By Sam Fisher
For the first time since Nov. 12, 2011, Stanford football was beaten by a better team.
On Jan. 1, 2014, the Spartans, playing without their two-time captain and defensive leader Max Bullough, were better than the Cardinal — and more physical too.
The 100th Rose Bowl Game was remarkably different than Stanford’s previous five losses. In all five of those games, Stanford clearly looked like the better team and had golden opportunities to win. Against Michigan State, even if the Cardinal had somehow scored on its last drive, it would have felt like Stanford stole the game away.
This was a remarkable shift; quite honestly, I’m still having trouble processing just how physically Michigan State played. In my four seasons of watching Stanford football up close, I’ve never seen a game play out quite like that.
But even though the Spartans’ shocking physical domination up front made a Stanford victory unlikely, the Cardinal still had its chances to win. All it had to do was attack Michigan State’s weaknesses instead of its strengths — and execute, of course.
Heading into the game, Michigan State had two apparent weaknesses: quarterback Connor Cook’s decisions under pressure and safety Isaiah Lewis’ coverage skills. Stanford’s ability to expose these weaknesses, I thought, would decide the Rose Bowl.
That’s why, early on at least, there was plenty of reason for Cardinal fans to be extremely confident in victory. Stanford had success early down the middle of the field, as sophomore wide receiver Michael Rector was consistently open, and pressure on Cook forced two terrible decisions in the first half alone.
Inexplicably, however, Stanford took very few shots down the field, settling instead for inside runs that struggled all game long. And on the other side of the ball, the Cardinal failed to convert Cook’s mistakes into enough turnovers to change the game — those two dropped interceptions could easily have been the difference with such a small margin of victory.
I’m not sure how to describe exactly what happened or why — the offensive game plan was simply perplexing. All season long, we have heard head coach David Shaw preach that Stanford would take whatever an opposing defense gave it. Against Oregon, that meant running the ball down the Ducks’ throats. Against Cal and Arizona State, that meant throwing the ball deep down the field. So when Michigan State stacked the box with nine defenders, why not go to the pass-first game plan?
Critics might argue that Michigan State’s secondary is much better than either Cal’s or Arizona State’s, and they would be right. But the Spartans also had a much better run defense than either of those teams, so with nine guys in the box, the defensive front was effectively impenetrable. Sure the deep ball may not have worked, and some, like the one to a double-covered Rector, may have even been intercepted. But would that have been any worse than repeatedly running the ball into the line? It certainly was worth taking a few more chances.
So while Michigan State was the better football team on Jan. 1, Stanford still could have avoided the loss.
Fortunately for Shaw and the Cardinal, the loss shouldn’t have much effect on the program. Stanford proved all it needed to prove by beating Oregon and winning the Pac-12. I’d find it hard to believe that many recruits, if any at all, would be turned off from signing with Stanford based on the Rose Bowl loss.
The most meaningful ramification from the loss is the unfairly bitter taste that the Cardinal seniors’ careers will end with. The most successful seniors and fifth-year seniors in Stanford history deserved a better ending, but their careers have been so great that it hardly feels sad.
Perhaps that’s why the Rose Bowl loss was so much easier to handle than losses in years past. There was no next game either way, the last four years have been great and Michigan State also deserved a win, so how can we be bitter? Anyone complaining about the results of this season will be in for a rude awakening in 2014, with road games at Oregon, UCLA, Notre Dame, Washington and Arizona State looming. So while the play calling was certainly frustrating, and the defeat tough to swallow, it’s time to move on and enjoy all of the good that the last four years brought.
Who knows how long it will last.
Sam Fisher is not sure what to do with himself now that the Stanford football season is over. Recommend some coping mechanisms at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu.