The Final Stretch: Utah 20, Stanford 17 (2OT)

This loss is representative of the season: a painful, last-minute affair as the D hung on valiantly, but the offense could never seize control. We track our blog of the last five minutes and the two overtimes, and tally each Stanford miscue. The results suggest the nature of the problems that have plagued the team for the whole season. Read on!

The Final Stretch Note: I always blog in real-time unless noted otherwise. Hindsight is 20/20, so I’m not going to cheat in that way, I’m going to call the good and the bad in real time, and you can judge whether my opinions end up proven right or wrong. Here, given the nature of this loss, I am going through after the fact and bolding each key misstep down the stretch. Let’s see what conclusions we can draw; I’m trying not to enter with any preconceived ideas, but instead let the data talk…

On a third and two conversion, Remound Wright kicks his defender in the groin, however, to draw a deserved personal foul call. Then there’s a holding call on Lee Ward on a screen to Montgomery that sees Stanford’s star come up limping. Thus, even after a nice Montgomery slip screen that gains 20, and then a powerful, nine-yard Kelsey Young run, Stanford is nearly where it started, with second and 11 at the Ute 38.

When it rains, it pours. Wright drops a 30-yard wheel route that hit him in both hands. Stanford takes a timeout that it might really need to talk over the ensuing third and 11. 2:30 remaining.

Figure it’s four-down territory? Try to get eight yards under the coverage and then bring on Williamson for a 47-yarder? Maybe I do that – figure the Utes will allow the underneath route, and if our receiver can make someone miss, great, we can go for a fourth and inches or on a new set of downs. If not, we’re still lining up for a go-ahead field goal, instead of being stuck in no man’s land at the Ute 38 and staring at the real possibility of an 18-yard punt.

Instead, it’s a toss sweep to Christian McCaffrey and the boos are loud and clear as we punt from the Ute 34 after a four-yard gain. Rhyne does as well as can be expected in the situation, and the Utes start from their seven after a 27-yard boot.

I think this last play call highlights what fans perceive as a lack of situational awareness from the staff. A run is unlikely to gain the eight or so yards to get into field goal position – especially when we’ve called a pitch to McCaffrey in the same location earlier in the game. Maybe, if we think a play ahead, we call an underneath pass to set up the fourth down. Maybe, if we think a play ahead, we don’t need to call timeout for that play call, and so now instead of the Cardinal running out of timeouts with 1:27 left, so Utah can run down clock before booting the ball back, Stanford can use its final timeout and ensure it’ll have at least 70 seconds to run a solid two-minute drive.

No single decision was crippling, but if you’re leeching away a few percent win probability here, a few percent there, it doesn’t take much to turn should-wins into tossups in a highly, highly competitive conference. We’ve seen that once or four times this season, and we’re seeing it again today, as Utah, sure enough, can run an additional 35 seconds off the clock before their fourth-down punt from the 16, thanks to the third-and-11 Stanford timeout. Stanford should have about 35 seconds, instead of 70, to try for a game-winning score.

Montgomery fair-catches at the 35 with 34 seconds left. Who would want an extra 30 seconds here? Pretty much everyone, right? Was the extra time to decide on the third and 11 pitch to McCaffrey worth that sacrifice?

Eight yards to Rector, tackled in bounds, then Hogan spikes with 17 seconds left. Now Stanford has to hit on the third and three, instead of not spiking and having time for a second and three playcall. Rector can’t hang onto a Hogan bomb as he’s hit as he catches, and it’s punt time yet again.

Punt nearly hits a Ute, but the clock’s on zeros, and time for overtime. At least we won’t see that Utah punter anymore.

Stanford 7, Utah 7, End of Regulation

Stanford wins the toss and starts on defense, a significant edge. Utah chooses to go into its band and fan section, naturally, directly opposite the Red Zone.

That last drive helped the numbers – yards are 278-197 at the end of regulation. That’s not much solace as Terrence Alexander is exploited the very first snap of overtime. He is a good two steps behind, and unlike for Stanford, when the Utes have an opening downfield, they capitalize. Wilson’s throw is on target and the catch and the touchdown are sure. The Utes have their first lead of the game, 14-7.

Here’s Stanford’s rebuttal, which enjoys a promising start as Remound Wright runs for 11. Wright up the middle for nothing. Utah’s fans are positively rowdy… but they’ll quiet now, as it’s a throwback screen on, again, a beautiful play call. Play-action pass to a tight end works yet again, and showing everything flowing right with the looping throw coming back to the left is a nice wrinkle.

Time to do it again. Instead, Nate Orchard is an unblockable sack God and Stanford is out of comfortable field goal position after an eight-yard sack. Devon Cajuste was open past the sticks on second down, but Hogan puts it five yards over his head and Utah is literal inches from an interception. The defender caught the ball but couldn’t drag his toes.

McCaffrey is smothered on a third-down screen, and so it’s Jordan Williamson, who likes 17-14 overtime results. He nails from 51, and that kick might have been good from 58. Williamson is now Stanford’s all –time field goal leader, and he deserves that one. It’s his biggest kick since the boot to win in Autzen in overtime by that same 17-14 score. (Incidentally, that’s the last overtime game Stanford has played.)

Utah’s crack at the nut, and two carries go for only three yards. We might be headed for triple overtime, in which case teams will have to go for two following touchdowns. Not so fast, alas, as Wilson finds his tight end for ten on the third and long, and now Utah has a fresh set of downs at the Card 12. Wilson for four, and man are the Cardinal punching and ripping and prying for that football. Second down, Utah gains five on a screen. Time for a ginormous third and one at the three. If I’m the Stanford DC, maybe I call timeout here, just to make Utah burn a formation.

Instead, it’s game, set, match, as Wilson hits an uncontested Kenneth Scott on a three-yard slant. Stanford’s DBs should have at least forced the receivers outside, but it’s hard to fault the Stanford D in a game in which they allowed 197 yards in regulation. But there you have it – the offensive ineptitude is borderline comical at this point, and it cost Stanford a win on Senior Day.

Utah 20, Stanford 17 (2OT), Final

Post-mortem final thoughts: By my count, it’s two drops, two defensive busts, two penalties – including a completely unnecessary kick in the groin -- one misthrow, and three conservative play calls: twice not throwing downfield on third and double-digits, and not trying Williamson for a 51-yard game-winner in regulation. Then there’s the use of the timeout to call a third-and-11 screen, instead of having an extra 30 seconds on the final drive of regulation. Multiply out those admittedly painful five-plus minutes over the course of the entire game, and there’s your losing formula.

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