to be playing on Sunday.”

Aside from Ukropina’s two missed field goals, the Cardinal also missed several opportunities to score touchdowns in the first half. According to Shaw, starting quarterback Ryan Burns failed to spot a wide-open receiver in the second quarter before being unable to connect with sophomore receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside on another golden scoring opportunity later in the period.

“There were a couple times, now, [Burns] had to throw the ball before he should have,” Shaw noted. “So twice I know, off the top of my head, he would have loved to have waited another split second for the guy to get open, but he had to get rid of the ball because there’s pressure.”

Shaw also added that Burns did an “admirable job” given the circumstances of the game, but also acknowledged that the senior quarterback made some mistakes as well. Burns, who finished 19-for-25 for 222 yards with one touchdown and an interception, expressed frustration with his performance after the game.

“That was not good enough, obviously,” Burns said. “I definitely could have hit some balls that were wide open… A lot of that is on me… We’ll play well at times, but it’s just one mistake, two mistakes that’ll just kill drives.”

For the second year in a row, the Cougars’ defensive front saw plenty of success against the Cardinal. In addition to sacking Burns and junior backup Keller Chryst a total of four times, Wazzu completely shut down the Stanford running game, holding Stanford to a season-low 61 yards on the ground. Running back Christian McCaffrey led all Stanford rushers, but managed to gain just 35 yards on eight carries (the bulk of which came on a 23-yard, field-reversing run) before leaving the game in the third quarter with an undisclosed injury.

Shaw remarked afterwards that McCaffrey might have been able to return to the game after returning from the locker room, but the Stanford coaching staff decided against leaving their star player vulnerable to further injury with the score already well out of hand.

The Stanford offensive line, playing their third different combination of the season with senior David Bright moving to right tackle to replace the injured Casey Tucker and junior Brandon Fanaika entering the starting lineup at left guard, struggled against the Cougars’ athletic defensive front.

“We are a work in progress up front right now. And I didn’t think at this point in the season that I would be saying that, but that’s just where we are,” Shaw said. “Coach Mike Bloomgren has done a phenomenal job every year here, and we’ve got to find out who those next five are that are going to play the majority [of the time] for us and find out what they do well and what they can do consistently.”

“Our combination of backs, you know, they’re as good as anybody in the country, and we’ve got to give them a chance to make plays,” Shaw continued.

While the game ultimately ended in a rout, the Cardinal felt very much in contention heading into the locker room at halftime. After all, Stanford was down just 14-3 after missing two field goals and a couple other touchdown opportunities.

In the second half, with the offense still stagnating, the Cardinal received the break they were looking for when sophomore Frank Buncom, making his first career start, picked off an overthrown ball from Falk and took it the distance for a pick-six. Instantly, Stanford had cut the deficit to 21-10 and began to show life on the sidelines once more. However, the Cougars proceeded to march down the field on their very next drive, culminating in a 17-yard touchdown pass to receiver Gabe Marks. The drive was not only a representative sample of Washington State’s stellar red zone efficiency on Saturday — scoring touchdowns on five out of six trips inside the Stanford 20 — but also emotionally deflated the Cardinal for the rest of the night.

“That was an amazing play by Frank,” junior defensive end Solomon Thomas said of Buncom’s interception. “That should have been the momentum change. That should have been motivation for us. We should have gone out there and gone three-and-out. They drove down the field and scored.”

“That crushed us. I saw guys on the sideline sad. You can’t play like that when someone scores.”

For the remainder of the game, Washington State head coach Mike Leach hit the Cardinal with a heavy dose of the Cougars’ newfound running game. In total, the Cougars finished with 101 yards rushing and capped off their scoring for the night on a 2-yard touchdown run from Gerard Wicks.

For the second straight week, Stanford was outmuscled down the stretch and lost the time-of-possession battle.

On the game’s final play, Burns found Arcega-Whiteside on an end zone fade reminiscent of the duo’s game-winning connection against UCLA. The score was Stanford’s first offensive touchdown of the night, but provided nothing in the way of shaping the outcome of the game as the Cardinal fell by a final score of 42-16, enduring the second back-to-back loss stretch during Shaw’s tenure and the program’s first loss to Washington State since the 2007 season.

After the game, in a moment reminiscent of former safety John Flacco’s fiery speech after Stanford’s 2014 loss to Utah, Thomas delivered an impassioned message to his teammates in the locker room, urging them to play with more effort.

“I said, ‘Don’t sulk, don’t look down, don’t think we’re not a good football team because we’re a great football team if we want to play like it and execute,’” Thomas recapped afterwards.

“Physically, talent-wise, we’re one of the best teams in the nation, but if we go out there and execute like that, we’ll get beat like that every single weekend.”

Lloyd added that the Cardinal need to return to their fundamentals from the beginning of the season.

“I think we just need to take a deep breath, you know, and get back to where we were in training camp or even the first few weeks of the season, and just, you know, we just need to believe in ourselves.”

Stanford will return to action next Saturday in South Bend, Indiana, against non-conference rival Notre Dame. Kickoff is slated for 4:30 p.m. Pacific and the game will be televised nationally on NBC.

 

Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Vihan Lakshman

Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at' stanford.edu