Sweet Lemon Aid, Sour Aftertaste

Most fans said pre-season they would be ecstatic with a 3-1 start to 2004, including an end to the futility streak against the Huskies. But at the end of Saturday's 27-13 win over Washington, there was a lump in our collective throat. J.R. Lemon had a dominating game on the ground, but too many Stanford mistakes sullied the victory.

For those who called running back J.R. Lemon's 82-yard touchdown run a week ago at USC a fluke, the redshirt junior exploded Saturday afternoon to a career best 162 yards on just 19 rushes, carrying the Cardinal offense on his back in a 27-13 win over Washington.  Lemon ripped off runs of 58 and 54 yards, each of which would have easily eclipsed his career high, if not for the new high water mark he established last week against the Trojans.  The 58-yarder went for a touchdown, the second of the afternoon for Stanford and Lemon; the first came on a catch and run three yards out on a backward pass that counted as a lateral and thus a running play.  Lemon tacked on his third and final score on a one-yard touchdown run.

The Cardinal passing game put up good numbers with 254 yards on 23-of-35 throwing by Trent Edwards, but the redshirt sophomore tossed three costly interceptions that undid his other achievements with the football.  Lemon also coughed up a fumble at the goalline on one drive, recovered in the endzone by the Huskies, bringing Stanford to four turnovers on the day.  They took the ball away just once from a struggling Washington offense, and that minus-three differential was the biggest reason you saw Stanford win this game by just 14 points despite dominating the game on both sides of the ball plus special teams.  The Cardinal were also flagged for an uncharacteristic eight penalties for 77 yards, which hurt them numerous times.  Stanford came into the game averaging just 37.7 penalty yards per game.

"We're definitely not excited," said an unsatisfied Oshiomogho Atogwe afterward.  "We had a lot of turnovers, mistakes and penalties out there today.  That's not Stanford Football.  We have to play better and finish better."

"That was one of the ugliest football games I have ever seen, and unfortunately I coached it," admitted a frank Buddy Teevens in the post-game locker room.  "The tough thing is turning the ball over in the scoring area and not getting those points.  The lessons are learned.

The Cardinal moved the ball almost at will in the ballgame, racking up twice the yardage in the air and thrice the yardage on the ground of the visiting Huskies through the first three quarters.  But turnovers and penalties stung Stanford and kept the score closer than it should have been.  The Card converted only two of their five red zone possessions.  Two of the failed drives ended in turnovers.  One came when Edwards made a terrible decision to throw to a tightly covered Evan Moore in the endzone and had the ball intercepted and run back 37 yards.  It was a first down play at the Washington 12-yardline, and Edwards never looked over to see a wide-open Lemon in the flat with all kinds of green in front of him.  Even more frustrating was that the turnover came exactly one play after a sensational connection between Edwards and sophomore Mark Bradford for 44 yards.  The Huskies had brought the house on the third down play, and Edwards felt the pressure but at the last split-second caught out of the corner of his eye Bradford five yards ahead of his single coverage racing down the sideline.  The Stanford signal caller heaved the ball as he retreated backward and hit Bradford for the big gainer.

The second turnover in the redzone robbed the defense of a spectacular play.  Fifth-year senior cornerback Stanley Wilson had just picked off a Carl Bonnell pass early in the fourth quarter and ran it back 51 yards to the Husky four-yardline.  Stanford led 27-7 at the time and looked like a lock to punch in the score that would finally close out the ballgame.  Backup quarterbacks T.C. Ostrander and Ryan Eklund were tossing the ball on the sideline to get ready for clean-up duty.  Stanford moved the ball just inside the one-yardline over the course of the next two plays, but on third and a couple feet, Lemon lost the ball as he launched into the goalline pile out of a triple-I formation.  Washington recovered.  Once again, fantastic field position after a big play was torched by a turnover.

The third of the lost red zone opportunities resulted not from a turnover or a missed field goal.  Stanford did not fail on a fourth down.  They instead watched as the clock expired at the end of the first half after a bizarre sequence.  It all started when the home team received the ball on their own 35-yardline with 2:21 to go in the second quarter.  Edwards dropped back and found Moore on play-action for a quick 25-yard gainer at the sideline to immediately propel Stanford into a viable scoring opportunity at the Washington 40.  Edwards went to play-action again, which was a tactic used with incredible regularity by the Cardinal in this game, but was sacked and fumbled the bal before Lemon recovered.  Stanford had to burn a timeout, which would prove very costly later.  On second down Edwards hit Bradford on the sideline for 10 yards but overthrew Justin McCullum on third down, setting up 4th and 5 at the Washington 35.  Too close to punt but apparently not close enough for a field goal try, Teevens went for it on fourth down and watched as Edwards held onto the ball and was sacked for a big loss and turnover on downs.

Suddenly the Huskies had the ball near midfield with 1:46 on the clock and a chance to make a momentum-changing score before the half.  But the Stanford defense clamped down and allowed nary a yard in three downs, forcing Washington to punt away.  Stanford had the ball at their own 15-yardline with 1:17 on the clock, which was quite similar to their situation a week ago against USC.  Lemon ran for the shocking 82-yarder as time expired against the Trojans, and he nearly repeated the feat with a 54-yard run to move Stanford to the Husky 25-yardline with 19 seconds left in the game.  Three seconds later, Edwards spiked the ball.  The Card had no timeouts after burning their final one just a couple minutes earlier, so they had to carefully manage the clock.

"We figured we had 15 seconds to take a shot at the endzone," Teevens described later of the situation.  But Edwards instead dumped the ball to Lemon in the middle of the field for a mere five-yard pickup as time ticked away.  Stanford had no chance to get the ball set and spiked, but the clock on the scoreboard stopped briefly at 0:08, much to the dismay of the attending Husky faithful.  The timekeeper apparently thought the play had picked up a first down, or saw an official make the hand signal to stop the clock.  As soon as the error was realized, the clock started moving again.  But that delayed allowed Stanford to reset and spike the ball on a putative third down with three seconds still showing on the scoreboard.  Keith Gilbertson was apoplectic on the Washington sideline, frothing at the mouth and jumping up and down as best he could with his grounded round mound.  After a conference of the officials, the decision was made to run off exactly three seconds and send both teams to the locker rooms.  Stanford had no chance to run another play, and like the other two missed opportunities wasted a huge play and enviable field position with mental flatulence.

Stanford had outgained Washington 292 to 128 yards on offense but led just 14-7 at the half.  The Husky ground game was averaging just 2.0 yards per carry and redshirt freshman quarterback Carl Bonnell was doing nothing whatsoever throwing the ball, with just five completions.  Stanford started the third quarter with the big play to Bradford followed by the head-shaking interception by Bradford at the goalline.  The game had an uneasy feeling to it, given how much better Stanford's position should have been on the scoreboard than it was.  With nearly three decades of overwhelming futility against the Washington program, Stanford could ill-afford to let the Huskies hang around.

The Card were also losing some field position battles as Washington punter Sean Douglas had by far his best game of the season, sending regular rockets back to Stanford sophomore David Marrero, who had a rough day all over.  When starting their second drive of the half, Stanford found themselves back on their own eight-yardline after a Marrero fair catch and a brainless personal foul penalty afterward by Trevor Hooper.  It was then that Lemon picked up Stanford and had perhaps his finest drive of the day.  He started things off with a 12-yard run that breathed life into the offense, starting a string of eight plays where Lemon touched the ball seven times.  The one interceding play that called somebody else's number was six-yard pass to Washington native Justin McCullum, who caught is only other pass of the day on the same drive.  Lemon was the motive force that moved the ball out to the Stanford 48-yardline, at which time the coaches substituted fifth-year senior tailback Kenneth Tolon onto the field.  The move put fresh legs in the backfield, after a heavy load Lemon carried on the drive and thus far in the game, and it paid off brilliantly.  Tolon exploded out of the backfield and darted ahead for 44 yards before just barely knocked out of bounds at the Washington one-yardline.  Lemon reentered the gain and punched it in for his and Stanford's third touchdown of the day.

Though the highlights of this untelevised game would show off his 50+ yard runs, Lemon shone most brightly in this game with his shorter yardage pickups.  The Washington defense countless times met him in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage, but he broke tackles and most importantly found open lanes with quick changes of direction.  Until a run in the middle of the fourth quarter, Lemon had not been stopped for a loss of yardage on any carry.  He ended the day with just one run for a loss of one yard, and every other carry reached the line of scrimmage or pushed ahead.  Though he ran for four quarters of yardage in a similarly productive game last year against Arizona State, these runs looked better earned.

"I think our coach [Jay Boulware] is doing a great job helping us understand the fronts," says Lemon of his strong runs.  "Now I get great reads before the snap, which helps me play faster."

Stanford's fourth and final score of the game came on a punt block at the end of the third quarter.  Interestingly, the touchdown transpired as the clock ticked down to 0:00, just as with Lemon's long touchdown run at the end of the first quarter.  Lemon also ran out the clock in the second quarter a week ago, which reminds us that the end of a quarter is not necessarily the best time to hit the concession stands at Stanford Stadium...

The punt block was the second of the game for Stanford, with fifth-year senior David Bergeron recording one earlier.  This time it was sophomore strong safety Brandon Harrison breaking through, and he had such a jump on Washington punter Sean Douglas that the Stanford special teamer nearly ran past him before the kick.  He explained afterward the subtle and commonly overlooked complexity of special teams plays designed and called from the sideline.

"We ran the same play earlier in the game.  A big hole opened up and I didn't run through it," Harrison explains of the selected punt block playcall.  "Coach said to run it again, and this time I got through."

Harrison darted to the punter and easily blocked the kick.  The ball rolled around and was quickly scooped up by redshirt freshman Nick Sanchez, who strolled into the endzone for the score.

"It happened exactly like we talk about it," Sanchez says of the play.  "It was the easiest touchdown of my life.  It felt great, but I owe it all to this guy [Harrison]."

On Stanford's third touchdown, they missed the extra point as Jon Cochran's snap was low and could not be handled quickly enough by holder Kyle Matter.  That left the Card with 27 points, and Washington had just seven to their name by the end of the third quarter.  The Huskies were having next to no success on offense.  They tried to throw the ball, attempted an option attack and ran numerous conventional running plays.  Ironically, it was benched former starter Casey Paus who finally put the Huskies back in the endzone when he was put in the game at quarterback for Bonnell halfway into the fourth quarter.  Paus completed three passes and received the benefit of a pass interference call before a key fourth down conversion, which came amidst some controversy about the completion of a pass to tight end Jon Lyon.  The very next play, Paus threw a 28-yard strike in the back of the endzone to pull Washington to within two touchdowns as the scoreboard showed 4:45 left in the game.

Shades of the 2000 game, when Stanford scored three touchdowns in the final five and a half minutes to come back and take the lead in the final minute, here came the Huskies.  After the Card had squandered so many big plays on offense, defense and special teams all game, they saw a mere 14-point lead with 4:45 remaining.  Washington lined up for the on-sides kick but were flagged for off-side and could not recover the ball before it rolled out of bounds.  Stanford declined the penalty and took over.  Instead of giving time to their offensive reserves, the first team offense had to take the field given the unconvincing lead.  The game would end unceremoniously with no more scores and uneventful action: Stanford 27, Washington 13.

Stanford's 456 yards of offense, almost all accumulated in the first three quarters, should have easily led to another three scores.  But the four turnovers and too-frequent penalties, many of which came on holding calls away from the ball on successful offensive plays, stunted the burgeoning momentum in the game.  It was an odd contest, in many ways, as a result.  Stanford has to celebrate beating their unbeatable rivals from Seattle for the first time in 10 years and just the second time in the lifetimes of most of the Cardinal roster.  It is somewhat incredible that the Card could get over that hump in a game where they were minus-three in the turnover column, when some of the best Stanford teams of recent years have fared much worse with much better.  So we are left with the knowledge that this 2004 Stanford team was good enough to win a decidedly bad game.  While the mental mistakes leave both players and fans cursing at the sky today, there is something pleasing in winning that way.  The good teams can play bad games but still manage to win.  Stanford was so clearly better than Washington on Saturday that they could not help but win.  That is a feeling Cardinalmaniacs have not experienced in years.

"We're progressing.  We've not been in a situation where we played poorly and won," admitted Teevens afterward.  "There is a sign of maturity in how the players handled this game.  There's no pointing fingers at each other.  Everybody is stepping up the accountability for themselves... I had encouraged them to not all hang their heads, but they were upset that they were not able to do all the things we are capable of doing."

Despite not having a single player on the team who had beaten Washington in their Stanford career, there was a marked absence of hoopla and hollering after the game.  The standard by which this team holds itself is much higher than the final score allowed, and so the atmosphere post-game was much more like a loss than a win.  A year ago, then-frosh quarterback Trent Edwards ended Stanford's chances at a victory in Seattle when he tossed an interception late in the fourth quarter to end a comeback drive attempt.  Saturday, he looked as dejected as if he had thrown away that day's game.  He knew full well how much he hurt his team with his handful of costly mental mistakes.  After throwing just one interception in the first three games and 98 attempts of the year, Edwards tossed up three picks in this game and flushed a score with his decision at the end of the first half.

While he came into the game professing unparalleled confidence in the offensive game plan that Bill Cubit had crafted, Edwards after the game admitted a disappointing lack of energy in his week of practices that continued into Saturday's four quarters.

"There were about two or three drives I was really impressed with," the Stanford signal caller said of the offense.  "But I was lethargic all week and didn't come out with a lot of intensity.  My teammates expect more out of me."

The final take on this game is that Stanford executed plays on offense, defense and special teams at a high level.  The mistakes were not missed plays, but lapses of judgement and mental focus.  For Edwards in particular, the gaffes were completely out of character, and it is hard to believe that this is the quarterback you would expect to see again soon under center.  The defense was solid throughout, and they managed to sack Husky quarterback three times in the game - once more than Washington had allowed all season.  They contained that bugaboo option and played good assignment football.  Special teams once again won their battles.  J.R. Lemon dominated on the ground, and the passing game moved the ball for bigger chunks of yardage.  If Stanford turns the ball over like this again in any game the remainder of the year, they will almost surely lose.  But so many other positives for this game let you feel good about a 3-1 Cardinal squad, as they demonstrated their ability and productivity in all areas of the game.

Complete game box score

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