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Park: Top 10 plays of Stanford football season

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This week’s column takes an in-depth look at plays 10-6 of the Stanford football season. Check back next week for the top five plays of the Cardinal’s phenomenal Rose Bowl run.

Even now, after having three weeks to digest the 2015 Stanford football season as a complete entity, it still hasn’t sunk in.

I know I saw every single exhilarating second with my own two eyes, but the idea that I witnessed one of the greatest years in Stanford program history — one of (another) Heisman trophy runner-up, (another) Pac-12 Championship and (another) Rose Bowl victory — hasn’t really hit me yet, and I don’t know if it ever will. It’s too hard for my mind to put into context.

What has hit me, though, is the magnitude of some of the most ridiculously skillful individual playmaking and coaching decisions I’ve ever seen come out of this program — absurd catches, flashy runs, timely interceptions, play-action daggers — that came to define the new Stanford team that took the world by storm.

Let’s be clear here: Stanford football is undoubtedly a system and a process. It’s not built on the back of individual highlight-reel playmaking and relies more on every man doing his job play after play while the man with the headset watching from above calls the shots in a chess match of dueling wits and wills.

But having some of those ballsy decisions and “oh my god, did that really just happen” plays certainly helps. Stanford football this year was the most fun I’ve ever had watching a team through the course of a season ever (though I may be biased).

To commemorate those moments that were certainly parts of a whole but still pushed their way to the top and made us gasp in shock and stare in wonder throughout this season, I’ve decided to use this space to recognize my top 10 plays of the season for Stanford — a walk down memory lane, if you will, and a salute to the times that made this edition of Stanford football such a joy to watch.

 

Honorable Mention: Keller Chryst 6-yard touchdown pass to Rollins Stallworth (vs. Arizona, Oct. 3)

“Is [one of your best] plays really from garbage time? Michael and I did the same thing on the field after the game. Do we get an honorable mention by your standards?” – Vihan Lakshman

You bet it is. I love individual playmaking to be sure, and this season was chock-full of it, but in the end, I’m too much of a sucker for good storylines and feel-good moments to leave this out altogether. This touchdown was utterly meaningless in terms of the game (Stanford was already up 48-17) but this moment was impactful to me because of the guys involved.

On one side, you have Keller Chryst, the (presumed) future of Stanford football, kicking off his Stanford career with the first of many touchdown passes to come — the start of his legacy, if you will. And on the other, you have Rollins Stallworth, whose journey to the top from walk-on took him four full years and hundreds of practices to culminate in this one moment of true glory: his first and only career touchdown reception. This moment was under-the-radar, sure, but still special nonetheless.

 

No. 10: Kevin Hogan 93-yard touchdown pass to Bryce Love (vs. UCF, Sept. 12)

This marked the moment when I knew for sure that this year’s version of Stanford football had finally found the one element it could never seem to integrate into its game before: dazzling speed and elusiveness in the open field. Bryce Love is going to have himself a fantastic Stanford career when all is said and done, and it started with a bang: His first touchdown saw him take a screen pass, wade through a forest of UCF defenders and then turn on the afterburners down the sideline in a cardinal red blur that had me rubbing my eyes to make sure he did, in fact, have a Stanford uniform on and not an Oregon one.

 

No. 9: Solomon Thomas 34-yard fumble return for a touchdown (vs. USC, Dec. 5)

For a while, it looked like Stanford was going to run away with the Pac-12 title game in an utter laugher over a USC team that most expected to put up a good fight, but the Trojans we expected that night in Santa Clara finally decided to show up in the second quarter, and by the time the third quarter was ticking down, it turned into a blow-for-blow, back-and-forth boxing match that was going to boil down to who blinked first.

And then Blake Martinez forced the Trojans’ hand, hitting Cody Kessler from his blind side and knocking the ball loose, clearing the path for big ol’ Solomon Thomas to scoop up the fumble and run untouched into the end zone to give Stanford some breathing room and take the wind out of USC’s sails for good. This was the redemption for a front seven that had struggled mightily against Oregon and Notre Dame, and it gave the unit some ridiculous momentum before its finest performance of the season in the Rose Bowl.

 

No. 8: Kevin Hogan 59-yard touchdown run (vs. Washington St., Oct. 31)

Sometimes, I really wonder what could have been if Kevin Hogan’s mobility had been utilized to a greater extent in both 2013 and 2014, especially given how critical it was to his 2012 success — but I digress. This was the if-all-else-fails play that David Shaw had left in his pocket on a rainy night in Pullman when pretty much everything was going wrong, and luckily for Stanford, a hobbled Hogan was able to fool everybody on a read-option keeper and juke the daylights out of a poor Washington State safety with a knee brace on to pull Stanford right back into the ballgame. This was, to me, the biggest turning point of that ridiculous, improbable game that still confuses the hell out of me every time I think about it.

 

No. 7: Luke Falk pass intercepted by Quenton Meeks (vs. Washington St., Oct. 31)

I’m talking about the second interception here, but honestly, either one works. Without either of those two interceptions, Stanford would likely have — no joke — been playing in the Sun Bowl against Miami this bowl season. Without true freshman nickelback Quenton Meeks — by far, the best surprise of the season — breaking out in this game, Stanford doesn’t have its storybook ending to the year. For Meeks, who played with a huge chip on his shoulder this season due to programs telling him he wasn’t good enough and not wanting him during his recruitment process, this marked the culmination of absurd amounts of hard work and film study that allowed him to jump a screen pass — something remarkably automatic in 99 percent of cases — and set up Stanford’s decisive go-ahead drive to win the game.

 

No. 6: Kevin Hogan 42-yard touchdown pass to Michael Rector (vs. Iowa, Jan. 1)

The outcome of the 102nd Rose Bowl Game had long since been decided — in fact, Iowa’s fate was probably sealed early in the first quarter when Hogan found the end zone on a read-option keeper to put Stanford up 14-0. But with the clock winding down in the fourth quarter, one task still remained for the Cardinal: to give Kevin Hogan the send-off that he deserved, to put an exclamation mark on his four unforgettable years as the starting quarterback. Before this drive, Hogan’s final pass had been an interception — no way to cap off a career for the record books.

We’ll never know whether Michael Rector actually did keep the ball in bounds as he stumbled into the end zone after catching Hogan’s final career pass. But on that night in Pasadena, it would have been highway robbery to take another look at that catch and deprive Hogan of the storybook ending he so deserved — and luckily for Hogan and Stanford fans, the referees let history be.

Tell Do Hyoung-Park to stop writing about football and start covering another of Stanford’s 35 sports at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Do-Hyoung Park '16, M.S. '17 is the Minnesota Twins beat reporter at MLB.com, having somehow ensured that his endless hours sunk into The Daily became a shockingly viable career. He was previously the Chief Operating Officer and Business Manager at The Stanford Daily for FY17-18. He also covered Stanford football and baseball for five seasons as a student and served two terms as sports editor and four terms on the copy desk. He was also a color commentator for KZSU 90.1 FM's football broadcast team for the 2015-16 Rose Bowl season.