By George Chen
A season remains to be salvaged, as Stanford’s bowl hopes are teetering precariously.
Plagued by sloppy offensive execution that has come to define the 2014 Cardinal team, Stanford (5-5, 3-4 Pac-12) fell to No. 23 Utah (7-3, 4-3) 20-17 in double overtime on Senior Day. The loss marked the first time in the David Shaw era that Stanford has lost back-to-back games, and also the first time in six years that Stanford has dropped its final home contest of the season. On Saturday night, Stanford either turned the ball over or punted on nine of its 11 possessions in regulation; when the dust settled, the Cardinal had only 294 yards of total offense to show for.
“[I’m] very disappointed in our overall performance today,” said head coach David Shaw. “You can see the defense played really hard and kept us in the game…It’s about being smart and making plays. You can’t lose leverage in coverage. You can’t drop passes and can’t miss throws. And on a third down, when we have guys open, we can’t get beat in pass protection.”
After a 7-7 defensive slugfest that lasted a full 60 minutes, both offenses started to open up in overtime to provide some late-game fireworks. It was Utah who struck first when quarterback Travis Wilson threw an easy touchdown pass to Kaelin Clay on the first play after regulation, but junior quarterback Kevin Hogan answered right back by hitting sophomore tight end Austin Hooper for a 14-yard score.
Fifth-year senior kicker Jordan Williamson hit a career-long 51-yard field goal in the second overtime period after the offense went nowhere, only to see Utah quarterback Travis Wilson decisively one-up him by hitting a wide-open Kenneth Scott for a 3-yard touchdown minutes later in clinching the Utes’ victory.
There were approximately zero people in the nation that were expecting Saturday’s Senior Day battle against Utah to be a high-scoring affair — or even a game with scoring in any meaningful capacity. That’s what you’ll get when you pit two of the conference’s top defenses against two of the conference’s worse offenses.
And no, Stanford and Utah did not disappoint in that regard, battling to a low-scoring affair that would have made the SEC of old jealous.
It started out promisingly enough for the Cardinal, which answered two choruses of calls from their fans by using freshman running back Christian McCaffrey early and getting a lot more creative with the play-calling to come out of the gate with a 7-play, 70-yard touchdown drive to go up 7-0.
The key play that sprung the Stanford offense on that drive was a 37-yard gain on fourth-and-1 from McCaffrey on a rare choice to go for it on fourth down by head coach David Shaw. With short-yardage back Patrick Skov out with an injury, McCaffrey lined up as the tailback, and with Hogan faking the handoff to the fullback and pitching outside to McCaffrey, the speedy freshman had free rein to carve a huge gain down the sideline.
That play eventually set up another misdirection play from Stanford, facing second-and-goal from the Utah 3, during which the Utes overcommitted to a run facing Stanford’s heavy set and allowed fifth-year senior fullback Lee Ward to squirt out on the flat for an easy receiving touchdown.
However, as we’ve seen all too often this season, a promising start yielded to nothing but frustration from the offense from there on out.
Facing one of the stoutest front sevens in the nation, Stanford’s offense followed up its 70-yard touchdown drive with five first-half drives for a combined 68 yards, three punts and a fumble. In another common refrain, the Cardinal just couldn’t establish a consistent running game, which led to drive after drive after drive stagnating.
“[In] the last four games, we’ve been able to mix it up,” Shaw said. “Getting Christian McCaffrey involved and Ty Montgomery involved. Moving the quarterback. A variety of plays, gun run plays, screen passes as well as our big personnel running game. We’ve been able to incorporate all that. We moved the ball better. But then today, penalties, sacks, missed throws and dropped passes. Can’t survive against a top-25 team like that.”
Luckily for the Cardinal, the defense had a field day and returned to form against a largely stagnant Utah offense, yielding a second-quarter touchdown on a bevy of halfback screens and option keepers between quarterback Travis Wilson and running back Devontae Booker but not much else.
The result? In a sight oddly reminiscent of the 2013 Rose Bowl, two defenses traded blows against mediocre offenses as punt after punt arced through the chilly evening air.
The second half was even uglier than the first. In three out of their five drives in the final two quarters, the Cardinal failed to gain more than seven yards. Facing heavy pressure from a physical Utes front seven that collected four sacks, Hogan continued to miss open targets — with both underthrows and overthrows — in the vertical passing game, and would finish the game 17-of-28 passing for 104 yards.
Utah didn’t fare much better on offense, though, especially with fifth-year senior defensive end Henry Anderson leading the way with 5.5 tackles for loss, including 3.0 sacks — both career-highs. Stanford’s defense contained bruising Utah back Devontae Booker and didn’t allow the speedy Clay to record a single reception until overtime. But once overtime arrived, the Cardinal’s defense started to crack, culminating in a blown coverage by junior cornerback Alex Carter that gave up the game-winning touchdown.
Stanford will prepare to take on Cal next Saturday in one of the more meaningful Big Games in recent memory.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.