Roadkill No More

It wasn't always pretty, but the Cardinal boarded a plane smiling Saturday night after a key Pac-10 road victory in Pullman. The Stanford defense held Washington State to three points through the first three quarters but yielded 14 unanswered in the fourth. It took a handful of big plays on both sides of the ball to hold on in the 23-17 nailbiter.

For the second straight week, Stanford went on the road for a nationally televised game and saw a tightly contested affair decided by a a choice few plays.  For the second straight week, redzone opportunities - goalline opportunities - came up short and completely changed the complexion of the game.

However, this week, the Cardinal were on the other side of the coin and came away the victor.  In a wild game that ran the gamut of emotions, Stanford held on for a 23-17 win in Pullman Saturday night against Washington State.  The Card won their first Pac-10 road game since 2001, but they had to hold on in a pressure-filled fourth quarter that had Cardinalmaniacs' hearts all aflutter.  Leading 20-3 entering the final period, Stanford had control of the contest, but the Cougars roared to 14 unanswered points that tightened the margin to a field goal.   Keeping in mind that Stanford's two losses this year came as USC and Notre Dame closed out those games with 14-0 and 13-0 runs, respectively, the WSU surge was a disturbing dose of deja vu.  The Card held on this time, though, adding a late field goal to finish the 23-17 victory.

"That was incredible to be a part of that game," exclaimed redshirt sophomore quarterback Trent Edwards afterward.  "There were so many highs and so many lows and so many guys on the defense making plays when we need them to."

The rollercoaster of emotions of which Edwards speaks was best exemplified in the third quarter, when Washington State twice knocked right on Stanford's door but each time was turned away.  It started when the Card punted away in WSU territory, opting to play a field position game rather than attempt a 50-yard field goal with a 20-3 lead.  The pooch punt from redshirt freshman Jay Ottovegio was downed at the eight-yard line, but the Cougars raced down the long field.  They were momentarily stopped when the Stanford secondary stopped a third down pass attempt from the Cardinal 38-yard line, but a taunting penalty from junior T.J. Rushing handed the home team 15 yards and an automatic first down.

Two plays later, the Cougars had 1st & Goal at the 10-yard line.  They pushed the ball to the two but were stuffed on 3rd & Goal.  After three straight running plays, WSU went to the air on fourth down but quarterback Josh Swogger could find nobody open.  He rolled out to his right as Stanford redshirt junior outside linebacker Jon Alston raced after him and forced a harmless throw out of bounds.  Stanford took over on the two-yard line, but on their own second down, Edwards threw a terrible interception on a ball intended for sophomore wideout Evan Moore.

The Cardinal were fortunate that the intercepting defender did not run the ball into the endzone, because the Stanford defense was able to make yet another goalline stand.  After a short run, Washington State moved the ball to the one-yard line for 2nd & Goal.  The Cougs fumbled on the next play and miraculously lost no yardage.  On third down at the one, they were set to run the ball up the middle again, when Alston made another big play.  He launched around the edge into running back Allen Thompson, and forced a fumble with his ferocious hit.  Sophomore safety Brandon Harrison quickly fell on the ball for the recovery.

The two stops were sandwiched around a near-disaster interception, but they ultimately left the score still at 20-3.  Stanford did not manage a first down on the ensuing possession and punted away, giving Washington State the ball just past midfield.  They finally punched in their first touchdown on that possession, early in the fourth quarter, to bring the score to 20-10.  Stanford had a fantastic chance to strike back and reclaim the momentum on their first down of the following possession.  Edwards found redshirt junior receiver Gerren Crochet open deep downfield and hit him with a pass at the WSU 36-yard line, but Crochet did not hold onto the ball as he was tackled from behind.  Stanford went three-and-out and saw the surging Cougars score on the next possession to bring the game to a 20-17 nailbiter.

That second Washington State touchdown game on a 30-yard pass from Josh Swogger to San Francisco native Jason Hill, who beat T.J. Rushing off the line of scrimmage on an out pattern.  Rushing caught up at the goalline but jumped too late for the ball as he turned around.  The quick 14 points were disconcerting for the Cardinal, but so was the way in which Washington State was moving the ball.  Known for their spread offense and aerial attack, they were chewing up yardage on the ground as well.  By the game's end, Stanford's defense was torched for 437 yards.  By comparison, the Cardinal "D" had yielded an average of 321 yards in their previous five games and a high of 383.

Leading now by just three points, on their heels defensively, and with 12 minutes still left on the clock, Stanford was clearly in danger if they could not do something on offense to pick up yardage, run clock, and put points on the board.  The passing game had difficulties for most of the second half, as quarterback Trent Edwards played with a sore throwing shoulder he hurt on a running play.  The Cougar defense also changed their scheme to a cover two to try and take away what the Stanford passing attack was converting.

Incomplete passes were not an option at this point in the game.  The Card needed yardage and a rolling clock, so they started their next series with an unrelenting running attack.  Four straight handoffs to fifth-year senior tailback Kenneth Tolon netted a pair of first downs and 34 yards.  Stanford could not move the chains beyond those rushes, but Tolon's work crossed midfield and gave his team a chance at a field goal.  Redshirt junior Michael Sgroi came onto the field for a 47-yard attempt on the rain-soaked artificial surface.  His career long on The Farm was a 45-yarder in his redshirt freshman year; Sgroi had made just one field goal at 40 yards or more since 2002.

He hit a low line-drive to cover the distance that knuckled but went through the uprights.  Stanford had their first score in a quarter and a half, ending the 14-0 run by the Homecoming crowd favorites.  The drive also kept the ball on the ground every play, eating up a shade under four minutes of clock.  The Cougars had two more possessions in the game but never even reached field goal territory on either one.  Their best threat came on the first of the two drives, when they picked up a quick 24 yards on a pair of runs and then threw for a 19-yard pickup.  But at midfield, Swogger threw a ball that was picked off by Stanford captain and fifth-year senior safety Oshiomogho Atogwe.

Atogwe had let down teammates the week before when he frequently freelanced outside the defense and gave up key plays to Notre Dame, including the go-ahead touchdown.  He was benched by the coaching staff as a result and moved out of the starting lineup this week.  Atogwe played heavy minutes in this game, including the dime package on the opening drive.  It was shameful demotion to be bumped out of the starting lineup, but Atogwe apparently handled it well.  The game-sealing interception capped off an evening where he led Stanford in total (nine) and solo (eight) tackles, as well as a pass breakup.

Stanford took over with six and a half minutes still left in the game, and they stuck to their ground-bound plan.  Tolon picked up a first down after his first two carries, but on the ensuing first down, a holding penalty handed the Card 1st & 20.  The subsequent long-yardage situations would have called for passes under normal circumstances, but the coaching staff was determined to run clock.  They ran Tolon on three straight plays, against the wishes of a nation of swearing fans.  Ottovegio came onto the field on 4th & 11, with no sniff at moving the chains, but the three runs kept the clock moving and ate up close to two and a half minutes.  Washington State touched the ball just one final possession and never again crossed midfield.

It was hard to remember the first two-plus quarters of the game that put Stanford at their 17-point advantage after the tumultuous final 29 minutes.  But for once, the Cardinal put enough points on the board that they were able to withstand a second half surge.  It started late in the first quarter after the team traded field goals.  On Stanford's first scoring drive, Edwards connected with redshirt junior Justin McCullum three times for 30 yards.  Washington State had scouted the Card and thought they understood the primary threats to take out of the receiving game, but that first drive quickly taught them the threat of McCullum.

Stanford had the chance to start their next drive in past midfield when fifth-year senior cornerback Leigh Torrence snared the first of his two interceptions and ran it to the WSU 44-yard line.  Stanford wanted to seize that momentum and attack aggressively on the next play, and it surprised few Cougars that Edwards passed the ball to McCullum.  The Seattle native had every WSU eye locked on him as he caught a backward pass on first down, but those eyes rolled up into their collective head when McCullum pulled back and heaved a forward pass downfield.  Sophomore receiver Mark Bradford was wide open and caught the pass for a 42-yard gain.  One play later, Stanford scored the game's first touchdown on a two-yard run by redshirt junior J.R. Lemon, his team-best sixth touchdown of the year.

The McCullum pass was the first of his college career, but it was not a total surprise in this game.  Stanford had run that play in practice during the week, though after I saw how badly it missed in Thursday's practice, I thought it improbable to enjoy this kind of success.

The Cardinal moved the ball 76 yards on their next drive and found themselves at the WSU four-yard line, but on third down Edwards could not connect with a well-defended Moore on a fade pattern in the endzone.  Sgroi kicked his second of three field goals on the day, a perfect 3-of-3 evening.  The redshirt junior kicker has now officially made his last nine field goals attempts.

Washington State crossed midfield just once the remainder of the half, and on that possession they missed a 39-yard attempt.  Stanford went into the locker room up 13-3 at the half, controlling the game on both sides of the ball.  But the visitors put a stake through their host's heart on the opening play of the third quarter.  Starting on their own 33-yard line, Stanford called for play-action.  Edwards faked the handoff and stepped back to throw to a wide-open Moore.  The pass hit the 6'7" athlete on target, and he ran the remainder of the way to the promised land.  It was the last great play made by the Stanford offense in the game, and it is surprising the Card escaped with a win when that transpired just 16 seconds into the second half.

Some observers might compare this win to ugly affair against the Washington Huskies, but the differences are striking.  The Cardinal collected this win on the road against a team that has amassed 10 wins in each of the last three seasons - a feat accomplished in this conference only one other time, by USC back in the 1930s.  The Cougars are also a far more competent, talented and prepared team than their in-state rivals.  Moreover, the dissatisfaction that came in the Washington game derived from the absence of a blowout.  Stanford doubled up UW with offensive yardage most of the game but failed to convert with scores, due in large part to their turnovers.  Washington State was a far more formidable foe on both sides of the ball, and Stanford was fighting a legitimate battle in Pullman.  Finally, Stanford came out of this game +3 in turnovers; they were -3 at home against the Huskies.

The importance of this win could be tremendous.  The players experienced a challenging fourth-quarter surge and came away with a win, on the road no less.  Woes away from home have been a primary criticism of Stanford Football during the Buddy Teevens era, matched perhaps only by second half collapes.  Both were overcome successfully in this 23-17 win.

"We're at a point where we struggle a little but at the tail end of ballgames," Teevens commented after the game.  "We stood up and said, 'Enough is enough - let's finish.'  And we did.  It was a special opportunity for us."

Their 4-2 record also positions Stanford favorably for a bowl game.  In 2002 and 2003, the Card by contrast sat with records of 2-4 at this point in the season.  This year Stanford needs at least two more wins to go bowling, and their two remaining home games are against Oregon (3-3)and Oregon State (2-4).  The Ducks are up next for the Cardinal, and the two will meet next Saturday in Stanford Stadium.  These teams have not played together on The Farm since 1997, with the last four meetings hosted at Autzen Stadium.

Complete game box score

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