Coming into Saturday’s matchup with the visiting Colorado Buffaloes, the Stanford offense had struggled on a grand scale. Prior to facing the Buffs, the Cardinal laid claim to the lowest points-per-drive mark in the conference, the fewest trips to the red zone in the FBS and just four touchdowns in the preceding month.
If those numbers do an unsatisfying job of telling the full story of Stanford’s famine on the offensive end, the reaction from the 44,535 fans in attendance on homecoming weekend provided a different kind of metric.
On a 2nd-and-26 play late in the second quarter, head coach David Shaw brought in backup quarterback Keller Chryst in place of starter Ryan Burns, and the junior signal-caller executed a designed run out of an empty backfield for a gain of four yards before returning to the sideline.
Almost immediately, Stanford Stadium was showered in a rain of boos that only worsened on the next play, as a delay of game penalty and a Burns sack and fumble left the Cardinal with 46 yards to go on fourth down.
It was a moment that became the tipping point for a season’s worth of frustrations that were only amplified on Saturday as Stanford (4-3, 2-3 Pac-12) failed to score a touchdown in a 10-5 loss to Colorado (6-2, 4-1), which maintains control of its destiny in the Pac-12 South.
Following the defeat, Shaw claimed responsibility for the Cardinal’s struggles.
“Our personnel doesn’t reflect our production, and all the fingers point to me,” he said. “That’s on me. That’s my responsibility to get the most out of the players that we have.”
Shaw also singled out the quarterback position as an area in major need of improvement. Burns, in arguably the worst performance of his career, finished 16-for-29 for 170 yards with four turnovers, coming in the form of three interceptions and a fumbled snap on first-and-goal that squandered Stanford’s best scoring opportunity of the day.
In his postgame press conference, Shaw declined to address any specifics of the quarterback situation moving forward, but acknowledged that the coaching staff will reevaluate all options.
Despite the ugly nature of the game, Stanford did have some bright spots.
Punter Jake Bailey turned in a stellar day, averaging 50.6 yards on his five boots, including a 61-yarder, and the Cardinal defense held a Buffaloes team averaging 35.4 points per game to just 10, giving Stanford an opportunity to win until the very end despite the anemic state of the offense.
“For what the Colorado team has done up until this game, it was tough to see – it was tough to even anticipate getting a game like that from our defensive side,” Shaw said. “Coach [Lance] Anderson [did a] phenomenal job, phenomenal job. Holding that team to 10 points, in particular with as inefficient as we were on offense, it was an outstanding job to hold that team to 10 points.”
As dominant as the Stanford defense was for much of the game, however, many players were quick to point out that the performance was far from perfect. The Buffs amassed 224 yards on the ground behind 139 yards on 12 carries from tailback Phillip Lindsay and another 70 yards on 18 carries from quarterback Sefo Liufau. The Cardinal were also aided by three missed Colorado field goals.
“I don’t think we played the read well, and the quarterback run,” defensive lineman Solomon Thomas remarked. “We missed too many tackles, let them break too many tackles. Yeah, we held them to 10 points, but they had over 200 yards rushing, and that’s totally unacceptable. We can’t let that happen.”
The Cardinal received a boost early in the game with the return of star running back Christian McCaffrey and starting corner Alijah Holder from injury. After the first 15 minutes of action, the Cardinal led 3-0 for their first lead after the opening quarter since a victory against UCLA on Sept. 23.
In the first quarter, momentum seemed to be swinging in the Cardinal’s favor. The offense showed encouraging signs of re-establishing its dormant run game as McCaffrey and sophomore Bryce Love combined for 49 yards on seven carries, setting up a Conrad Ukropina field goal to put Stanford up 3-0.
From there, however, the game took a very different turn, as the Buffaloes established their desired tempo on offense and quickly marched down the field at the beginning of the second quarter to take a 7-3 lead on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Liufau to Shay Fields on a 3rd-and-13 play.
Meanwhile, the Stanford offense ground to a boo-inducing halt.
After picking up 41 yards on 10 carries in the first quarter, McCaffrey managed to gain just 51 yards in the remainder of the game. Love would go on to touch the ball just two more times on the day, a result Shaw pinned on Stanford’s inability to move the chains, which limited the offense’s ability to spread touches around.
The Cardinal’s misfortune with injuries also continued on Saturday as Holder left the game after re-injuring the same shoulder that had kept him out of action for the previous three weeks. Safety Justin Reid also left the game with an injury.
Additionally, with David Bright missing action, Stanford had to adjust to yet another different offensive line combination. Casey Tucker returned to the starting lineup in Bright’s place to take over at right tackle while Brandon Fanaika took over at left guard for the third consecutive game.
With McCaffrey still recovering from an injury that kept him out of action against Notre Dame, corner Terrence Alexander handled kickoff return duties for the Cardinal.
Stanford’s five points were the lowest for a David Shaw-coached team and the program’s worst output in a game since a 2007 blowout loss to Arizona State. The game also marked the first contest in which Stanford had failed to score a touchdown since last season’s opening-week defeat at Northwestern.
Afterwards, Shaw expressed frustration with the fact that the Cardinal have been unable to replicate their strong play in practice onto the playing field, placing the onus of fixing this issue on the shoulders of the coaching staff.
“We have to get that translated to game day. We have to,” he said. “And that’s the charge for me and the coaching staff, to find a way to help our guys, because that’s what coaches are here to do. We’re not putting it on the players, we’re putting it on how do we get our guys to do what they’re naturally given to do, as hard as they work, to put them in position to be successful on game day.”
“It is very frustrating when what we get done in practice doesn’t show up in a game,” center Jesse Burkett added. “All we can do is keep working.”
Next up for Stanford is a late-night showdown on the road against Arizona next Saturday at 8 p.m. The newly Bowl-eligible Buffaloes will take on UCLA after a bye week in a Thursday night game in Boulder. Both match-ups will be televised on Fox Sports 1.
Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.