Highlights lie. They work insidiously, like a virus, colonizing our minds and recollections of games built on the actions of forty to fifty players who execute or fail to execute nearly a hundred plays a game. And all that effort, to say nothing of the strain and violence of the days before the game, it all gets reduced in our minds to a few clips, a few snippets, run over and over into eternity, until we’ve reduced everything to one moment, because that’s how life works, right?
Not in football.
So often the acreage in our memories is a zero sum struggle. For every highlight we remember, a “little” play must die. And the strain and effort that goes by the wayside is washed in a sometimes blissful, sometimes miserable, but always dwindling account of what we saw, until you get to the here of a spectacular season and you’ve reduced a magnificent 13-game epic into 13 singular moments overexposed and forever staking imminent domain in your recollection of the 1,000+ snap masterpiece that was Stanford’s 2015 Pac-12 Championship season.
Not here. Here in this piece we examine the most underappreciated big plays of the 2015 season, the ones that may have made the highlights, but have certainly faded in a wash of Hogan bombs, McCaffrey gallups, and Ukropina leg swings. Bill Murray croons “There must be more than this,” in Lost in Translation, and now it’s time to verify that there must have been more than this to 2015.
More than the flea flicker. More than Cajuste breaking Adoree’s ankles before the half. More than Barry Sanders running wild in Corvallis. More than Francis Owusu’s catch. More than Christian McCaffrey’s kick returns. There were far more than just these, and let’s get to to them. The plays that stood tall such that they not fade away in our recollections of 2015.
The Flea Flicker (The Part You Don’t Remember) Holy hypocrisy! Didn’t I just say that it was about more than the highlights? Yes, but I’m an agent of chaos, so slow your roll. Sometimes all that verbage I just spewed about the moments and the equally important yet uncelebrated beats don’t just happen within a game, they happen within a play. To wit:
The flea flicker against UCF didn’t work as designed. A lone UCF defender breached the Cardinal offensive line, and had missile lock on Hogan as he stood trapped, waiting for the return toss from Sanders. This play was over, except for it wasn’t because within the play, Kevin Hogan, Stanford’s own Iceman, calmly side-stepped the Bohemiath Knight, and then made the throw to Rector for the touchdown. The play didn’t work as designed, Kevin Hogan worked it, and that’s when we should have known our quarterback had his chill in 2015, and things were about to be all right, all right, all right.
22 Goes For 22- Stanford had everything to prove on September 19 in the Coliseum, and found itself down to the Trojans late in the 3rd quarter, 28 to 24. The Cardinal faced a 3rd down at midfield, at a moment when it felt as if it could not hand the ball back to the Trojans. The din of 78,000 strong bore down on the Cardinal huddle. And what did Stanford do? Give it to their Heisman candidate? Put the ball in Hogan’s hands, as they’d done all night?
Nope. They handed the ball to Remound Wright, who made a place for himself in this game and for the past two season as a goal line specialist (Code Name: Vulture). Wright was no vulture here. He made this play, good for 22 yards up the USC sideline. Four plays later, Wright assumed his more customary role and cashed in six from the one, but that 22-yard scamper was huge, and the fact that it came from a relatively unheralded player says a great deal about Stanford’s 2015.
Bright Mans Up- Not many have mentioned the tension in Corvallis as Stanford found itself in a Pier 6 brawl with the upset-minded Beavers. Aziz Shittu went down with an injury, further thinning out an already waif-like depth chart. Things got even worse when Hogan, clearly limited with a bad ankle, lost his Left Tackle, Kyle Murphy, in the second quarter. Redshirt Sophomore David Bright, one of Stanford’s Ogres, stepped up and manned Murphy’s spot in the second half. Hogan would go unsacked for the entire game and Stanford would put up 21 points and average 9.2 yards per play while Bright played. Stanford’s run game mauled the Beavers into submission. Again, this isn’t a “play” but certainly an underappreciated moment in the season given Hogan’s lack of mobility and how close the game was at the half. Big Ups to Big David here.
Hogan to Hooper 2X: Stanford’s game against UCLA had the early look of an instant classic, and the Bruins seemed to have found their footing after Josh Rosen found Darren Andrews on a 70-yard touchdown strike to cut Stanford’s lead to 14-10. On Stanford’s ensuing drive, the Cardinal faced two very low leverage Third Downs. On a 3rd and 13 Hogan found Hooper for 16 to get Stanford to midfield, and then the duo hooked up on a 3rd and 12 for 22 yards. These plays were huge because the UCLA defense had to be dispirited after forcing Stanford behind schedule and forcing Hogan to convert two tough plays. Who knows what happens if UCLA gets off the field here? Even blow outs are decided by a few plays per game, and this one certainly featured two big throws from Hogan on a night when Christian McCaffrey would go on to a history-making evening.
Whitfield Saves 2, TWICE- No win this season gave Cardinal fans cardiac pause like the Spook-Fest the Pullman Pirate hosted on Halloween night. Amidst the freezing slog, Washington State pushed Stanford to the brink, and the difference ended up being a spectacular tackle by Safety Kodi Whitfield on a Cougar two-point conversion attempt. WSU’s Luke Falk put the Cougars ahead with a touchdown pass to Rivers Cracraft. Here’s something you may not remember: Stanford had to stop the Cougars twice on the point after attempt. On the first attempt, Whitfield intercepted Falk in the back of the end zone, but Kevin Anderson hit Falk late and was called for a roughing the passer. Falk was able to get the throw off unfettered by Anderson’s hit, which is an important point, because it’s not like the penalty prevented the conversion. Had it been good, the Cougs would have had their two. However, the interception meant they had to try again, and on the next play, Falk found John Thompson over the middle. Whitfield had been draped all over Thompson, and as Thompson made the catch, Whitfield twisted around and pulled on Thompson with all his might as the receiver extended the ball towards the line. Anderson, in a redemptive move, sprints over and finishes the play to keep Thompson out, but Whitfield’s effort(s) saved two points and what we can now say definitively, Stanford’s Rose Bowl berth.
Before we wrap it up, a number of Booties made great suggestions on alternate candidates that I’ll mention here:
· Ukropina’s 52-yard FG vs. UCF
· Meeks two Picks vs. WSU
· Reed Miller and Dallas Lloyd batting 1.000 on snaps and kick holds
· Hogan’s gimpy late game scramble in the Coliseum to convert a 3rd Down
· Elijah Holder’s Pick 6 vs. UCLA
· Ukropina’s Game Icing Kick in the Coliseum (I really wanted to include this one)
· Two Late Stops vs. ND
· Cajuste Breaking Adoree’s Ankles
· Touchdown-Saving tackles from Jake Bailey
No need to go into too much description, and no need to try to demerit that list at all. In fact, that list (by no means exhaustive) really drives home my point. So much went into this season that could easily be forgotten, and even in games where the score ended up lopsided, there were no shortage of less celebrated plays that all added up to the best and most impressive Stanford season since the Orange Bowl year. Stanfrod went through the toughest conference in America at 9-1 and beat a top ten team in addition.
When you spend any time around this team, there is no doubt how much they embody that very word, in every way. They take on opponents, adversity, praise, and the game as a team. They hate talking about themselves and love exhalting each other. Today I walked around Rose Bowl Media Day and watched Stanford’s Heisman Candidate sitting quietly at a table, without many asking for his time, and he seemed infinitely happier than when the game’s brightest spotlight shone on him. That’s who these guys are, and that’s a big part of what makes them more than just champions, but beloved champions. Every guy is all in on the team, the team, the team, and the unifying thread in all of it is Coach Shaw, who takes this group (now composed entirely of his recruits) back onto the grandest stage in college football on January 1.
Good luck, Iowa.