Ten Plays (Part I)

As the national spotlight settles nowhere near Stanford for the first time in five years, and with the Salmonella Bowl still 20 days away, it seems like a good time to look back and sort through the wreckage and realities of Stanford’s 2014 Football Season. We start with 10 plays that defined the season.

To be clear, we are not necessarily talking about the 10 biggest plays, the 10 most exciting plays, or the 10 most important plays from each game. What follows are the plays that ultimately stand as microcosms of Stanford’s disappointing 7-5 record. Many demons were there from the start. Others emerged as the season went on, and then finally some were corrected in the final eight quarters of the season. Regardless, when we perform the autopsy on this walking corpse of a football season, these are the moments that epitomized everything Stanford’s 2014 was and was not. They are presented here in chronological order.

1. The “Winning” TD vs. USC

Play as officially described: Hogan, K pass complete to Hooper, A for 23 yards to the USC0, clock 07:51, PENALTY STAN illegal block (Wright, R) 15 yards to the USC38, NO PLAY. The touchdown that wasn’t still stands as the costliest “what if” of the season. With the seven points this play would have produced (presuming a Williamson extra point…cough cough), and given how the D was playing, Stanford likely wins this game, 14-13. Playing such a talented team and significant game so early in the season is often difficult, and both Stanford and SC fans felt strongly that despite its early appearance on the schedule, this game could be a turning point. Stanford entered this game ranked higher than it would be at any point in the season: Folks had the Card in early playoff conversations. The game was ugly for both sides, but the fact is that given its significance, any kind of victory would have been huge for the Cardinal, especially when you factor in SC’s status as the most loathed (or No. 1 to Notre Dame’s No. 1A) opponent on the schedule. This play was the closest Stanford would come to leading at the end of the game, and so much happened during and as a result of it.

First, we have a brilliant play call by a staff that would have very few over the course of the season. Stanford uses play action to occupy the eyes and minds of the SC defense, and Hooper slips out into a post corner route that takes him into the end zone. That’s the second major point of emphasis on this play: The intended receiver being a tight end. Stanford took strides towards being a tight-end featured offense, something that had been sadly missing during 2013 and very much responsible for that season’s red zone difficulties. In 2014, sporadic failure to incorporate big doses of the tight ends would haunt Stanford all season long. In this game alone, Cotton and Hooper combined to catch five passes for 80 yards.

Furthermore, this was a post-corner route, the safest, high-reward throw in the passing arsenal. It’s coached the same way at basically every level: Aim for the pylon. Hogan did, hitting Hooper for what appeared to be the winning points. The significance here is that we have a throw that Hogan proved he could make, yet all season long the coaches seemed determined to force him into a role and throws at which he clearly was not proficient. More on that shortly.

Of course this wasn’t a real touchdown because of a penalty on Remound Wright. It was no secret that the Cardinal went into the season without a clearly identified No. 1 back. This issue would plague the Card all season long, and though the focus was often on the actual running of the running backs, the inability of all contenders (Wright, Barry Sanders, Kelsey Young, Ricky Seale) to conclusively earn the coaches’ trust in pass blocking undermined Stanford’s efforts to establish an every down back, which in turn contributed to a vastly weakened running attack. One need only look to Stanford’s final offensive play in this game, in which apparent Stanford confusion with its blocking scheme allowed an unblocked blitzer to strip Kevin Hogan from behind, to appreciate the importance of pass blocking from the backfield.

Finally, this would-be touchdown, though technically outside the red zone, touches upon the Card's inability to score at close range. This was the second-worst red zone team in the conference, scoring touchdowns on only 47% of its drives inside the opponent’s 20. In a season with a number of close defeats, this often proved Stanford's fatal flaw. On this day, every single Stanford drive reached at least the USC 30, and five of those nine drives reached at least the USC 20. Stanford scored one touchdown on all those drives. Per Football Outsiders, there were only nine other games in which a team had that kind of success moving the ball, and in those games, the team that did so averaged 52 points.

This day was incompetence on a staggering scale, and struck a chord of frustration that would ring forth repeatedly throughout the season. If we had to reduce Stanford’s season to one play, this very well may be the sequence that goes in the time capsule. Finally, the non-touchdown helped lead to the Sarkisian-Haden Bro-Hump on the Trojan sideline at the end of the game, surely the most grotesque and vomit-inducing celebration witnessed by Stanford fans in years.

2. #TheKickerStrugglesAreReal

Play as officially described: Williamson, J field goal attempt from 26 MISSED - wide right, spot at USC20, clock 11:13. Of course, it’s possible that Stanford and USC may still be playing had this extremely makeable field goal gone through the uprights. As Dave Fowkes pointed out in his excellent season-ending grades report, few players have had as tumultuous of a career as Jordan. Jordan made two of his first five kicks, and just six of his first 11 through the season’s first half. His role in the USC game cannot be underestimated, as he also had a field goal blocked. In the second half of the season he was excellent, hitting on eight of his final nine attempts, with the only miss coming in a blowout win over Oregon State. However, it’s hard to say that he had Coach Shaw's confidence in the crucial loss to Utah. Stanford had to decide between a 51-yard field goal attempt for a potential win and the latest in a series of infamous punt choices. Ten weeks after the USC game, during which Coach Shaw chose to eschew a short field goal try for an ill-fated fourth down attempt, it was clear he had no confidence in his kicker at this crucial juncture. Calling the decision a “no brainer” in his post-game press conference only further proved the point. Over the past two years, the losses to USC and Utah have been among the most painful, and Williamson unfortunately had a good deal of responsibility for three of those four losses. Add both his failed attempts and his non-attempts to the pile of “what ifs” on the funeral pyre.

3. Hogan to Montgomery….to the Ground

Play as officially described: Hogan, K pass incomplete to Montgomery, T Stanford was in Seattle and up 10-6 against the lowly Huskies when the coaches dialed up this pass to Montgomery. It was a quick slant, and it found a wide-open spot in the Husky zone. Unfortunately, it was a timing throw that required a quick release before the receiver broke. The ball hit Montgomery’s hip pads and hands before falling to the ground and ultimately leading to another red zone disappointment. What should have been a blowout win ended up being one filled with tension. It would have been a very good catch by Montgomery, but he is not the focus here. This play was an echo of two throws made in the Coliseum last year from Hogan to Montgomery. One was nearly intercepted, and one ended the game. From that time until this moment, Hogan didn’t appear to have made any strides in making these throws, so why were they still appearing in games in crucial situations?

This play stands for one of the biggest missteps of the season for Stanford: The inability to use Hogan in a way that made him consistently effective. Of course No. 8 cannot be totally absolved for his struggles, but as we’d discover towards the end of the season, Hogan has enough strengths to generate consistent scoring opportunities. That Stanford struggled to score against ranked teams until UCLA was largely due to the delay in resolving this issue.

4. Christian’s Cameo on Holy Ground

Play as officially described: Hogan, K pass complete to McCaffrey, C for 18 yards to the ND28, 1ST DOWN STAN No player caught the affection and advocacy of the Stanford fans faster and more effectively than Christian The Lion. In the swirling, freezing downpour at South Bend, he appeared seemingly out of nowhere, providing success at a crucial moment for a struggling offense. Stanford was left with a first down deep in Notre Dame territory. He was taken off the field, and Stanford went run, incomplete, incomplete, botched field goal attempt to close out the drive.
Does correlation equal causality? On this drive, maybe, maybe not. But this play and this sequence stands for all the other times No. 27 flashed his talents on the field and then was held from doing further damage in the same manner Dean Smith kept Michael Jordan in check when it was clear the opponent could not. McCaffrey would not appear in the play-by-play again. To summarize, this is a player who averaged nearly seven yards a carry, yet only three carries per game. He averaged 13 yards per reception in conference play, yet only caught 13 passes. Why? At no point did the coaching staff have a decent response to this query, and it’s no coincidence that they so rarely had an answer to the question of “Why can’t we score?”

5. Montgomery fielding a punt. This is usually a good thing….

Play as officially described: Haack, Matt punt 54 yards to the STAN26, Montgomery, T return 0 yards to the STAN26, fumble by Montgomery, T recovered by ASU Randall, D. at STAN12. This play was both immediately devastating and, in the long term, subtly revealing. Stanford, down only 7-0 thanks to a solid first-half defensive effort, forced an ASU punt. The ball drifted to the sideline, with Montgomery moving to his left. It appears on replay that Montgomery decided late to attempt to field the punt, as he goes from a jog into a desperate sprint with his back to the line of scrimmage. He attempts an over the shoulder reception of the punt, fumbles, and ASU recovers. The Sun Devils cash in on the golden scoring opportunity four plays later and Stanford goes into the locker room down 14, but at that point and with this offense, if felt like 40. Montgomery, who contributed so much to the Cardinal cause as a punt returner, saw his return specialist star dim significantly this year, and that can be said for Stanford’s cumulative special teams effort.
Very few emphasized this from week to week, but Stanford dropped in every unit this year, according to the metrics used at Football Outsiders. The defense slipped the least, from No. 4 to No. 10. The abysmal offense plummeted from No. 18 to No. 52. But special teams fell furthest of them all. Stanford had the second-best special teams in the nation overall last season, with Montgomery’s 1,091 kickoff return yards leading the way. In 2014, Stanford's third phase finished No. 87. Montgomery had only 429 kickoff return yards this year, probably because he was so valued as a receiver. While this yardage drop-off was somewhat mitigated by his 238 punt return yards (and certainly the two punt return touchdowns), it hurt the Cardinal overall.

However, the rationale is the larger problem. Prioritizing Montgomery as a receiver may have made sense on the surface, but as game after game went on, it became clearer and clearer that Stanford was getting diminishing returns from him in that role. I maintain that as crazy as it may have seemed, he had far more value to Stanford as a potential runner (he outweighs every one of Stanford’s running backs) and returner. That fumbled punt happened when he was forced to make a play that he should have been very comfortable making: the over-the-shoulder catch. Put another way: It’s not an accident that Stanford’s best passing performance happened in a game in which its “best” receiver did not play. Ironic that a punt return exposed a crucial misuse of personnel by Stanford’s coaching staff, but a misuse it was.

Plays 6-10 coming soon…

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