Fourth quarter. 28-27. 3:27 left on the clock. Washington State with the ball.
The late-game situation on paper seemed straightforward, albeit shocking, enough: Wazzu had the No. 8 team in the land on the ropes. Nursing a one-point lead with control of the ball, the Cougars had their chance to march down the field and drive the final stake in Stanford’s post-season aspirations. Martin Stadium and the home fans were visibly shaking in anticipation — feeling an end to the years of football futility on the Palouse and a taste of Pac-12 North supremacy.
But in this nebula of steady rain, biting wind, Stormtrooper costumes and high-stakes football, a different kind of star was born.
On a 2nd-and-10 from just inside midfield, Wazzu quarterback Luke Falk attempted the safest throw in the Air Raid arsenal: a quick toss to the outside, a play so automatic, so boring in its security that most have come to consider it the equivalent to a run play.
Which is why you can’t really fault Falk for what happened next. True freshman nickelback Quenton Meeks donned his best ghost outfit to float right through two blockers and snag Falk’s pass in the backfield, eventually setting up Conrad Ukropina’s game-winning field goal moments later. Perhaps Falk’s ill-fated decision to throw the ball was unwise, but there was no chance anybody expected Meeks to be there waiting for the ball, ready to make the defining play of his young career.
With this second pick of the game, Meeks, who was just in high school five months ago, had saved Stanford’s season, positioning the Cardinal within five games of the Pac-12 Championship and capping off a coming-out party for the Stanford secondary.
In his post-game press conference following last week’s win over Washington, inside linebacker Blake Martinez issued a promise that the young Cardinal secondary would shine against Mike Leach’s Air Raid, and the senior captain’s words proved prophetic.
In addition to Meeks and his takeaways, there was safety Kodi Whitfield keeping Cougars receiver John Thompson out of the endzone on a crucial two-point conversion attempt — one that would have sent the game into overtime — and Ronnie Harris adding to his league-leading total of pass breakups. Alijah Holder, Dallas Lloyd and Terrence Alexander also delivered in the spotlight on the road against a dangerous Wazzu receiving corps featuring three Biletnikoff watch list members, more than any other school.
In short, Stanford’s secondary didn’t just hold up against the pressures of the Pac-12’s most dangerous pass offense, but it stepped up to win the game when just about nothing else could go right. Stanford’s recent recruiting prowess in attracting top-talent to The Farm, coupled with arguably the best coaching in the business, kept the Cardinal’s hopes and dreams alive.
Stanford defensive backs coach Duane Akina has dissected Leach’s offenses for years, going back to the former’s time at Texas. Although Akina and the Longhorns were involved on the wrong side of Leach’s wizardry on at least one memorable occasion, his tutelage in the art of stopping the Air Raid almost certainly made the difference in bringing this young secondary up to speed when the Cardinal needed it most.
Moreover, with the rapid ascension of Justin Reid, Ben Edwards and Brandon Simmons, who emerged as a punt-blocking threat at Martin Stadium, the Cardinal secondary looks built not only for the short run, with bouts against Colorado, Oregon and Cal all on the radar, but also for the future.
Stanford’s ability to turn what was once its biggest question mark at the start of the season into a serious asset — in developing a group largely composed of first-year players and offensive converts — just might make the difference between having its conference season end with a confetti shower at Levi’s Stadium, as opposed to a very literal shower of pure misery on the Palouse.
Vihan Lakshman has so much confidence in the Cardinal and its emerging secondary that he’ll pick Colorado to win on Saturday. Ask him why at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.