Penalties, Short Yardage Prevent W at UW

Saturday's 28-17 loss at Husky Stadium was in many ways closer than what Stanford had managed in its two recent attempts during the successful 1999 and 2001 seasons. The Card led in the 3rd quarter this go-around, but the inability to convert short yardage running situations held back the offense. And penalties pushed back all units of this Stanford team, keeping a tantalizing win just out of reach.

For all the history of the previous 10 games played over the last three decades in Husky Stadium, Cardinalmaniacs™ could not help but be enthused.  The fear was that Washington would come out and take Stanford out of the game right away, but instead the Cardinal defense made a surprising stand on the first possession.  The Huskies went three-and-out without picking up a yard, and Stanford took the ball with excellent field position just shy of midfield.  They moved the ball on the ground and in the air, though it looked like a golden opportunity was blown.  With the ball on Washington's 30 yardline, quarterback Trent Edwards had Mark Bradford wide open on a slant in the red zone, with clear daylight between him and the goalline.  But the true freshman wideout appeared to be looking ahead at that score and dropped one of the easiest balls he will ever see.

Bradford made amends just a few plays later, on a play that ironically should have been one of the toughest for the offense all day.  Edwards dropped the ball on a 3rd and 9 shotgun snap.  Rather than fall on the ball to protect possession and then attempt a field goal, Edwards picked the ball up and found Bradford on the left sideline 11 yards downfield.  The frosh receiver extended his body to snag the ball while keeping his toes just inside the chalk for a memorable and key reception.  Now with the ball on the 12 yardline, Edwards would again go to the air, this time to redshirt junior tight end Alex Smith, who caught the ball again on the left side and rumbled into the endzone for the game's first score.

The Huskies would then engineer their own impressive drive, which took the ball 11 plays against Stanford's defense, including 26 yards on the ground by tailback Rich Alexis on five carries.  Any thoughts of another negative yardage day against the rush were dashed, but Cardinal fans launched themselves out of their seats on a 3rd and 10 play where linebacker Jon Alston hit Husky QB Cody Pickett for a sack and also stripped the ball loose.  Scott Scharff recovered the fumble just on Stanford's 48 yardline, and it looked like the Cardinal was in business to put a truly remarkable stamp on this game.

Unfortunately, the offense could not convert, going three and out.  The killer play came on 3rd and 8 when Edwards had fifth-year senior WR Luke Powell open on the right sideline past the first down marker, but a pass sailed right between the veteran's hands.  The Huskies had dodged a bullet, and would soon put their own stamp on the game.

Before they could do so, Stanford made a couple of remarkable defensive plays.  The first came on a 3rd and 7 for Washington on their own 31 yardline. Pickett threw the ball to a target in the middle of the field, but fifth-year senior Stanford linebacker Brian Gaffney stepped in front for what appeared to be a monumental interception.  Instead, a defensive holding flag was tossed, nullifying the pick and handing the Huskies a first down.  Both live and on the scoreboard replay, I did not see where the hold was called on the field.

But the Card struck again with a momentum play.  Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Babatunde Oshinowo recorded Stanford's second sack of the quarter (though the final of the game) to push Washington back into a 2nd and 16.  The Cardinal defense had already demonstrated that on any 2nd or 3rd and long situation, they would switch out a defensive end for either a nickel formation or a 3-4 front.  On this particular play, Amon Gordon lined up wide as if he were a rush end, and Oshinowo was on the same side of the line.  The Huskies went with a draw play and nary a Stanford player could lay so much as a finger on Rich Alexis.  Washington took the gamble that they could run against the soft defensive front in what was an obvious passing situation, and it paid off with a 53-yard touchdown.  It was the first intelligent run of the year against Stanford's defense, and a brilliant move.

Still in the first quarter with three minutes to go, the game was tied at seven.  Stanford took the ball off the kickoff and looked to start their own running attack.  The Card gave the ball on three straight plays to redshirt junior tailback Kenneth Tolon, who picked up eight yards on the first two carries but managed just one on the 3rd and 2 call.  It was a frustrating failure to pick up a short yardage situation, which would become a painful pattern in this football game.

Washington could have started with excellent field position if not for a booming punt from fifth-year senior Eric Johnson, who rocketed the ball 65 yards for a touchback.  The Huskies were deep in their own territory on the 20, and then marched back another five yards on a false start.  But on an ensuing 3rd and 4 at their 26 yardline, Pickett went to the air for the day's first gamebreaking pass play.  The Husky QB gave a pump fake to T.J. Rushing, who was covering receiving superstar Reggie Williams.  The Stanford sophomore cornerback bit hard, and Pickett lofted the ball to an open Williams.  The ball was underthrown such that Williams had to stop and turn around completely to grab the ball, but Rushing had bitten so hard that Williams was still able to turn around and run another 50 yards for the score. 

The play was the first of the second quarter, but it was the second shocking statement delivered to Stanford's defense in this young game.  Prided on defensive dominance through the first two games of the year, the Cardinal D had already yielded two touchdown plays of more than 50 yards in the first 16 minutes of this game.  Though this may be the most talented and lethal Stanford defense seen in more than a decade, it was experiencing its first legitimate test of the year against high caliber offensive personnel.  The apparent result was that you could run against Stanford, and at the same time you could pass over the top.

Washington had its first lead of the game at 14-7, and it was clear to all in attendance that Stanford would need to light its own offensive fire to keep up with the Huskies.  This was not an opponent where the defense and special teams could single-handedly overcome a meager offense as seen in Provo the previous Saturday.  Trent Edwards had the answer on the very next drive, as he showed that he too could move the ball in the air.

Stanford started back at its own 18 after a holding penalty on a Nick Sebes kickoff return moved the Cardinal backward, but the Huskies helped to balance affairs with a pair of their own costly penalties.  They were flagged for holding and pass interference and brought the ball out to midfield.  Stanford unfortunately found itself quickly in a 3rd and 16 situation, which presented the defining pass play of the game for Trent Edwards.  He surveyed the field for a good four seconds before he saw Luke Powell just shy of the first down marker.  But the senior wideout was in heavy coverage, and any attempt to thread the needle would be a dangerous one.  But Edwards did the impossible with the ball on a rope.  Powell then turned upfield and stumbled for a few extra yards before being tackled.  The heroic efforts by both the QB and WR produced an improbable first down that would pull Stanford back into the game.

The very next play Edwards went to redshirt sophomore receiver Gerren Crochet on the right sideline.  Crochet went down to the ground just barely picked it up off the ground for a 17-yard gain.  Those two plays quickly moved the ball into the redzone, and right away Edwards looked for the score.  Alex Smith was open in the middle of the endzone, and the quarterback put the ball up high where the 6'5" tight end safely hauled it in.  The catch itself was no great feat, but Smith's ability to retain the ball despite the two hard hits he took coming down saved the score.

14-14.  The game was on.

Both teams traded punts before Washington engineered their most impressive drive of the game.  The moved the ball 50 yards on 12 plays, mostly with productive pass plays.  With three minutes remaining in the half, UW broke into the redzone and looked like they would put together a momentum-swinging score just before the half.  Frankly, there was little reason to believe they would not stick the ball in the endzone the way they were handling Stanford's defense with mechanical precision.

But the Huskies may have unnecessarily dug into their bag of tricks when bread & butter plays had already proven so effective on the drive.  They went to the option and Pickett kept the ball, scrambling inside Stanford's 10 for what was about to be 1st and goal.  But redshirt junior free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe tackled Pickett and stripped the ball clean.  Atogwe also recovered the fumble, which ultimately preserved the 14-14 score going into the half.  Stanford dodged a bullet with another big defensive play.  But the Cardinal offense needed to sustain its momentum to hang with what Washington's offense was clearly capable of producing on this Saturday.

Just as with the first half, Stanford's offense opened up with a big drive that gave Stanford fans cause for endless celebration.  This time they received the kickoff, though it was interesting to note that the return team had a new twist.  Previously Tolon and Sebes were the deep pair, but now freshman speedster David Marrero appeared with Sebes.  The second half kickoff headed for the diminutive dynamo, but unfortunately was placed in the corner and rolled out of bounds just inside the pylon.  Marrero was back for all remaining kickoff returns for the game, and it would appear that will be his role going forward.  Tolon is carrying a huge load at tailback, and it makes sense for the freshman runner to step in on special teams.

Returning to the offense, the drive started on Stanford's 20 and would push 78 yards before stalling.  Edwards was 6/7 on the drive for 46 yards, and the only incompletion was an egregious drop by the freshman Bradford.  But just as with the WR's first blunder in the game, he came back twice as strong for a drive-defining play.  On a 3rd and 6 Bradford caught a crossing pattern and picked up a huge 20 yards for the first down and a surge into Husky territory.  But probably more impressive was a nine-yard run he produced earlier in the drive that picked up an even tougher first down.  On that play he took the ball behind the line of scrimmage, with a gaggle of UW defenders in front of him.  Bradford zigged to his right, then cut back hard to his left.  After evading the tacklers behind the line of scrimmage, Bradford found a seam in the middle of the field just big enough to pick up the first down.  The run officially went for nine yards, but he ran 25 or 30 to get there.

The drive continued into Husky territory after Bradford's 20 yard catch and run with a spread formation.  Stanford put five wide to stretch the defensive personnel, and then Trent Edwards took the ball on a keeper seven yards up the middle.  Whether it was wise or not, the redshirt freshman quarterback did not slide and instead was hit with a hard sandwich of tacklers that left him woozy for a moment.  It didn't show on the next play, though, as Edwards found fifth-year senior and Washington native Brett Pierce in the middle of the field for a five-yard pickup.  The next big play was another gutty but savvy play by Edwards, who couldn't find any open receivers and again scrambled.  As he drifted toward his right sideline, he gave a forward lean with his upper body to indicate that he was taking the ball himself past the line of scrimmage, and that caused a Washington linebacker in front of him to commit.  Edwards then pulled back and tossed the ball to an open J.R. Lemon on that same sideline, who picked up 14 yards with the catch and ensuing scramble.

Edwards would scramble again for a nine-yard pickup inside the 10 yardline, but a Husky personal foul on the play moved it even closer.  Stanford had the ball on the three, but moved backward on the first and only sack of the game.  Tolon would pick some of that back up with a six-yard run off the right tackle to setup 3rd and goal from the five.  6'7" freshman wide receiver Evan Moore came into the game, and in rather predicatable fashion Stanford went for the corner fade pattern to him.  The Husky cornerback with the defense seemed to give up on his chance to stop the play pretty quickly as he grabbed and pulled down Moore.  The pass interference gave Stanford a new set of downs with 1st and goal at the two.

Here is where Stanford made its greatest failing of the game, however.  They twice tried to run the ball in and twice saw Tolon lose two yards.  Then on third down from the six, they attempted to throw.  Edwards was looking at the trio of tight ends Stanford had set loose in the endzone, but all were covered.  He dumped the ball off to Tolon behind the line of scrimmage, who was quickly devoured by a swarm of Husky defenders for a loss of five yards.  With two sets of downs inside the five, Stanford could not pick up positive yardage and was forced to kick the field goal.  It gave Stanford a consolation lead at 17-14, but it would be the last score of the game.

Washington answered right back with a 12-play 76-yard drive that moved the ball well with both the pass and the run.  Stanford made pretty good 1st down stops, but the Huskies kept coming back with big plays on 2nd and 3rd and long.  It culminated with the second score of the day for Reggie Williams, this one a nice six-yard catch on a ball thrown behind him as he was crossing the back of the endzone.  The 21-17 lead was all Washington needed for the win, though they would get more insurance.

Stanford never crossed midfield the remainder of the game, and Trent Edwards would complete just 4 of 14 passes for a total of 16 yards the rest of the way.  Two of those incompletions were interceptions.  But the Card had two great chances that they let slip through their fingers.  The first came on the first play from scrimmage after Washington's go-ahead score.  Stanford had the ball on its own 23 after a Marrero runback.  The true freshman touched the ball again right away, this time on an end-around from the wide receiver position.  The play exploded up the right sideline for a 42-yard gain that looked like it ignited Stanford's comeback answer.  The ball would have been on the Washington 35, but a bogus defensive holding penalty on Luke Powell brought it back.  It officially went for an eight-yard gain, producing 1st and 12, but the replay showed that Powell simply blocked the Husky player cleanly (on a de-cleater).  There was no objective evidence for the flag, and one can only assume that the official was out of position on the surprising end-around run.  Stanford ended up without a first down and punted after three uneventful plays.

The other great opportunity lost came in the 4th quarter when Stanford started on its own 32.  A dead-ball personal foul (with an offender I could not pick up) after an incompletion.  That put Stanford in a 2nd and 21 which soon become 3rd and 21.  Luke Powell got open 25 yards down the field on the right side, and Edwards had a clean look.  He led Powell toward the sideline for what would have been a first down and more, but the senior slipped and fell.  The ball sailed past him and skipped into the Stanford sideline harmlessly.

The Cardinal had four drives after that Washington score that went nowhere, but the defense held tight and kept Stanford within four point.  The biggest stand came when Washington's Charles Frederick returned a booming Eric Johnson punt (66 yards) for 47 yards.  It was a clear example of out-kicking your coverage, though admittedly it was a great runback by Frederick after a monster shot by Johnson.  But the Huskies had the ball on Stanford's 34 with five minutes to go.  They soon had a 3rd and 1 situation, but Stanford stuffed the next two running plays for a combined loss of two yards.  The huge 4th down stand gave the Cardinal offense the ball back on their own 27 with just under three minutes left.  Stanford also had all of its timeouts.

You can't ask for too much more than that chance if you are a Cardinal fan in Husky Stadium after the last three decades of futility.  But there was not to be even a sniff of a comeback drive.  Edwards failed on three straight passes, the final two of particular note.  2nd and 10 was an attempt for Brett Pierce in the middle of the field, but Edwards got the ball off a split-second too late, with not quite enough mustard.  The defending Husky reached around to knock it away.  On 3rd down, Edwards looked across the field to Luke Powell but again didn't get the ball there and instead had it picked off by Derrick Williams, who hot-dogged it into the endzone with the ball high over his head. 

Stanford now trailed by 11 and had almost no chance.  They did complete a meager four passes to pick up one first down, but Edwards would toss another interception to seal the game.  Washington ran out the clock and picked up their 11th straight win at home over the Stanford Cardinal.

In the final tally, Stanford managed decent offensive numbers against a defense that ranked favorably not just in the conference, but nationally.  Until his dry spell late in the game, Trent Edwards was 12 of 18 for 143 yards with 2 TDs and 0 INTs.  But the offensive game felt like it tightened as play progressed.  Washington did not bring blitzing pressure at all like San Jose State or BYU, which some observers naively predicted.  They instead played their base defense and dared Stanford to beat them straight-up.  The Huskies succeeded in containing the big play, and they still managed a decent pass rush with just their front four.  Only one sack was recorded, but they got their licks in without having to blitz.

What was tremendously disappointing was the running game.  Kenneth Tolon ran hard all game long, but managed exactly 3.0 yards per carry.  He had 14 yards of losses and had a long run of just nine yards.  To his credit, the New Mexico native several times picked up 4-6 yards on 1st down runs. I don't know what the answer is for the 2nd and 3rd down running game, but the most disappointing runs came in short yardage situations.  There were of course the infamous 1st and goal and 2nd and goal runs that each lost two yards inside the five, but there were another four downs in the game on 2nd or 3rd situations with two yards or less to pickup that failed.

Admittedly, Stanford was at a great disadvantage with precisely zero fullbacks healthy and traveling for the game.  There have only been two fullbacks available the first two games of the year, but Cooper Blackhurst injured his neck early this past week and could not practice Wednesday or Thursday.  I don't believe he even made the trip this weekend.  Pat Jacobs had a death in the family and was gone all week.

That forced Stanford to use J.R. Lemon through much of this game as a fullback.  Brett Pierce even made an appearance at the position, as did Alex Smith in the triple-I formation.  That triple-I, by the way, lost yardage.

It's hard to win football games when you know you have to pick up 3rd and 1 or 3rd and 2 on the ground, and the other team knows it as well.  Regardless of your offensive scheme, there are moments in every football game when the plays are predictable but you have to move the ball a few feet for that first down.  Stanford can't do that right now, and it will require great compensations in other parts of the offense to mask that deficiency.  With a freshman quarterback and three frosh on the offensive line, I don't see a step-function improvement in the passing game that will allow Stanford to get by without a good short yardage running game.  The Cardinal coaches have two weeks before their next game at U$C, and those Trojans have the biggest, fastest and strongest defensive players Stanford will face all year.  It will be interesting to see how they rectify this shortcoming and plan for the game in Compton.

Also taking a 10,000-foot view of this game, Stanford took its foot off the gas with the pass rush some time in the first half.  The front seven were creating problems in the Washington backfield early in the game, with Oshinowo leading the way.  But after that 74-yard backbreaker by Reggie Williams, the blitzing pressure was moderated.  This was a predictable result, as I had written earlier in the week that Washington would be able to go over the top against this defense.  There is a lot of risk you take when you send everybody up front; the corners have to survive on their own in the back end.  The safeties also have to be able to stuff a draw play like Alexis produced.  When you get burned quickly on those plays, you have to ratchet things back and play a more base defense.  That wasn't a bad thing, as Washington produced just one more offensive touchdown the final 44 minutes of the game.  I think the defense made some good stands and big plays.  But we all now know they are not superhuman.

Speaking of the defense, Stanford lost redshirt junior strongside LB Jared Newberry on a special teams play.  True freshman Michael Okwo laid a ferocious hit on Charles Frederick on a punt return, but Newberry was also struck on the collision and had to leave the game.  He was the only player for Stanford that I saw leave the game and not return.  His injury status is at this time unknown.

That put Jon Alston in as the first team "Sam" linebacker, which is not exactly a hardship for Stanford.  Though it meant that Michael Craven played in extra-backer formations, and it also forced Craven to play SLB when Alston had to limp off the field a couple times.

Other interesting personnel notes: Jon Cochran started again at right tackle, with Mike Sullivan never entering the game.  Drew Caylor played a good number of snaps at RT as well...  Josiah Vinson received substantial time at right guard... Evan Moore did get in the game and twice had balls thrown to him.  The aforementioned corner fade in the endzone was predictable, but Edwards also put a high ball to Moore on the sideline at midfield during Stanford's second touchdown drive.  The 6'7" wideout did not come down the with the ball, though it is a play he makes in practice.  He wants to be on the field and the team needs him on the field, but he has to be more than a touchdown lob specialist... center Brian Head had way too many shotgun snaps that were low and away.  I was shocked there were not several fumbles as a result.  Either Head fixes his shotgun snap or Stanford puts Drew Caylor at center.  That is going to bite the Card in the ass in a big way if it continues... David Marrero is probably now a first string kickoff returner, which is good, but he absolutely has to touch the ball more on offense.  That end-around should have been a legal and completed play, and I think it is the tip of the iceberg for this breakaway talent.  Nine carries in three games is not enough.  And I saw plays in practice all last week that would have worked in this game.  I don't know why they were not implemented.  Sure, he is not a power back and the absence of a fullback in Seattle put a premium on a tough runner, but there were more ways than just an end-around to use him.  Stop screwing around and give David Marrero the ball...  Fellow frosh Mark Bradford has made his mark.  He now has standout plays in all three of his first college games, and he is averaging 19.3 yards per reception.  His playing time was very strong in this game, and I think it is tough to argue that he is not the 2nd or 3rd best receiver on this team already...  My one special teams gripe right now is that Marcus McCutcheon does not appear to be keeping gunners away from Luke Powell on punt returns.  I may not have seen enough of this yet, but that's my impression at this point after having been at all three games...  OK, one surprising non-gripe: I had wanted to see Michael Sgroi take kickoffs this week, but Johnson is getting the job done.  There is something to be said for hangtime and placement with as good a KO coverage team as Stanford possesses.  Indeed, Washington started with the ball on average at the 20.3 yardline after Johnson's four kickoffs.  The first went for a touchback, but the three returned balls produced on average the same result... Trent Edwards is showing up as a far better scrambler than I knew from practices.  This could pay dividends with how other things are laying out this year on offense.  Don't expect Randy Fasani, but Edwards ought to be able to pick up some more of these nice gains on scrambles or keepers.  Though you can also expect him to hobble off the field before long if he is willing to take those hits...  In case it did not come through in the above recap, Stanford really stubbed its proverbial toe with penalties in this one.  Nine for 90 yards, and they all seemed to come at the worst opportunities.  Special teams was hurt three times on runbacks with penalties.  The offense moved backward with a personal foul, a false start, a motion penalty and the bogus holding on Marrero's run.  The defense lost an interception as well as a 3rd down stop, plus another personal foul.  Granted, the Huskies had eight penalties of their own, but it felt like penalties kept moving Stanford back and making the hill that much steeper to climb in Husky Stadium...  Kudos to safety Oshiomogho Atogwe for a team-leading 12 tackles, just one shy of his career high last year at Oregon.  A forced fumble and recovery, plus a pass break-up to boot.

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