For the third straight year, No. 24 Stanford (5-3, 3-2 Pac 12) fell to No. 14 Washington State (7-1, 4-1). For the second straight year, a heartbreaking margin of three points separated the two sides, as the Cougars were able to kick a go-ahead field goal with 19 seconds remaining to defeat the Cardinal 41-38.
The Cardinal came out of the tunnel with urgency, winning the coin toss, taking the ball and scoring first for only the second time all season. In a shocking revelation, nine of the first 10 plays from scrimmage and all four first down plays, were passes. Junior quarterback KJ Costello capped off his seven-completion drive with a fade to senior wideout JJ Arcega-Whiteside in double coverage. It appeared as if the Cardinal were the ones running the air raid offense made famous by their opponent’s head coach, Mike Leach.
After the game, Stanford head coach David Shaw explained the shift in offensive mindset: “You can ask our players about the post-game locker room when we played up in Washington State last year,” he said. “This game plan, honestly, started that night.”
For much of the first half, the Cardinal actually looked as if they had been preparing for this game for a year.
The Cougars answered Stanford’s near-perfect drive with their own 75-yard display of excellence, driving downfield on chunk plays and finishing with a rushing score. The Stanford defense had an opportunity to get off the field on a third down, but in what became a theme of the day, Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew had all day to sit back in the pocket and pick out a receiver.
“Having that much time — them letting me play seven-on-seven back there — it’s awesome,” Minshew said after the game.
After Costello was strip sacked on the 23-yard-line, Washington State took advantage of a short field to pull ahead 14-7. However, even Wazzu beginning to click on offense, instead of allowing the Cougars to pull away, Stanford doubled down and kept the pressure on offense. The Cardinal were immediately rewarded with a 43-yard burst from senior running back Bryce Love, during which he danced, spun and sped away from multiple Washington State defenders. Although Shaw noted that Love was nowhere near 100 percent, he challenged “somebody to find me a tougher guy in America. This kid just grinds through it, and he pushes through it.”
Costello, who had also been dogged by injury rumors throughout the week, proved his own toughness by scrambling for a key third-down conversion later in the same drive. Two plays later, he attempted to find Arcega-Whiteside, but for the second time in the quarter, Wazzu was flagged for pass interference trying to cover the elite Stanford wide receiver. The conference’s second-most penalized team gifted the Cardinal with five total first downs on yellow flags. With the Cardinal only two yards out, senior running back Cameron Scarlett bullied his way into the end zone for the third consecutive game, and he now has the most rushing touchdowns on the year of anyone on the Farm, just as everyone expected.
The Stanford defense responded to the momentum generated by its offense, forcing a three and out to stop the Cougars for the first time. On third down, freshman defensive end Thomas Booker pressured Minshew and was credited with a sack, his first since the season opener. Wazzu punter Oscar Draguicevich III out kicked his coverage, and senior wide receiver Trenton Irwin took it back 39 yards to flip the field. As the first quarter came to a close, Stanford took the opportunity to honor the alumni who returned to the Farm for homecoming weekend.
Following consecutive punts by both sides, the Cardinal got the ball back on their own 34. Costello hit junior tight end Kaden Smith twice for the the exact type of big plays that the Cardinal needed to win the game, first for 20 and then for 36 yards. A completion to Arcega-Whiteside preceded the third connection between the roommates as Costello found Smith from 10 yards out to retake the lead. The success of the Stanford offense early, especially on passing plays, contrasted with previous struggles to get into the game before the opponent had jumped out to a lead. “We started feeling ourselves early,” said Costello. “We’ve been asking ourselves to feel that way for, what, eight weeks now? And we finally got in that rhythm early.”
Washington State was again unable to move the ball on a suddenly stout Cardinal defense, and Costello and the offense took over after a touchback on the 20. Two plays and two completions to Irwin later, the Cardinal were at the Wazzu 49. Irwin would finish with eight receptions, the most of his career. A personal foul and subsequent pass interference penalties by the Cougars defense brought the Cardinal into the red zone. A completion to Arcega-Whiteside spotted the ball at the two, but a holding call prevented Stanford from punching it in. Shaw called a timeout before a fourth down from within a yard and decided to send out his offense in the heavy package. With everyone in the stadium expecting a run, Costello found sophomore fullback Houston Heimuli wide open in the end zone for his first reception and touchdown of his career to extend the Cardinal lead to two scores with just over a minute remaining in the first half.
On the ensuing drive, despite penetration from the Stanford defensive line on two hurries by junior linebacker Jordan Fox, Minshew found Jamire Calvin for 54 yards to set up a field goal as time expired in the first half to close the deficit to 28-17. Fox, who was seeing added time with fifth-year senior Joey Alfieri out and senior Casey Toohill limited due to injuries, noted the defensive shortcomings that let the Cardinal down. “We missed a couple tackles when they did catch the ball on those short routes all over the field.” The meticulous execution late in the half on the Wazzu side and Stanford’s missed tackling, especially on Calvin’s scamper, foreshadowed Washington State’s winning field goal drive.
Costello finished the half 19 of 22, including nine straight completions, a streak he would extend in the second half to 14, for 192 yards and three touchdowns. Not only did Stanford lead in time of possession, but it also had outgained the nation’s top offense on both the ground and through the air.
Washington State would have none of it. A nine-play, 75-yard drive concluding with its second rushing score of the day brought the game to within four. Despite an anemic rushing total of 59 yards, the Cougars extended their streak of a rushing score each game.
The Cardinal offense looked poised to respond with a touchdown of their own but ran into a wall that forced junior kicker Jet Toner to come onto the field to hit from 40 yards out.
Good tackling on short routes and a hurry by fifth-year senior linebacker Bobby Okereke gave Stanford the ball back after just three plays. Junior running back Trevor Speights looked good on consecutive carries, but a failure to convert on third and two forced Stanford to punt back to a Washington State offense that was heating up as its quarterback found his stride with a streak of 19 straight completions that started at the half. The Cougars marched right down the field with the only thing stopping them being the intermission between the third and fourth quarters. With just over 12 minutes remaining, the game was once again tied, this time at 31.
On the next drive, Stanford quickly made its way to the Wazzu 39. After Costello threw consecutive incomplete passes for the only time all game, he scrambled for seven yards to bring up fourth down. Shaw sent out the offense, but Costello checked it down to Love behind the line, and the Cardinal turned it over on downs. Eleven plays, 67 yards and one fourth-down conversion later, Washington State was up 38-31 with 4:22 to play.
Stanford executed one of its best drives of the game, balancing the pass and the run and converting on three separate third and one’s. With first down on the Wazzu 25, the Cougars defense inexplicably forgot about Arcega-Whiteside, who had an easy path to the end zone to bring the game to within one. Arcega-Whiteside’s second touchdown reception of the night put him at 11 for the season, the first time a Cardinal receiver has hit double digits since Ty Montgomery in 2013. Toner came on the field to hit his 79th consecutive PAT to surpass Jordan Williamson for the second-longest streak in school history, and the game was tied with 1:25 remaining.
Washington State began the possession on the 25. After a completed pass for nine yards and a rush for a loss of one, the Cougars called time out. On a decisive third and two late in a half, Minshew was once again able to find Calvin, and after a gain of 35 yards, Washington State was well into Stanford territory. With Stanford unable to generate pressure, Minshew had all the time he needed to wait for his receiver to come open over the middle. Blake Mazza hit the go-ahead field goal four plays later, with Shaw forgoing the opportunity to ice the kicker in favor of stashing his final time out to use on offense.
With the ball on the 30, the Cardinal were unable to muster any late heroics, and three plays later, the clock ran out. Despite career performances from numerous Stanford defenders, once again, when the Cardinal were unable to produce a turnover, they lost. “When the ball is in the air, we have to find a way to come down with it,” said fifth-year senior cornerback Alijah Holder. “When guys are carrying the ball loose, we have to be cognizant and get the ball out.”
With substantial emphasis leading up to the game on the arm of Wazzu quarterback Gardner Minshew, the actual performance could not have been much better. After the game, his head coach attempted to make a case for his Heisman candidacy as the gunslinger finished with 438 yards and three touchdowns while completing 40 of his 50 passes. Wide receiver Dezmon Patmon had a career game, hauling in 10 catches for 127 yards on a day when 10 Wazzu receivers had multiple receptions.
With Cal (5-3, 2-3) pulling off an upset victory at home over Washington (6-2, 4-1), the shootout on the Farm determined control of sole first place in the North. As Stanford prepares to take on Washington next Saturday, the Cardinal are no longer in control of their own destiny and will need to hope for help in order to return to the conference championship.
Wazzu head coach Mike Leach began his press conference by joking, “We had them right where we wanted them the whole game.” For a Cardinal team that played its best 60 minutes of football and ended up on the losing side, the joke was lost.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.