By George Chen
Certain phrases have come to be associated with Stanford football: Nerd Nation, “party in the backfield” and “focus and finish,” among others. But on Saturday night, “cardiac Card” was no doubt the most defining term.
In a battle of the undefeated, No. 5 Stanford (5-0, 3-0 Pac-12) held off a furious rally by No. 15 Washington (4-1, 1-1) to prevail 31-28 and keep its national title hopes intact. Junior wide receiver Ty Montgomery starred with 290 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, including a score on the opening kickoff, but the Cardinal needed a late fourth-down incompletion by quarterback Keith Price — first ruled a completion, but overturned upon further review — to escape with the victory.
“We talked about being finishers, we talk about training for games like this, because that’s our conference,” said David Shaw, who improved to 28-4 as Stanford’s head coach with the win. “This is the way it’s going to be from here on out. There’s going to be a one-score lead in the fourth quarter…Either we’re going to be up or we’re going to be down, and that is just the way it’s going to be.”
“I think you needed to be tested on occasion to prove to yourself what you’re capable of and to improve,” added fifth-year senior linebacker Shayne Skov, who recorded a team-high 14 tackles along with 1.5 sacks. “You find out things about yourself when you have to push through adversity. You have to rise up to the challenge…The more difficult the games are, the better we’ll become.”
Stanford seemed to have the game well under control when it held a 31-21 lead with just over four minutes left in the game. But Price mounted a lightning-quick touchdown drive — galvanized by a 40-yard circus catch by wide receiver Kasen Williams — that took just 1:34 off the clock and cut the deficit to three.
Needing just one first down on the next drive to seal the game, junior quarterback Kevin Hogan bounced outside on the usually successful bootleg play but failed to move the chains on third-and-1. A Cardinal punt gave the Huskies the ball with 1:51 left in the game. Price hooked up with Williams once again for an 18-yard pickup on the first play of the drive before Stanford’s defense stood its ground on the next three snaps, with fifth-year senior defensive end Ben Gardner and fifth-year senior outside linebacker Trent Murphy applying the pressure on Price.
It seemed as if the game was over when multiple Cardinal defenders rushed into the backfield on fourth-and-10, but the shifty Price pulled a Houdini and fired a bullet to wideout Kevin Smith near the right sideline at the Cardinal 33 for a first down. The officials ruled the pass complete, but after a lengthy review of the play, they overturned the call, stating that the ball had hit the ground as Smith was trying to make the catch.
“The guys upstairs said they saw a replay from behind,” Shaw said. “You could see the ball go through, hit [Smith’s] chest, bounce off the ground and into his hands.”
With 1:16 left in the game and the Huskies down to one timeout, Hogan kneeled down twice after the turnover on downs to end the game.
“One of our team goals is just to go 1-0 every week,” Murphy said. “It wasn’t pretty, but we got it. We can’t be the same team we were a week ago. We just have to keep moving forward.”
Montgomery jump-started the Cardinal when he took the opening kickoff for a 99-yard touchdown in an impressive display of speed, marking the first time in more than four years in which a Cardinal returner brought back an opening kickoff for a score. A defensive struggle ensued, with Hogan throwing an interception in Huskies territory and Washington punting five times in a row. Only a 33-yard field goal by Jordan Williamson increased Stanford’s lead to 10-0 midway through the second quarter.
But as the first half started to wind down, the Huskies offense began to open up. Price ran the offense at warp speed with a combination of handoffs to running back Bishop Sankey and quick completions to his targets, including a 19-yard strike to tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins over the middle of the field.
“Can’t say enough about Keith Price,” Shaw said. “Athletic, smart, great kid, tough competitor. We probably should have had four to five more sacks tonight, but we couldn’t bring him down. He’s that good.”
On first-and-goal at the Cardinal 7, Sankey somehow stayed upright after getting hit near the line of scrimmage and darted into the end zone to cut the margin to three points. The junior running back would eventually finish the game with 136 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries.
Hogan looked uncharacteristically skittish — he finished the contest just 12-of-20 passing for 105 yards in what was the worst game of his career — and his receivers did him no favors by creating little or no separation from the disciplined Washington defensive backs. On offense, the Cardinal was outgained by the Huskies 489 to 284 yards and picked up only 14 first downs compared to Washington’s 30. But the junior quarterback delivered in the waning moments of the second quarter, when he found Montgomery down the right sideline for a 39-yard touchdown to give Stanford a 17-7 lead heading into halftime.
“[Washington’s defense] is well-coached and they’re extremely good,” Shaw said. “There were not a lot of passing lanes. They did a good job squeezing the receivers, getting underneath the receivers. The corners and safeties played deep, so it was hard to get the deep shot. This is a defense that makes you try to go the long way without giving up big plays.”
The Cardinal defense gave up all kinds of big plays to start the third quarter. A 30-yard rush by Sankey followed by a 29-yard touchdown reception by Smith chipped Stanford’s lead to three just a minute into the second half. Hogan answered on the next drive, however, when he found the end zone with a 4-yard option keeper before Sankey struck again toward the end of the third quarter, weaving his way into the end zone from 15 yards out. The play was eerily similar to Sankey’s 61-yard touchdown run against Stanford last year, a game-changing score that also cut Stanford’s lead from 10 to 3 and turned the tide in Washington’s favor.
But on Saturday night, Montgomery was not going to let history repeat itself.
Washington intentionally kicked the ball away from him, but Montgomery fielded the ball anyways and exploded through a crease before finally getting dragged down at the Husky 19. Three plays later, running back Tyler Gaffney punched it in from 11 yards out to put the Cardinal back up by 10.
“Much was made about last year’s game with Ty and him having a rough game,” Shaw said. “We all had a rough game last year. But what I love about Ty right now and his mentality is this wasn’t a way to get back at Washington or wasn’t redemption by any stretch of the imagination; it’s just his growth. I mean, he’s a better player now than he was a year ago. He’s gotten better every single week.”
Washington had a chance to pull within 3 again with less than six minutes left in the game, but Murphy tipped a pass from Price on first-and-goal at the Cardinal 7, allowing senior linebacker A.J. Tarpley to come down with the ball. The pick extended Stanford’s takeaway streak to 29 games, and more importantly, prevented the Huskies from walking away with any points. And after a three-and-out by Hogan and company, Washington began its furious rally.
“We were in a fight and [it came] down to the last minute,” Montgomery said. “We showed that we can stand in there and we can finish a game and win in a fight if we have to.”
Stanford travels to Salt Lake City next weekend to take on Utah.
Contact George Chen at gchen ‘at’ stanford.edu.