“It’s not a beauty contest,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said, “it’s a football game, and thankfully, we were able to win it.”
Stanford (9-4, 6-3 Pac-12) pulled out an unlikely 14-13 victory against Pitt (7-7, 6-2 ACC) in the Hyundai Sun Bowl Dec. 31. The Cardinal improved to 6-4 during the current school-record ten year stretch of bowl appearances, and 15-14-1 all-time.
The moment of the game came early in the fourth quarter when senior running back Cameron Scarlett scored a zero-yard fumble recovery touchdown that must have been seen to be believed.
“Just like we drew it up,” joked Scarlett. “KJ thought he saw something and I was fortunate to carry out the fake and look back and the ball was right there in my hands.”
However, other members of the Stanford football program were less inclined to cover for what was obviously a strip sack of junior quarterback KJ Costello. “My mother refers to this game as the game with the ball that bounces funny,” said Shaw, “and that’s what happened.”
“The ball was loose,” Costello said. “I try and scrap for it, I turn around and it’s in my teammate’s hands.”
Meanwhile, Pitt players viewed the play with a bit more distaste. “They got lucky,” defensive end Rashad Weaver said. “That’s what I’m going to call it. They caught a ball that was a fumble. They didn’t do anything on that play. That’s what it is.”
Scarlett also scored the team’s first touchdown on a one-yard run that briefly handed a maligned Stanford a 7-3 lead in the second quarter. Winner of the Ted Hendricks Award for most valuable player, Scarlett was starting in place of senior running back Bryce Love, who, along with junior offensive guard Nate Herbig, was forgoing the game in preparation for the NFL draft. “The situation I’ve been in all year, playing behind Bryce, I kept the mindset that I was coming to work,” Scarlett said. “I had an opportunity in front of me and my goal was to capitalize as best I could.”
Scarlett’s 94 yards and 22 carries were both career highs, and accounted for nearly half of Stanford’s yardage on a day when the Pitt running game alone matched the 208 yards of output from the entire Cardinal offense.
“Obviously not the outcome we wanted, but defensively when you look at the stats, it almost makes me want to fall over,” said Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi. “Overall, offensively and defensively, we outplayed them. We just didn’t win on the scoreboard, which is unfortunate and I feel bad for our seniors.”
Despite a scoreless first 15 minutes, Pitt was clearly dominating, as the Stanford offense sputtered to three consecutive three and outs and were out-gained 114 to 1. Pitt finished the quarter inside the ten-yard line, and looked poised to score.
The heroics of the Stanford defense forced a field goal to keep the game within reach at a time when it looked as if a touchdown deficit would be insurmountable. After trading punts, the Cardinal broke through with a touchdown drive that featured chunk plays from junior running back Dorian Maddox and senior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside.
Maddox had been hampered by injuries through much of the year, but his 23 rushing yards were sorely needed. “Dorian Maddox had a couple of really nice runs; a couple of great moves,” said Shaw. “I love where our running backfield is right now and he is a big part of that.”
Arcega-Whiteside’s 90 yards on three receptions were crucial, directly setting up both scoring opportunities and vaulting the senior to the first thousand yard season by a Stanford wide receiver since Troy Walters in 1999. “JJ Arcega-Whiteside once again. I don’t know of many guys like him in college football,” said Shaw. “All the guy does is change field position and score points.”
Pitt immediately responded with a 75-yard touchdown drive, of which seven of nine plays came on the ground. With Qadree Wilson injured in the first quarter, the Panthers fed their other thousand yard rusher, Darrin Hall, 16 times for 123 yards. The Pitt offense leaned heavily on the run, rushing 42 times to 29 passes, but an argument could be made they should have ran even more. Quarterback Kenny Pickett completed only 11 of those passes for 136 yards, an improvement over his eight yards in the ACC championship game, but not the type of production to justify taking carries away from a rushing attack averaging five yards per attempt.
“There’s three phases to it, we go to block them, I have to throw it and we go to catch it,” said Pickett. “We got to improve in all areas this offseason.”
The passing game woes extended to Stanford as well. Costello, protected by the seventh offensive line combination of the year and without many of his top targets, invited pressure by holding on to the ball and was sacked three times. He finished 6 of 17 for 105 yards.
Pitt led at halftime 10-7 while doubling Stanford’s time of possession and out-gaining the Cardinal 226 to 85. Stanford had yet to convert a third down, and failed to do so until the fourth quarter, finishing one of 10 on the day.
“But, once again, that’s a lot of credit to the Pitt defense,” said Shaw. “Pat Narduzzi is one of the best defensive minds in college football. He forces you to play a difficult game.”
The staunch Panthers defense meant senior punter Jake Bailey was kept busy. He averaged 44.6 yards on his nine punts, and pinned Pitt inside their own twenty on three occasions. “I was super excited to end my career with nine punts,” said Bailey. “It was a big field position day and mine was an important position. We’re 2-0 in El Paso and I couldn’t think of a better way to end my career.”
The Cardinal defense also showed up in a big way, even while embodying the bend but don’t break philosophy. Freshman defensive end Thomas Booker won the Jimmy Rogers Jr. Most Valuable Lineman award while tying a career high five tackles. Senior outside linebacker Casey Toohill was the highest rated Stanford defender by Pro Football Focus, with seven tackles and three quarterback hits. After reaching the four yard line earlier in the game and kicking, the Panthers reached the six in the third quarter but were once again forced to kick a field goal.
“There’s no secret to why we lost,” said Pickett. “We didn’t punch it in inside the ten twice, we almost scored, that’s why you don’t win games.”
After Stanford scored the go ahead fourth quarter touchdown, Pitt had an opportunity to retake the lead. The Cardinal defense, however, stalled the Panthers outside the red zone and forced a bad miss from Alex Kessman on a 55 yard field goal attempt. Kessman was named the John Fulmer Most Valuable Special Teams Player.
With under two minutes remaining in the game and an opportunity to seal the win with a first down, Shaw dialed up an end around for freshman wide receiver Michael Wilson. “They were overplaying the run, we had run the ball strong so many times and we came back with the reverse to a true freshman,” said Shaw. “He had to break a tackle in the backfield, he got positive yards, he got the first down and he got down and we were able to run the clock out.”
This was the first game all season in which Stanford did not force a turnover and still managed to win, but it was not without luck in terms of ball security. Pitt forced two fumbles, including the fumble touchdown, but were unable to recover either, and the Sun Bowl was without a turnover for the first time since 1998.
“It’s not about yards,” said Shaw, “it’s about points.” In the end, the Cardinal won the only stat that matters.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.