Taking Down Troy
Third and four. Score tied at 27-27. Just over three minutes to play. Andrew Luck takes the snap, looks for a receiver, and . . . interception?
That's how I saw it, from the small but mighty Stanford rooting section at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Perched in Row 70, I squinted as I watched our National Championship dreams crumbling before my eyes. The game had seen a sudden outbreak of Stanford three-and-outs, errant kickoffs from a backup kicker, and a barrage of uncharacteristic penalties. Now, to my dismay, it appeared as if it would end up representing an infamous night in Cardinal history. Then, a glimpse of hope.
The USC cornerback, sophomore Nickell Robey, made it to the end zone for a stunning pick-six. A natural instinct for a defensive back who has just intercepted a pass, but a quick-striking play that provided Stanford with three minutes to drive down the field and score an equalizing touchdown.
I certainly don't blame Robey for failing to stop short of the end zone and allowing USC tick off a few minutes before kicking a game-winning field goal; but then again, let's recall that Stanford's Anthony Wilkerson, a true freshman at the time, had the foresight to sit down and ensure a Cardinal victory at Arizona State last year. And if USC had been reading their own history books, they would have known that it's not a good idea to give Andrew Luck the ball back with much time on the clock. They did it against us last year and #12 engineered a one-minute, sixty-yard drive that culminated in a game-winning field goal by Nate Whitaker. So, while the stadium erupted with the joyous cries of 93,000 ecstatic USC fans, I was confident that we were going to overtime. Why? Because we had the Heisman-worthy Andrew Luck ready to repeat history and orchestrate a game-saving drive.
For me, this game demonstrated that Cardinal Football has
come full circle. I remember my mom and dad driving me and my brother up to the
Coliseum four years ago. Stanford was a 41-point underdog to the number
one-ranked Trojans, so my dad made a joke, saying that if we lost by forty
points or fewer, than he would count it as a "win". Little did we know that we'd
be driving home with the taste of real victory in our mouths. As a nine-year-old
immersed in Stanford Football for the first time, I did not appreciate the full
flow of the game, but I do remember two things about the "Biggest Upset Ever":
the silence that engulfed the crowd after Tavita Pritchard's ten-yard winning
touchdown pass; and celebrating with the one, the only, the truly incomparable
Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band afterward.
Both were present once again during last Saturday's game. Silence, broken only by my own piercing cries as I embraced my dad in delight, radiated through the stadium as shell-shocked USC fans writhed in horrific disbelief at the sight of Curtis McNeal's fumble. And as for the band members, they were almost as rowdy as they were at their post-Orange Bowl celebration in Miami. Nothing beats a jaunt through Stanford Band territory after a big win over USC.
Four years ago, I witnessed the "Biggest Upset Ever". This past week, I witnessed the "Biggest Game Ever". Both were down-to-the-wire matchups, the former representing the building of a program and the latter representing the defending of one. Although this was not our best performance, it was definitely an exciting game to watch, and a wake-up call to remind us that the final half of the season is going to be tough. From here on out, we are going to need our fair share of luck, and we'll need more than our fair share of Luck. We had both against USC. The Cardinal responded well to being behind for the first time this year. Thanks to the team's depth, we have managed to cope pretty well with our injuries: Williamson, Ertz, Howell, and, of course, Skov, to name a few.
With that said, it certainly wasn't a walk in the park. I do feel that, at times, our team has to become less predictable. Throughout the game, it became clear that first down was going to be a two-yard run every time, and then we would have to dig ourselves out of an eight-yard rut with the remaining two plays. Our identity is clearly the power running game, which is great; but for a creative school, we have to get more…. creative. I know we like to establish the run to open up our passing game, but if the run isn't working, can't we establish the pass to open up our running game? By establishing one, you automatically open up the other. Do we really have to insist on following the same pattern every time?
I say mix it up a bit more. If our opponent knows that we're going to run on first down because our game plan is to establish the run, then throw a play-action pass to a tight end. Then, we've established the pass. By that one pass, we have become an unpredictable team. Are we going to pass again? Are we going to run? Is the power formation we're lining up in really designed for a run up the middle, or are we being tricky and throwing off of play-action? Once we have the other team on their heels, we can dictate the flow of the game, and effectively eliminate the third-and-longs or three-and-outs seen against USC. But I digress…
This game demanded composure, and in the end, the Stanford Cardinal showed it had the right stuff. Three overtimes can take a toll on teams, and ultimately we outlasted USC…barely. We faced extreme pressure, and stood tall in the face of adversity. This was our first real test, a jolting welcome to a whole new half of the season, and we passed it. I'm sure Coach Shaw allowed the team a few hours of celebration. Now, if we can just keep this winning streak alive for five more games, I will be writing my next Bootleg article from New Orleans!
About the Author: Justin Muchnick is a high-aspiring eighth-grade student-athlete at Harbor Day School in Corona Del Mar, California (and thus not currently classified as a "recruited athlete" from a compliance standpoint!). In addition to being an avid Stanford sports fan, he is extremely passionate about soccer, wrestling, reading, history, and The Simpsons. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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