Card Can't Close

The only thing more painful than failure is repeating it. Twice in Tempe on Saturday night, Stanford failed to close out a half and protect their lead. Both times the defense failed horrifically, in design and execution. The final flub was an allowed 80-yard drive in the last two minutes of the game, reversing the joy of a fantastic Cardinal comeback.

At the end of a close loss, and the margins were pretty thin in this 34-31 defeat, you scan back through the breadth of the contest in search of all the things that went wrong.  Some are mistakes, some are bad luck.  In evaluating this most recent and most heartbreaking loss at Arizona State, there are a plethora of places to point.  The Sun Devils had the Cardinal quadrupled (!!) in total yardage through three quarters, which falls on the heads of both the Stanford offense and the Stanford defense.  Only the special teams outshined in this game.

But it is worth remembering that, statistics be damned, this was a game that also had mistakes by ASU as well as some fantastic plays by Stanford.  For it to be a game decided at the final gun by less than a score, in either direction, is not unbelievable.  Some Cardinalmaniacs™ in the throes of despair will say that Stanford in no way deserved to win that game, but an equally compelling case could be made that Homecoming team did not deserve to win.  It took a fluke play with 0:00 left on the clock at the end of the first half for the Devils to gain any momentum, and they failed to put away the Card, thus leaving the door open for a comeback.

The more important point is that for the first time this year, and on the road against a ranked team that seven days earlier was a verifiable BCS contender, Stanford made a triumphant and successful comeback bid.  After a handful of heart-wrenching losses, where players knew they were so close to momentous victories, they had finally slid that magical slipper on their foot.  Regardless of what you feel about the coaching staff or the value of the 2004 season for Stanford Football, the win would have meant the world to players who have busted their butts all year.

When redshirt freshman quarterback T.C. Ostrander hit fifth-year senior tight end Alex Smith for a 67-yard touchdown, with just 2:02 left in the game, it was celebration city.  That play, the first and last of the drive, came on the heels of an incredible four-down stand by the defense and concluded a scoring surge of 17 points in under nine minutes.  Throw the tragic first three quarters in the trash, because that comeback climb was nothing short of magnificent.

Ironically, the Cardiac Cardinal had made their go-ahead score with too much time on the clock.  Arizona State and senior standout slinger Andrew Walter had all three of their timeouts.  Put that together with the college rules that stop the clock on first downs, and there was a world of time remaining.  The Sun Devils marched down the field against a mostly inept Stanford defense in 14 plays.  Fourteen!  When Cardinal kicker Michael Sgroi booted the kickoff deep into the endzone for a touchback, that gave Walter and his crew 80 yards to cover in those two minutes.  When you add in the quarterback sack and holding penalty on the drive, it meant they covered 99 yards.

Your first reaction is likely to rant about a prevent defense.  I remember sitting in the Rose Bowl on New Year's of 1997 when ironically it was Arizona State who choked away a National Championship with their super-soft prevent defense against Ohio State at the end of the game, and it was a horrific scene to watch unfold.  Saturday night, I immediately thought back to the Stanford-Washington game of 2000, which saw a magical comeback by the Card fall all apart as Marques Tuiasosopo went 80 yards in three plays in the blink of an eye.  That was perhaps the nadir of all possible prevent defense Cardinal calamities.  This game-losing allowed drive was actually closer in circumstance to the 1995 USC game, when Keyshawn Johnson caught the winner to snatch the game back after Stanford had taken a late five-point lead.

To give credit, the Stanford defense did send blitzers on almost all of the 12 passing plays in the drive.  To their detriment, the defensive backs played much too far off the line of scrimmage with so much time left on the clock.  If their goal was to protect the field and keep Walter from picking them apart for big gains, they were moderately successful.  But when you have time to run 14 plays on a drive, you do not need to go up top with your passing game.  You can very effectively throw underneath the 10-yard pads that Stanford cornerbacks gave religiously.  That allowed ASU to move methodically down the field, picking up 10-yard chunks like leftover Halloween candy on the kitchen counter.  Here is how it played out:

(2:02) 1st & 10 @ ASU 20: Jon Alston blitzes on the left side, but with all defenders deep down the field, the right side is so open that the nominally immobile Walter can run and slide for 12 yards.

(1:47) 1st & 10 @ ASU 32: Stanford sends Jared Newberry and David Bergeron, though nobody gets any pressure.  The remaining six defenders successfully cover and force Walter to throw away.

(1:42) 2nd & 10 @ ASU 32: Newberry and Alston blitz, and Alston is tackled by a lineman, but Walter has time and hits a receiver coming back underneath very deep coverage for 10 yard and then an extra nine due to slow closing and weak tackling.

(1:27) 1st & 10 @ STAN 49: Alston blitzes but is picked up. Walter finds his target on an easy 11-yard out pattern, with Leigh Torrence backpedaling in anticipation of something 15 yards or more down the field.

(1:22) 1st & 10 @ STAN 38: For the fifth straight play, Stanford sends some pressure, but this time they mix it up and send Torrence on a corner blitz to aid Alston.  The offensive tackle on that side disengages from Alston to get Torrence, and Alston plasters Walter for a sack and momentary reprieve.  ASU uses first timeout.

(1:15) 2nd & 19 @ STAN 47: Alston blitzes again, while Julian Jenkins provides pressure from the other side, forcing Walter to roll out and throw away to avoid a sack.  ASU held Babatunde Oshinowo in the middle as well, drawing a flag and 10-yard penalty.

Here, there is some debate about whether you take the penalty or not.  If you refuse the penalty, then you are banking on your ability to stop the Sun Devils from picking up 19 yards on the next two plays, netting a turnover on downs.  With how ASU moved the ball on this drive, I can see the argument for taking yardage rather than downs.  As it turns out, Stanford gives up 19 yards on the next play, which is a disaster regardless of down or distance...

(1:07) 2nd & 29 @ ASU 43:  Once again, Alston comes on the outside, but Walter has enough time to find his target for a 19-yard out.  This was the play that broke the defense on this drive.  It was a great throw and a great catch, but it was easier than it needed to be with two fifth-year senior DBs in the area.

(1:02) 3rd & 10 @ STAN 38: Alston and Newberry both come on the left side, but Walter makes a quick throw to a receiver on a comeback with Stanley Wilson more than 10 yards off him.  Wilson has to race to try and close and fails to wrap up, which allows the receiver to stretch forward and pick up the first down.

(0:51) 1st & 10 @ STAN 27: For the first time in the drive, Stanford sends only the three-man rush, trying to stop the bleeding in their pass coverage.  It makes no difference on this play, where another nine-yard out pattern is completed with no defender within even five yards of making a tackle.  The receiver falling down is the only thing preventing him from getting out of bounds and stopping the clock - ASU calls their second time out.

(0:40) 2nd & 1 @ STAN 18: Stanford shows blitz on both sides of the line with Alston and Newberry, with the former attacking while the other drops back.  Alston gets home and forces an errant pass that is almost picked off in the endzone.

(0:35) 3rd & 1 @ STAN 18: First running play of the drive, and ASU picks it up easily with an inside draw for four yards.

(0:30) 1st @ 10 @ STAN 14: Walter spikes the ball to kill the clock

(0:28) 2nd & 10 @ STAN 14: For the umpteenth play in a row, Alston is sent to rush the passer, but this is easily his weakest effort.  He has zero gas left in his tank at this point after blitzing so many plays.  Alston doesn't really even cross the line of scrimmage.  Still, the 10-yard completion is not due to a lack of pass rush or even a poor coverage.  It goes to the tight end, who is closely defended by Michael Okwo.  Okwo legally chucks him just before the pass is thrown, but it's a good ball where only the tight end can catch it.  The failing is the tackle attempt, where Okwo slides off the freshman's body and allows him to pick up five more yards and the first down.  In the final 20 seconds of the game, that is critical in stopping the clock.  Who knows what would have played out on 3rd & 5 rather than 1st & Goal.

(0:16) 1st & Goal @ STAN 4: Alston blitzes but is blocked.  Walter sits back and sees the entire Stanford defense camped out just past the goalline, leaving almost the entire endzone undefended.  Only Bergeron runs back, in coverage of a receiver out of a bunch formation.  He is not well equipped in pass coverage, particularly for a receiver, which is why he comes out in nickel packages.  Why he picks up the lone deep receiver and the rest of the defense is leaning forward, you simply cannot explain.  Bergeron stumbles and falls down under his own power in trying to cover the 6'2" wideout, who has no defense against him when he leaps for the ball in the back of the endzone.

Two themes resonate in review of this massive meltdown.  The first is that Stanford's corners played far, far too soft off the Sun Devil receivers.  ASU sent their wideouts deep on only the first two plays of the drive.  After that, when they saw how deep the secondary was playing, they went underneath play after play after play.  The only way that ASU does not score on that drive is if they have an mediocre quarterback who misses some throws (Walter was spot-on with every toss and deserves some credit.), or if Stanford can get enough pressure to yield sacks or hurries.  Alston got home twice, with one resulting in a sack.  But on a sustained basis, neither he nor the defensive line looked like they could get a decent push.

That leads to the second theme: fatigue.  The defensive players would not admit as much, but it looked like they could not sustain a good push in a 14-play drive.  It was a long game, with the Sun Devil offense spending a lot of time running all over the Cardinal defense.  Injuries hit the defensive line and linebacking corps in the first half, which limited the rotation the remainder of the way.  I specifically have to believe the DL were most fatigued, given their five-man rotation across their three spots.  They were out on the field a long time.  Only Jenkins on one play came close to Walter.

Given the inability to successfully execute pressure on the quarterback, it only made sense to play the corners in a more conventional coverage.  They didn't give up the deep ball, but they did give up the game.  That has to lay on the heads of the coaching staff - whether it was A.J. Christoff or Buddy Teevens who ordered those coverages.  Allowing a 14-play drive of 99 positive offensive yards, with an average completion of 12 yards, is just catastrophic.

I fall short of saying it "cost Stanford the game," though - simply because you can also look at another pair of grave failures.  The more costly of the two came in the final two seconds of the first half, when Arizona State held the ball on their own 48-yardline.  They had taken possession after a long Trent Edwards interception on a third down.  I will break for a moment for this tangent: the decision to throw deep was not a bad one.  Some would say that Stanford should have run out the clock, but Arizona State had shown after second down that they were going to use their time outs to force the Cardinal to punt.  Two runs on the first two downs netted five and minus-one yards, respectively.  If Stanford ran Kenneth Tolon on third down, there were most likely not going to move the chains.  Tolon had averaged 1.8 yards per carry to that point in the game - every bit as ugly and ineffective as that number would suggest.  ASU would have burned another timeout and forced a punt.  If Stanford passed and was incomplete, they would still have to punt.  From roughly their own 30, Jay Ottovegio would have put the Sun Devils back on their 30 or 35 with 10 seconds to go.  If Stanford passed deep and was intercepted, it would act like a punt.  Indeed, Edwards' first interception of the day came on a third down and ended up pinning ASU back inside the five-yardline, better than a punt may have achieved - which led to a blocked punt and Stanford's first touchdown.  This long pass unfortunately ended with a 35-yard interception.  That put the Sun Devils at midfield and gave them a chance.  Tangent over.

With two seconds left in the half, and with the strong arm of Walter ready and willing, we were obviously about to see a Hail Mary.  Arizona State head coach Dirk Koetter admitted afterward that before the sack that pushed his team back from the Stanford 42 to the ASU 48, he was hoping to complete a short pass for a field goal attempt.  Ironically, the Stanford sack forced them to throw for the endzone and a go-ahead score.  OK, so two seconds and 52 yards.  ASU lines up four wide, but this is where the puzzlement begins.  Stanford keeps its base defense on the field, including David Bergeron.  They did not employ a base formation, however.  All four defensive backs were back deep in coverage, while the outside linebackers were at the line of scrimmage out wide.  When the ball landed in the endzone, none of the linebackers were in a position to make a play, and that left just three of the defensive backs to contest with three receivers.  The fourth defensive back, Torrence, was on the other side of the field with his receiver.  In a typical Hail Mary play, there is such a density of players where the ball lands that it is difficult to make a clean play on the ball.  In this instance, no Stanford defender came close to interfering with the touchdown catch.

It was a complete failure.

There are seven points totally that should never have reached the scoreboard, and were more than the difference in the final calculus.  Another totally unnecessary score came early in the third quarter.  On their own two-yardline, Stanford has to run the ball for some breathing room.  Things start badly when T.C. Ostrander and Kenneth Tolon fumble a hand-off, which loses almost a yard.  Then on second down, a linebacker comes through unblocked and forces Tolon to dance to his left.  There he meets another defender and is tackled for a safety.

The two points were ultimately the difference in the game.  When Arizona State scored the final go-ahead touchdown with nine seconds to go, they closed a five-point gap.  Subtract the safety, and it would have been a seven-point gap.  That last score would have tied the game and sent it to overtime.

Of all the "what could've been" games for the Cardinal this year, this one hurts the worst.  Stanford had done something extraordinary in making their 17-point comeback.  After too many games where they let things slip in the fourth quarter, they were the aggressors this go-around.  The victory would have stopped a three-game skid, and it would have again put the team in a position where they could win at home to secure a bowl game.  The dejected faces I saw as the players walked past to the locker room afterward were crushing.  Jon Alston in post-game interviews was quite choked up.

Stanford did plenty wrong over the course of this game.  The defense gave up close to 600 yards, including one of the biggest passing performances allowed against a program with a history of poor pass defense.  They yielded 186 net yards to a redshirt freshman with a previous total of 78 rushing yards in his career.  The offense made its run at the end, but they went nowhere for the first four possessions in the second half - failing to ever cross their own 40-yard line.  They only spark came when the Sun Devils muffed a punt and handed the Cardinal the ball 25 yards away from the endzone.

But... but, these guys deserved a big breakthrough.  They would have had it, if not for the unmitigated disasters at the end of each half.  The players could have wrapped up and tackled better (this was the worst tackling all year by the Stanford defense), but they more importantly should have been in a better position to stymie the final drive.  They could have easily defended the Hail Mary.  It's unacceptable that they were so poorly positioned, set up for failure.  It stings.  It stinks.

  • Record Breaker: Fifth-year senior Alex Smith tied and then broke the Stanford career receptions record for tight ends.  He came into the game with 99 catches and added five more, breaking Bob Moore's mark of 100.  Smith's 100th catch to tie the record, was a 29-yard pickup that was key in the early field position battle leading up to Stanford's first score.  His 101st catch was that touchdown.  He finished the day with five catches for 112 yards, marking his third straight game over the century mark.
  • Frosh Unleashed:  True freshman running back Ray Jones had been limited to garbage duty and special teams all year, and that left his burnt redshirt as a real question.  With an injury early in the week in practice to starter J.R. Lemon, that moved Jones up to the #2 tailback spot behind Tolon.  Stanford has consistently run two backs in every game this year, and sure enough, that gave Jones his first real opportunity.  He received eight of Stanford's 28 carries from the running back position in the game, and he looked good.  While Tolon danced around behind the line of scrimmage and was either inconsistent or consistently bad, Jones ran straight ahead and was never caught behind the line.  His 3.6 yards per carry will not put him on the 2005 Heisman Watch, but it was easily the better than the fifth-year alternative on Saturday.  I would have given Jones the ball more in the fourth quarter, though to be fair, I have to point out the drive where I wanted him instead of Tolon, Stanford moved the ball 68 yards...  Jones punched in a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the second of his young Cardinal career.
  • Block Party:  One of the reasons I maintain that Stanford won the special teams battle was the two blocked punts by redshirt freshman Udeme Udofia.  Both blocks came deep in Arizona State territory, and both led to Stanford touchdowns in the first half.  Udofia each time was blocked by the ASU short man in the backfield, and each time the Cardinal defender blew him back.  It was a timely performance for the favored son of Scottsdale, who had family and friends in the stands.
  • Sprain City:  Stanford lost three key players in Tempe, all with reported sprains.  Redshirt junior defensive end Casey Carroll was the first to fall, injuring his left knee late in the first quarter on a play where a defender rolled on the leg down low (inadvertently) and his blocker pushed him backward up top.  Starting inside linebacker Kevin Schimmelmann was the next to be carried off the field at the end of the second quarter, this time with a teammate causing the injury.  Fellow redshirt junior linebacker Jon Alston rolled up on his left leg as Schimmelmann made a tackle.  Neither defender returned to the game.  On the first play of the third quarter, the offense took their big casualty of the day as Trent Edwards was crushed by a defender who raced by both Josiah Vinson and Kenneth Tolon.  Edwards had his left shoulder driven into the ground, knocking him out of the game for the second time in three weeks due to that shoulder.  X-rays were reportedly negative, and the injury has been officially reported as a sprain.

Post-game quotes
Complete game box score

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