BOULDER — The story was not new for the Cardinal, but the outcome was. In the team’s most recent road game on Sept. 28, Stanford (4-5, 3-4 Pac-12) held off Oregon State with a last-second field goal from senior Jet Toner. This time, Colorado’s (4-6, 2-5 Pac-12) Evan Price called game with a 37-yarder as time expired.
The Buffs claimed victory on Homecoming 16-13 in Boulder on Saturday.
The Cardinal have struggled on the road all season, and now hold a 1-3 record away from Stanford Stadium. Colorado, on the other hand, has played its best football in the friendly confines of Folsom Field. A boisterous crowd in a stadium set back against the snow-capped Rocky Mountains was happy to watch their team snap a five-game losing streak on an unseasonably warm November day in Boulder, with 77-degree temperatures at kickoff.
The defense’s best road game this season was mired by the offense’s uncharacteristic failure to convert red zone opportunities into points. This was the first time all season that a Colorado opponent scored fewer than 30 points, and Stanford’s 151 first-half yards were the lowest total for an opponent this season.
On two trips inside the Colorado 20 yard line, Stanford came away with a single field goal from freshman Ryan Sanborn, who has assumed all kicking duties since the season-ending injury to Toner. Sanborn connected on field goals from 40 and 36 yards, but missed from 32 yards out, which proved to be the difference.
“What [being held to field goals] does is that puts stress on your defense countless times to hold them to field goals instead of touchdowns,” senior quarterback K.J. Costello said. “They just scored one more touchdown than we did in the ball game and that won them the ball game.”
In the last meeting between the two programs, in 2016, Stanford failed to find the end zone. The task on Saturday was equally as challenging, with the only score coming on a 79-yard catch and run from sophomore wide receiver Simi Fehoko on the second play of the fourth quarter. Fehoko’s ability to hit the hole and outrun everyone briefly handed the Cardinal a 13-10 lead, but the defense was unable to make the necessary stops to seal the road win.
“I saw the hole, I actually thought that the corner was going to peel off and get me,” Fehoko said. “Hit that and then I was scared. I was just running for my life really.”
“Defensively after Simi’s big play we had the lead. We had a chance where all we had to do was get a stop to get the ball back,” head coach David Shaw ’94 said. “We battled for three quarters but we have to be better finishers.”
For a moment, after Fehoko raced for the touchdown, it looked as if Stanford had taken control of the game against an opponent winless in its past five.
“After I went to the sideline, everybody was a lot more juiced than they were before,” Fehoko said. “We just had to go down and close it.”
“It was back and forth the entire game,” Shaw said. “This was going to come down to the fourth quarter and Colorado made more plays than we did.”
Stanford entrusted its defense first with maintaining a three-point lead and then holding the game tied, but defensive coordinator Lance Anderson’s group was not up to the task either time. On the first drive, the Buffs converted a fourth-and-one on the ground and benefited from a face mask penalty on junior cornerback Paulson Adebo. The flag was one of eight called on the Cardinal.
After holding firm on the six yard line to force a field goal, the Cardinal offense went three-and-out and the defense was promptly back to work.
“I don’t know about any other player, but I want the ball in my hands to win the game,” Costello said. “I knew with seven minutes left or six minutes left, I was treating that like a drive to win the game. We didn’t do it, third and three didn’t convert fourth and inches punt.”
Colorado burned every second of the last six minutes with a 13-play, 61-yard game-winning drive. Quarterback Steven Montez converted a third down with a sneak, a pass interference penalty on freshman Kyu Blu Kelly gave away a free first down on a third and long, and Colorado’s most explosive weapon Laviska Shenault Jr. rushed for five yards on fourth and one. Finally, with two seconds on the clock, Price lined up for the kick.
“It is really disappointing,” fifth-year linebacker Casey Toohill said. “Especially on defense at the end we just weren’t good enough. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s the truth so we have to deal with it.”
“That doggone number two [Shenault] is a special player and we had a chance to tackle him a couple times,” Shaw said. “We couldn’t get him on the ground. We stop him on that fourth down and we get a chance to win the game. But he made more plays than we did.”
Colorado came into the game with only 15 sacks on the season but found Costello in the backfield on consecutive plays. Despite suffering an injury that kept him out over a month, Costello was unfazed by the pressure.
“That’s part of the game, you play quarterback, that’s why you’re ready for those on third down, teams want to bring pressure,” Costello said. “You adjust your chinstrap, you like to the sideline and get ready to go.”
“Their third-down plan for us was good,” Shaw said. “They had a couple of plays where they ran a couple of stunts up front and we didn’t do a good job of picking them up.”
Saturday marked the first time since the final five games of the 2017 season that Stanford started the same five offensive linemen in three consecutive games. Three of those starters are true freshmen, and first-year inside lineman Drake Nugent appeared for the first time this season as well.
Costello finished 18-of-29 for 245 yards and a touchdown, and an interception that came on a third-down play in which he was hit as he threw. The captain also etched his name in the record books, becoming the ninth Cardinal all-time to throw for 6,000 career passing yards.
Toohill leads Stanford with 51 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss and 10 quarterback hurries. During the bye week, Toohill was named one of 12 NFF National Scholar-Athlete finalists.
Fehoko thought he had a touchdown earlier in the game on a fade to the back of the end zone that was initially ruled a catch. The play was overturned on review, bringing up a third down, which was overthrown to junior tight end Colby Parkinson.
“A loss hurts anytime any way you put it, but you know, especially this one,” Fehoko said. “We prepared all week, had a good off week, a good bye week, and it’s tough coming back when we had so many chances to close it out.”
Buffs fifth-year quarterback Steven Montez became the second Colorado player all-time to surpass 10,000 yards with a dive into the end zone on the Buffs’ first drive.
“I think we just kind of got jumped our first drive,” Toohill said. “Once we settled down we started to play more of our football.”
Stanford’s bend but don’t break philosophy was on display early, first surrendering a conversion on third and 14, then making up for it with an interception from senior free safety J.J. Parson, the first of his career.
Stanford did not score in the third quarter, but it was arguably its best 15 minutes. Colorado converted just one first down, while Stanford outgained its opponents 131-23 and held possession for 11:38. The quarter also set up Stanford to score its only touchdown and take its first lead on the second play of the fourth quarter.
“Bottom line as we said all year, when we can get the protection, we believe we’ve got some receivers that can make some big plays,” Shaw said. “It starts with the protection and when we get the protection we get a chance for those guys to do something special.”
Entering the game, the Buffs converted 43% of third downs on offense while allowing 49% on defense. Stanford was just 3-of-10 on third down, while Colorado was 6-of-14 and picked up two more conversions on fourth down.
For just the second time this season, Stanford’s opponent held the ball for more of the game. The Cardinal also failed to convert a red zone trip into points for the third time in 2019, and Sanborn’s missed field goal proved to be the difference.
With senior inside linebacker Curtis Robinson held out of the game due to injury, Stanford’s rotation was reduced to senior Andrew Pryts and fifth-year Ryan Beecher, who made his first career start. Freshman Aeneas DiCosmo saw his first career action and freshman Tristin Sinclair made his second appearance at the position.
“Like a lot of young guys they’re fast, athletic and made some plays,” Shaw said. “We missed a couple things and you know that going in when you’re going to have young, inexperienced guys out there against some experienced guys on the other side.”
“I think we just didn’t execute, made too many mistakes and didn’t play hard enough,” Toohill said. “Those are all better explanations in my mind for why we didn’t win [than inexperience].”
Stanford will close out its road schedule with an away contest in Pullman against Washington State on Saturday.
“We come here to win football games and we didn’t win,” Costello said. “So we go back to work on Monday and get ready to get off to Washington State.”
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.