Be honest now - when was the last time you can remember Stanford's defense and special teams standing up to win a ballgame? For a program that has been predicated on offensive acumen throughout much of its history, the Cardinal hung on to a tight 18-14 win Saturday in Provo, Utah to elevate their record to 2-0. The win matches the team's entire win total from a year ago, and it showed the second straight victory on the backs of a complete team effort. Offense, defense and special teams all contributed with big plays at big times at a noisy and difficult LaVell Edwards Stadium.
Stanford redshirt freshman Trent Edwards would have a rocky start when he threw an interception on a 3rd down on Stanford's first offensive series, but the intercepting BYU defender (Mike Tanner) opted to lateral the ball to a teammate, which was later fumbled and then recovered by Mark Bradford. The play was a net-loss of yardage, but the possession by the Cougars during the runback gave Stanford a fresh first down. They would turn to Kenneth Tolon to run the ball for one first down, but Edwards missed a slanting Gerren Crochet on a subsequent 3rd and 5. The redshirt freshman QB would miss Crochet again at the sideline on a 2nd and 12 the next series; both throws were too high. It was a harbinger of a difficult day for the young Edwards in his first start.
"I'll admit I struggled in the first half," Edwards allowed afterward. "Their defense just kept going hard all game long. I had watched plenty of film, but they really made it hard."
"Their defense was very tough," senior offensive tackle Kirk Chambers, a Provo native, added. "We didn't know where the pressure was coming from, and we couldn't hear the snap counts a lot of times."
On defense Stanford fortunately made big stands early, holding the Cougars to 3rd and out in each of their first two possessions. They employed blitzing pressure, but also effectively used nickel and extra-backer (four LBs) formations when BYU was in long yardage situations.
But the Cardinal offense could not capitalize on good field position near mid-field and proceded to move backwards 14 yards on three plays. The standout embarrassment on that backpedaling series was a false start penalty in which all 10 players on the offense other than center Brian Head jumped, while he remained motionless over the ball.
A 60-yard punt from Eric Johnson helped put BYU again deep in their territory, but the Cougars put together their first two first downs of the game. They looked to drive even deeper into Stanford territory when freshman QB John Beck found an open receiver behing the Stanford defense on 3rd down. Stanford free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe made a fantastic breakup on the play, but the Cougars completed on a gutty 4th down throw to freshman tight end Daniel Coats. They quickly capitalized on the momentum by completing a 27-yard touchdown catch and run by Toby Christensen, son of NFL great Todd Christensen. It might be noted that Stanford had its second team defensive line personnel on the field for both of those two capital passing plays.
The Cougars had drawn first blood, taking a 7-0 lead with 4:33 remaining in the first quarter. And the Cardinal offense was yet to find any groove, managing just two first downs in their first three possessions.
Stanford was given a golden opportunity to respond when BYU was flagged for a celebration penalty on that score, forcing them to kickoff from their own 20-yardline. Nick Sebes fielded the line drive kick and ran it back 52 yards to the BYU 33-yardline. But Stanford again moved backward, this time on a Trent Edwards fumble that lost 11 yards. Eric Johnson took the field for his third punt of the quarter. He would have seven punts in the game.
Just in case Stanford the Stanford offense wasn't receiving enough breaks, BYU turned the ball over again. Their freshman quarterback lost the snap and linebacker Michael Craven pounced on the ball. If the Stanford playcalling was not moving the ball well enough to that point, quarterbacks coach Bill Cubit had an innovative answer to wake up the Card. The first play of the drive called for a hand-off to Kenneth Tolon from the shotgun formation, which the BYU defense had already seen several times. Instead, the handoff was a fake and Trent Edwards took the bootleg for 23 yards to the four-yardline. Tolon moonwalked into the endzone for four yards on the next play for Stanford's first score of the game. It should have been the tying score, but Michael Sgroi put the PAT low and it was blocked at the line of scrimmage.
Yet another break came the Card's way on the kickoff as Eric Johnson's directional effort was caught by a BYU returner just outside the endzone at the sideline. He stepped out of bounds at the one-footline and put BYU in a pickel. Their offensive playcalling didn't help, though, as they chose to throw the ball on three straight downs. The third down call was a bubble screen which Brian Gaffney sniffed out and almost stopped for a safety. The Cougars had to punt and put Stanford on the scoring side of the field on the 38-yardline. Once again, sadly though, the good guys could not capitalize and Stanford was forced to punt (for a touchback).
The good fortune broken record took another skip as the Cougs coughed up the ball again, this time tight end Philip Niu lost the handle when he was gang-tackled in the open field. The third Stanford defender to get to him was Jared Newberry and he popped the ball loose. T.J. Rushing recovered to once again give the Cardinal great field position. They moved the ball into field goal range on a strong 12-yard run by Kenneth Tolon, but Edwards threw an ill-advised pass (intended for Luke Powell) in the middle of the field on 3rd and 8 for his second interception.
Though BYU's offense had yet to get untracked, you had a sinking feeling that Stanford was converting far too few of these golden opportunities. On the road, you simply cannot afford to not cash in when presented such fertile scoring chances. Could the big plays keep coming to let Stanford hold on in this game?
The two teams continued to trade punches for the remainder of the half, but neither threatened to score again. The Stanford defense held BYU to just three first downs in three possessions in the second quarter, and several times came up with big plays from the x-backer formation. One brilliant example came on a 2nd and 8 situation for the Cougars on their own 38-yardline. Linebacker Jon Alston substituted into the game for a defensive end and right away recorded an eight-yard sack on a blitz.
But the Cardinal offense had an excrutiating time moving the ball themselves in the first half. Trent Edwards completed just six of 14 passes for a total of six yards. Luke Powell was the only wide receiver for Stanford in the first half to record any catches: four for 10 yards. There was moderate success running the ball, with Kenneth Tolon leading the way with a 4.8 per-carry average (14 rushes for 67 yards). The favorite play looked to be the inside handoff from the shotgun, which Tolon would take any number of directions.
Any observer watching the first half of play, though, would remember the mistakes. In addition to the various special teams blunders and offensive ineptitude, turnovers ruled those 30 minutes. Edwards threw two interceptions and BYU fumbled the ball three times. It was a tight affair at 7-6, but it wasn't exciting yet. That would change in a thrilling second half.
Stanford decided for the second stanza that they would move the ball on the ground and through chicanery in the air. Tolon carried the ball for chunks of yardage to initiate the offense, but the momentum boost came on a backwards pass from Edwards to Powell, which the receiver hoisted down the far sideline for a 31-yard gain to true freshman Mark Bradford. More trickery was in store as Stanford employed OT Kirk Chambers on two consecutive plays. The first shifted Chambers to the right side of the line for a "super tackle" blocking formation, but the pass fell incomplete. The next play looked to go to the right side, where the blockers and defense moved, but then Edwards turned around and threw to a tackle-eligible Chambers. However the ball was high and floated out of bounds. Stanford would settle for a 38-yard Michael Sgroi field goal, which gave Stanford a 9-7 lead.
"I've always been bugging Coach [Teevens] to catch a ball, and we planned on doing this in Provo all along," Chambers described. "It had worked in practice, but I guess I just don't have the jumping ability I used to. Maybe without my 20 pounds of equipment I get to that ball," he added with a big grin.
Meanwhile, BYU was gasping for air on offense. Stanford's front seven was harrassing Beck in the backfield and standing up most attempts to run the ball. On a 3rd and 4 deep in their own territory, that pass rush forced Beck out of the pocket and it looked like he would try to run for a first down. Instead he launched a pass down the field for a 56-yard completion that seemingly turned the entire game. The Cougars scored on the very next play with their own gadget play, as they made a backwards pass to WR Lance Pendleton, a former Cougar quarterback. He had tight end Daniel Coats in single coverage on Jared Newberry. The Stanford linebacker had Coats step for step, but when he looked up for the ball he stumbled a bit and just lost him. It was an unfortunate misplay by one man, and it went for the go-ahead score. BYU had the lead, 14-9, with 10 seconds remaining in the 3rd quarter. 94 yards on four plays, and it felt like a back-breaker.
Stanford's next scoring chance came when Luke Powell fielded a 67-yard punt over his head on the bounce, and then turned the ball to the sideline and scrambled for a 68-yard return. "I was playing deep," Powell described about the punt returns on the day. "And he would kick them low. Then I moved up and he kicked them over my head. On that play, I got a good bounce and made one guy miss. After that I had a great wall setup in front of me. I could have taken it all the way, but I ran out of gas."
That key runback put Stanford at the BYU 25-yardline. Tolon took the ball on the first three plays and picked up 16 yards to set up 1st and goal from the nine. After a Stanford timeout, Tolon ran the ball for three yards out of the I-formation on first down. Second and goal was a Tolon loss of one, and third down was an incomplete fade pattern to Powell in the far corner of the endzone. Stanford again settled for a field goal, this time from 24 yards out. BYU led 14-12 with nine minutes to go in regulation. Again, a nagging feeling told you that missed opportunities might leave the Cardinal just short in the end.
BYU went three and out the next series, and Stanford started on their own 32-yardline with the ball and 6:24 to go in the game. The Card soon would be faced with a 3rd and 11 after an illegal substitution penalty, at a time when Stanford had converted just two of their 15 third downs on the day. The pass was miraculously completed to Gerren Crochet 12 yards downfield, but he ran sideways and then backwards and lost three yards. Stanford had to punt and would put their fate in their defense. Historically that has been a losing proposition for Stanford, but this unit and this game proved otherwise.
That faith was immediately cashed in when redshirt junior linebacker David Bergeron tipped the first pass play from quarterback Matt Beck, and Oshiomogho Atogwe was there to pick it out of the air and returned it to BYU's 25-yardline. The Cardinal was back in business.
"I just happened to be in a great position on that one," he said of his second pick on the day. "Those interceptions came through teamwork. The defensive line got to the quarterback, and then he didn't have any idea where our defensive backs would be."
With the ball already in scoring position, Stanford needed only a field goal to take the lead. As they had done all half, the Card handed the ball to Tolon, and he picked up a quick 11 yards on two carries. BYU had some confusion in their defense and were forced to burn a timeout with Stanford on their 14-yardline. Coming out of the timeout, Edwards ran once again the bootleg for a critical gain. This time he faked the handoff to Tolon on the left side and ran naked on the right, for a 14-yard score.
"That was in the gameplan the entire time," Edwards said afterward of his two naked bootlegs. "We knew from watching film that their defensive ends crashed hard off the handoffs."
With the 18-14 lead Stanford went for a two-point conversion but failed. BYU received the ball with 3:51 on the clock and needed a touchdown for a victory. They marched down the field on 15 heart-stopping plays, though twice they were aided by pass interference penalties. The first was called against Atogwe on a 3rd and 10 situation where Beck threw deep. The second call came the very next set of downs, this time a flag against Stanley Wilson on a 3rd and 4 play. With the help of those two big calls, the Cougars found their stride in the passing game, hitting completions of 29 and nine yards.
Another cardiac effort by their offense picked up one crucial yard when BYU faced 4th and 1, though Stanford defensive end Louis Hobson was pointing at the right tackle before the snap after he flinched. The Cougars suddenly had 1st and goal from the eight-yardline, with plenty of time and all kinds of momentum on their side. The home crowd of more than 61,000 was fired up, and it was hard to not feel a knot in your stomach as a Cardinalmaniac™.
But "Mo" quickly went to the Stanford sideline when Jon Alston flashed from the outside edge and tagged Beck for a 10-yard sack, pushing the ball back to the 18-yardline and forcing BYU to burn their final timeout with 41 seconds remaining in the game. Coming back from the break, Beck had Chris Hale just inside the sideline in the far side of the endzone, but Hale could not hold onto the ball as he stumbled out of bounds. In a game of inches, that play could have decided the game. The next play did very little for BYU, as they comleted a pass for one yard to the sideline, giving them 4th and goal out at the 17 for all the marbles. Stanford covered the Cougar receivers well, and as Beck was going through his progression he was grabbed by Jared Newberry for the game-clinching sack. It was another 10-yard loss, and the 5th sack of the game for Stanford.
Trent Edwards would kneel the game out on one play, and the celebration began instantly on the field. Several players rushed to the corner of the endzone they had just defended, where the Stanford cheering section was waiting in jubilation. Big 310-pound Babatunde Oshinowo did his own version of the Lambeau Leap, as he went to the top of the railing and had a crushing embrace with his father in the stands.
Afterward, players and coaches were ecstatic about the hard-fought victory.
"Two-and-oh is certainly a lot better than the alternatives," grinned head coach Buddy Teevens. "This was a 60-minute ballgame for us. I thought we played tough defense; the special teams performed for us. The offense did not put up a lot of yards, but they made plays in key situations."
"It was an ugly win but a win nonetheless," Luke Powell opined. "It felt good because it was a team win. We couldn't have done it without the offense, defense or special teams. It was a really good win in a tough environment. We have a different team this year, with better leadership. The coaches made some corrections from last year and we are on our way."
"It's a great feeling," Atogwe beamed. "We've worked so hard all off-season, and everybody stuck around in the summer. I tell you, that stand on the eight-yardline is the stuff you dream about. That's what you want to play for. Everybody ante up and let's see who wants it more."
Three of the players who took something extra special away from this win were Kirk Chambers, Cooper Blackhurst and Drew Caylor. All three are Mormon and had large contingents of family and friends in the stands.
"This is a dream come true for me," Chambers said afterward. "I've been looking forward to this for seven years, ever since I learned we had BYU on our schedule. And this is exactly how I imagined it - down to the wire in the final minute."
Participation Report - Two true freshmen saw their first action in collegiate games, with Brandon Harrison spending some time at strong safety to spell Trevor Hooper, and with Nick Frank running several plays at nose tackle in the second quarter for Casey Carroll. Two frosh who had played in the San Jose State game but did not make it on the field tonight were WR Evan Moore and RB David Marrero. "We saw that Kenny [Tolon] was getting stronger in the second half, and we had to stay with the hot hand," explained Marrero. Though you might think he would carry bittersweet feelings, he was glowing with the win and could not stop smiling. "We'll have different gameplans and different situations this year, and I'll have chances."
Crushing the Rushing - Stanford allowed minus-5 yards rushing over the four quarters of play, which goes in the record books as the 4th best defensive rushing performance in school history. A big chunk of that push backwards came against Beck, who recorded minus-56 yards rushing. The BYU backs managed a net of 53 yards on 18 carries. Stanford also allowed just nine yards rushing in their opener against San Jose State, which is pushed down to the 8th best single-game performance. Put those two together, and you have 41 rushes for a total of four yards in the first two games against Stanford. That's pretty heady stuff.
Reviving the Cardiac Card - This is not only the first road win for Stanford since 2001, but it is also the first time this staff has coached a team back to victory after trailing in the second half. "The nice thing was that we kept responding," Teevens commented. "That's been a philosophy and belief for our players here we have preached all year." Tom Williams had even more to say on the gut-check. "When [BYU] drove down and had us pinned back at the end, there wasn't a single guy on the sideline who flinched," he noted afteward. "Last year when things turned bad, you could hear guys complaining and see their heads hang. But there was not a single player on this team who showed any fear. That's a huge change for us. We worked hard in the off-season on this, and this win is a testament to their mental strength. This win is on every one of those guys."
Century Celebration - This marks the second straight game that Stanford has put a running back over 100 yards, and the 141 yards for Kenneth Tolon tonight was a career high. 18 of his carries and 74 of his yards came in the second half. "It's easier to get the ball in the second half, when you get a feel for the game," he proclaimed. "Things were developing more slowly in the shotgun snaps and I had time to read their linebackers."
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