Defense Not Enough In 24-14 Loss

After a shellacking at the hands of the #5 USC Trojans, there were many calls of doom and gloom heading into Saturday's next affair against #6 Washington State. But the Cardinal defense stood tall and kept the game within reach through four quarters. In the end, an anemic offense plus a few big plays on defense and special teams, kept Stanford on the losing side of the ledger, 24-14.

If your stomach turned last week with USC's quick strikes down the field to move the ball at will against the Stanford defense, your ulcer took an even nastier turn on this Saturday after watching Washington State open the game with an 80-yard scoring drive that took just two minutes 15 seconds.  Most of the yardage came with Cougar quarterback Matt Kegel going over the top of the Stanford defense with a 51-yard strike to Sammy Moore.  The visiting team struck first blood and did so with lethal precision. The slaughter was on... or so it seemed.

The defense did their best job to keep the Card in the game after the initial failure.  The next time the Cougars touched the ball they punted, three and out.  On WSU's third series, they were stopped on a 3rd and 3 when Kevin Schimmelmann made a lightning strike in the backfield for a three-yard loss that forced another punt.  The very next series the Cougs had a controversial 3rd and short after a trapped "reception" at Stanford's 30-yardline that went unseen by any officials and eventually ruled by committee as a completion.  That set up a 4th and 1 situation for WSU, but Stanford middle linebacker David Bergeron broke into the backfield and tripped up the runner for a loss of a yard and a turnover on downs.

But each time Stanford had an opportunity to seize momentum from these great stops, the offense sputtered and stuttered. One promising opportunity came from the Cardinal's worst field position.  Stanford started on its own 5-yardline (could have been the 20, if Trevor Hooper had not prematurely lept for a wobbling lob pass heaved into the secondary, which he could have fielded as easily as a punt).  The running game had managed just one total yard in the first quarter, but they would pick up two straight first downs on three runs totaling 28 yards.  However a 3rd and 5 on the next set of downs would fail when Trent Edwards was called for a questionable grounding call and hit with a 14-yard "sack" on the play.

The defense delivered a crushing three-and-out stop, including a pair of tackles behind the line of scrimmage on pass plays.  Stanford received the ball on its own 36 with 10 and a half minutes to go in the half and began for the first time to move the chains via the air, including three completions in a row to Luke Powell for a total of 37 yards.  The key play of the drive, though, came when Edwards felt blitzing pressure in his face and unloaded a rather somewhat desperate throw toward Mark Bradford on the right sideline.  The alert freshman saw the ball and came back for it - a huge first down and Stanford's first trip into the red zone in the game.  However Stanford would move the ball nary another inch and settled for a 33-yard field goal attempt, which sailed wide right by Michael Sgroi.

The fruitless drive gave Buddy Teevens nothing on the scoreboard, but it did give the offense a verifiable confidence boost in the passing game.  Edwards completed four passes for 53 yards and found a groove.  The very disturbing note in that drive was that Kenneth Tolon ran the ball four times and consistently picked up no gain on each and every attempt.

It was a microcosm of the game, where Tolon would pick up just 22 yards on 17 carries (1.3 ypc).  And this was not a question of getting hit behind the line of scrimmage, where losses erased Tolon's gains.  He lost just two total yards on all those carries.  With a long run of just five yards, this was a tale of a truly unproductive running day for the Cardinal's leading rusher on the year.

Not only did Stanford come away on that penetrating offensive drive without points, they would be unable to repeat any of its success the remainder of the half.  On their two subsequent drives, they picked up just 10 more total yards and no first downs.

The Card started out the second half with the ball, but they quickly turned it over on a Trent Edwards interception.  On 3rd and long, the redshirt freshman quarterback threw a ball at the head of a needle to tightly-covered Brett Pierce in the middle of the field, but the fifth-year tight end was hit by a defender before the ball reached him.

"I can't force balls into the tight end like that," Edwards admits.  "My accuracy has to be 10 times better than what it was in high school.  That isn't an excuse; it's a fact of how I have to be better."

The defender tipped the ball into the air, and a WSU teammate picked it off and returned it to the 39-yardline.  The Cougars found the endzone four plays later for a score on a 22-yard pass just past the goalline.  A minor victory, Amon Gordon blocked the PAT (after a low snap) to hold the game to a 13-point affair.

Stanford finally struck back on the ensuing possession.  The key play was a 36-yard toss to Gerren Crochet, putting the ball on WSU's three-yardline.  On first down Trent Edwards used play action and rolled out to his left, but both J.R. Lemon and Pierce were well covered, forcing him to throw the ball away out of the back of the endzone.  Second down attempted to power the ball in, with a hand-off to Tolon, but he picked up nothing up the middle.  Third down saw Edwards roll to his right again, but without any open receivers he chucked the ball out of bounds harmlessly.  The Cougars however had a double-team tackle of Alex Smith near the line of scrimmage and were flagged for defensive holding.  Half the distance (to the one-and-a-half-yardline) and an automatic first down gave Stanford fresh life.

Tolon would charge up the middle for no gain on the next play, and then Edwards again rolled right on second down.  He threw a pass just past the outstretched arms of Matt Traverso.  Edwards was creamed on the play by a pursuing Will Derting, who incidentally was cleared by Washington State head man Bill Doba to play as early as the first half of this game, despite a recent DUI arrest and pending court hearing.  The redshirt frosh QB had to be helped off the field.  He did not return in the game, and that brought fifth-year senior Chris Lewis into the game for third down. Lewis handed off to Tolon, who took the ball off tackle one yard on the left side and just cleared the goalline with an outstretched arm for the touchdown. After the PAT it was 13-7, Washington State.

The Cougars had their own answer, though.  They came to the realization that they were getting stuffed on the run and went to the air. They completed passes of 19, 34 and 10 yards to bring the ball to a 1st and Goal opportunity on the two-yardline.  The Cardiac Card defense came up with three straight stops and forced a field goal attempt.  On that try, the Cougars had their second straight low long snap, and WSU holder Brett Johnson ran his best Garo Yepremian impersonation.  Though at least Johnson managed a forward pass, which was deflected by Louis Hobson and picked off in the endzone by Will Svitek.  The score remained 13-7 despite a 77-yard drive from Washington State.

Stanford did succeed in moving the chains on the next drive, including two big first down pickups on a pass interference penalty (throw to Powell) and 14-yard toss to Greg Camarillo on 3rd and 5.  But the drive stalled when Lewis had his pass deflected at the line of scrimmage on a 3rd and 7 at the Cougar 38-yardline.  Fighting the field position fight, Eric Johnson landed a punt on the WSU 4-yardline.  But Kegel went to the air and found wide receiver Chris Jordan on a 36-yard pass against Leigh Torrence.  Stanford picked itself up though for a stop on the next set of downs. WSU punted the ball for a touchback, which at least succeeded in pushing Stanford back deep in their own territory.  The brief gain of field position was gone.

Lewis stayed in the game, as Edwards was nursing his right shoulder.  Stanford was determined to run the ball, with rushes on just about every 1st down after Lewis came into the game.  In fact, either Lemon or Tolon carried the ball on five straight 1st down plays.  While Lemon's first five-yard gain appeared to justify the tactic, the next four 1st down rushing attempts averaged 2.5 yards, consistently setting up 2nd and Long situations.  Unable to move the ball at all, Stanford was forced to punt inside their 20 and fight an unwinnable field position battle.

The dam finally broke when a 47-yard Johnson punt with 10 minutes to go in the game was returned 64 yards by Sammy Moore to Stanford's three-yardline.  Washington State scored on the very next play, and then converted the two-point play for their largest lead of the game, 21-7.

The only other time in the game when WSU had taken a two-score lead, Stanford came back on the very next possession with a touchdown answer.  Starting on their own 20, the Card looked like they might have another quick answer when Lewis found Camarillo on the first two plays for gains of 15 and nine yards.  A WSU off-sides penalty, earned by Lewis' trademark hard cadence at the line of scrimmage, put the ball at the 49-yardline.  There was palpable hope in the air.

But Stanford moved backward promptly with a Lewis sack of six yards after he held the ball too long.  The ball was snapped over Lewis' head on the very next play and he did an excellent job to recover it and throw it away but clipping penalty pushed the offense back to its own 28 and a 2nd and 30 situation.  A pass sailed incomplete 25 yards downfield to Justin McCullum.  On third down Lewis threw deep to Bradford at the WSU 25-yardline in double coverage, where it was intercepted.

WSU got the ball back and looked like they would run clock, with just eight minutes left in the game and a 14-point lead.  But a Cougar injury stopped the clock after their first run attempt, and a false start came next.  They went to the air and through incomplete, setting up 3rd & 13.  Oshiomogho Atogwe had a fantastic pass breakup against that attempt, forcing the #6 team in the nation to punt after yet another three-and-out.

Stanford received the ball on its own 40 after an ugly punt, handing them their best starting field position of the half.  Lewis went back to Camarillo for a 15-yard pickup to the WSU 45-yardline.  The redshirt sophomore and former walk-on was hit short of the first down but stayed on his feet and scrambled for extra yardage.  The next pass went for eight yards to Bradford on the left sideline.  Then 14 yards on a catch-and-run by Bradford on the left sideline.  With the ball on the 23, Lewis tossed an attempt at the cone for Evan Moore that sailed high and out of bounds.  The next play was also an incompletion, this time in the middle of the field, attempted for Camarillo.  But the defense "Couged it" with a roughing penalty on the quarterback and gave Stanford the ball at the 12-yardline (half the distance).  Lewis found a crossing Bradford in the endzone, and the true freshman grabbed the ball out in front of his body with one hand for the score.

As beautiful as the play looked live, the explanation from the true freshman receiver was even more spectacular.  "The play was an option, where I could run either an out or a post pattern," Bradford begins.  I saw the safety on the other side of the field and knew I would get single coverage.  I faked the out and then went in to the post.  I saw the ball leave the quarterback's hand, but then it disappeared for a moment.  I couldn't see it.  So I just stuck my arm out where I thought it would go.  I was a little surprised when it hit my hand, and I was fortunate to pull it in."

However an excessive celebration penalty on the score (which was not at all apparent from this observer) cost Stanford 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff, which could not have come at a worse time.  With 6:11 left in the game, there was more than enough time for Stanford's defense to make a stop and give the Cardinal offense one or two more tries - likely in fair field position.  But Eric Johnson had to instead place the tee on his own 20-yardline.  What a killer of a penalty!

The fifth-year senior punter/kicker delivered with his best kickoff of the year, though, putting the ball well over the returner's head. The Stanford coverage team finished the deal, making the tackle on the 23-yardline. That play was scarcely different from a touchback.  Perhaps some karma flowed through Johnson's foot on that boot, righting the wrong of a mysterious and unjustified celebration penalty.

WSU picked up a first down immediately with a 10-yard run, but they quickly found themselves in a 3rd and 9 hole.  With the ball on WSU's side of the field and a chance to regain possession with ample time for a tying scoring drive, the big play once again spanked the Cardinal.  Kegel had been knocked out of the game in the early in the 4th quarter on a shot by Stanford linebacker Jared Newberry, but he returned after just two series.  His shoulder may have ailed him momentarily, but he showed no ill-effects when he hit Devard Darling for a 31-yard strike against Stanley Wilson down the right sideline.

In a matter of seconds, the Cardinal defense lost a chance to force a punt and give their offense the ball to tie the game; instead the Cougars were in field goal range with one of the best placekickers in the country warming up on their sideline.  Drew Dunning did hit a 37-yard field goal three plays later and pushed the game to a two-score deficit.  The 24-14 score held the remaining 3:16 of the game.

In many ways, this game felt like the BYU and Washington games.  The offense had struggles, but the defense was so good in so many instances that it kept the game in reach.  The reason why Stanford pulled out the win in Provo but lost in Seattle and against this afternoon: the opponent's offense.  I wrote this several weeks ago and still believe it to be true.  The gambling Cardinal defense exposes the big pass play, and that came to fruition in this game.  Washington State hit passes of 51, 34, 36 and 31 yards.  Those four connections represented the tiniest fraction of the Cougars' 81 offensive plays, but resulted in 38% of their total offense.  Those four plays all keyed WSU drives that reached the red zone.  The only other two times the #6 team in the nation made it to the Stanford 20 came on Edwards' interception and the 64-yard punt return.  All 24 of Washington State's points came on these six drives.  It is not hyperbole - the big play really was the only way the victors were able to threaten offensively in this game.  Otherwise, the Stanford defense was superb.

"It's really frustrating to see how close we are," Powell (five catches for 47 yards) said after the game.  "The defense played above and beyond what we expected of them.  We have to get things going on offense as players to take advantage of our chances."

"I was happy to come out and play well on defense," Stanley Wilson offers.  "We had a lot of three-and-outs.  We put ourselves in a position to win.  We showed we could stop the run - our run defense was fantastic.  But that doesn't mean you can accept any pass plays completed on you.  Every ball thrown your way, you want to make the interception.  We just have to make the play on those long balls.  It's disheartening because we're in position to make a play.  We work on deep ball drills all the time - we'll just have to watch the tape and make some adjustments."

Chris Lewis' final comment at the end of the day was directed at Cardinalmaniacs: "To all the fans out there, don't worry," he said. "The season's not over yet."

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