In Saturday's 24-19 loss to Oregon State, the Cardinal seemed to borrow bits and pieces from a number of previous defeats the last two years. Not unlike the 2003 Big Game, the incompetent offense could squeeze only three total points out of the first three interceptions the defense made - all handing the offense the ball inside the Beaver 40-yard line. Similar to the 2003 Oregon game, the offense flailed in a sequence of eight downs in "and goal" territory, turning the ball over on downs twice and netting a total of minus-nine yards early in the third quarter. Fast forward to the 2004 Oregon game, and you see a parallel in Michael Sgroi missed field goals that ultimately represented the difference in the final score. And harkening to last week's game against Arizona State, you find a three-score comeback bid that came up short in the final few minutes of the game. Like that game in Tempe, this loss was a true heartbreaker and left the team emotionally wrecked afterward. The added pain for this defeat was two-fold: the loss is Stanford's sixth and mathematically end the team's bowl hopes; the loss came on Senior Day and was a bitter farewell to a class that fought like hell on the field.
On the defensive side of the ball, there was little answer early as the Beavers moved the ball effectively through the air in the first half, completing 15-of-20 passes against the Card for 211 yards and three touchdowns. That resulted in a 21-3 advantage for Oregon State, and by all accounts, it looked like the rout was on. Beaver head coach Mike Riley interviewed for the Stanford job three years ago and was turned away, which has left no small amount of angst toward The Farm. Riley poured it on last year in Corvallis all four quarters with playcalling on offense and defense in a 43-3 woodshed job, so it looked like a repeat beatdown when the Beavers hit their groove Saturday with three touchdowns in a span of five possessions in the second half.
But the senior-led defense came out in the second half and turned the game around. They allowed just one first down in the first three Oregon State possessions after halftime, and they held the Beavers scoreless until the final 90 seconds of the fourth quarter. The defense was swarming and opportunistic, repeatedly giving the offense chances to come back. By the time the OSU offense first crossed midfield in the second half, Stanford had closed the game to a one-score affair with a 10-0 run. It was inspiring play by the defense, with the four leading tacklers all seniors.
"Guys played their hearts out," said a choked-up Jon Alston afterward. "The seniors - Will Svitek, Scott Scharff, David Bergeron, Jared Newberry, O.J. Atogwe, Stanley Wilson and Leigh Torrence - those guys are an inspiration to us."
Bergeron led the team with a career high of 16 tackles, followed closely by Atogwe's 14 and two interceptions. Torrence and Svitek added 10 and nine tackles each. Most of the pain in the locker room afterward poured out for the seniors, who are a remarkable group of leaders and on this day an unrewarded group of gutty playmakers.
"It would have been great to send these seniors off the home field with a win," said a despondent T.C. Ostrander after a difficult game in his first college start. "I have to take some of the blame for that. I didn't play the way I would have liked to play."
Ostrander started for the first time in his Stanford career, and the offense mostly rested on his shoulders. The pass/run mix was decisively in favor of airing out the ball, with 51 passing plays to just 15 called runs. The redshirt freshman quarterback had difficulty throughout, completing 37.5% of his attempts in the first half and 37.9% in the second half.
"I was prepared today," the quarterback admitted afterward. "Their defense wasn't stopping us. We made minor mistakes and have to step up and make plays... I was disappointed because I feel like guys were there and I didn't make the throws we needed."
The Atherton (Calif.) native had already tasted second half success in his relief performances against Oregon and Arizona State this year, so it may have been unsurprising that his offense scored a 16-0 run to bring the game back to just a two-point margin halfway through the second half. Jared Newberry recorded Stanford's fourth interception of the day off Beaver slinger Derek Anderson and returned it to the OSU 34 before a personal foul moved it back to the 49-yard line. Three plays later, Ostrander found Evan Moore tiptoeing just inside the endzone sideline for a 26-yard touchdown. As fantastic as the leaping grab was by Moore for the score, the sophomore wideout bobbled and dropped the subsequent two-point conversion that would have tied the game. We will never know how decisive the momentum would have slanted in Stanford's favor had that conversion succeeded. Instead, the Beavers answered with 13-play drive that ate nearly six minutes off the clock and all three of the Cardinal's time outs, ending in a field goal that sealed the game.
It is bitterly noted that Stanford was prepared to attempt a two-point conversion on their previous touchdown in the third quarter, after a Mark Bradford catch and run into the endzone. But the officials threw a flag on Bradford for unsportsmanlike conduct in the endzone after his score. The celebration was not at all excessive, and included no taunting. It was a totally unnecessary whistle and pushed the Cardinal back 15 yards, forcing a long extra point kick that was good. Trailing then by eight points, Stanford was forced later to go for two.
If you are looking for points, though, you can point your finger at three other culprits. The defense and special teams handed Stanford's offense the ball three times in their first three possessions of the second half at or across midfield. The Cardinal started the third quarter at the 50-yard line after redshirt sophomore Marcus McCutcheon fielded a squib kick that was carefully directed away from return dynamo T.J. Rushing, and McCutcheon burned the Beavers by bringing it back 30 yards. On the very next play, Ostrander went over the top of the defense and found Evan Moore on the Stanford sideline for a 41-yard completion to the nine-yard line, with the 6'7" sophomore leaping to grab the ball over his defender. The offense choked on itself the next few plays - including a dropped pass in the endzone, a running play that lost six yards and a third down pass that hit a defender in the hands in the endzone - but the most memorable moment came on fourth down.
The ball had moved back to the 15-yard line, and Stanford still was in an "and goal" situation needing to pick up all 15 of those yards. Rather than kick the field goal, Buddy Teevens kept his offense on the field to go for it on fourth down. The pass from Ostrander intended for Moore was incomplete, turning the ball over on downs.
By all rights, that should have broken the back of the team, but the defense and fifth-year senior captain Oshiomogho Atogwe answered with an interception at the 39-yard line. The offense moved the ball inside the 10 once again, with a 16-yard completion to Bradford and then 15 more on a pass interference call as Moore was tackled before a pass attempt reached him. Three plays again yielded no progress, with the ball moving backward this time to the 11-yard line. Teevens again opted for the low-percentage fourth down conversion rather than kicking the field goal. Again, incomplete and a turnover on downs.
The defense heroically answered the bell once more, holding Oregon State to a three-and-out and a net of minus-one yards. Special teams brought the heat on an attempted punt block, which forced a wobbly and short boot that rolled out of bounds at the OSU 45. The Stanford offense ran a rare swinging gate play to pick up 12 yards on a completion to Bradford to move into field goal territory before three more plays brought up another fourth down. This time, Teevens elects to kick the much longer 50-yard field goal. Attempts on the previous two series would have been for 32 and 28 yards. Redshirt junior kicker Michael Sgroi hit this attempt, which brought Stanford to within two scores.
But how do you explain going for the improbable long fourth-down conversions on the two prior situations, yet kicking on the third?
"Emotionally, we needed something," explains Teevens on his first two calls to go on fourth down. "It was a question of field position and emotional surge. Knowing if [the offense] didn't convert, [Oregon State] would have to adjust their play selection. I don't second guess that at all."
Sgroi did hit the 50-yarder, a career long, but he missed three other attempts from shorter distances - twice from 43 yards and once from 31. The final miss came in the fourth quarter after Stanford mounted its one drive of the game more than 35 yards. Ostrander and the offense moved the ball 66 yards on 11 plays, including two big pickups by fifth-year senior receiver Greg Camarillo of 11 and 27 yards. Had Sgroi hit the field goal at the end of that drive, it would have closed the game to just five points, and the subsequent Stanford touchdown would have moved the Cardinal into the lead.
A final costly misfire came late in the second quarter when Ostrander and the Card mounted their one strong drive of the half. It ended with Sgroi chipping a short field goal wide right, but Stanford looked like they would net six points earlier in the drive when Ostrander heaved a bomb to Moore for a 51-yard score. The touchdown would have been a gigantic boost to a struggling team, but a Jon Cochran holding penalty brought it back.
In fairness, there is one positive note to be made on this game - beyond the interminable fight of the defense. After Stanford netted just 56 yards in the first half, and just one first down in the first 28 1/2 minutes of that half, the Cardinal coaching staff did make a significant and rewarding adjustment on offense. The result was 200 yards passing in the second half and a chance to win the game.
"I challenged the guys at the half and offensively we made some dramatic adjustments," commented Teevens afterward. "We changed up some pass patterns and protections and tried to stick the ball down the field. We abandoned the run in the second half and moved the ball better."
"We started slinging the ball around, which is more my style," Ostrander offers. "It felt good."
Now at 4-6, the Cardinal are eliminated from a post-season bowl game and have to travel across the Bay to face California in the 107th Big Game. The Bears are rolling at 8-1 and a #4 national ranking, with some outside hopes still of making the National Championship game. Stanford will be a huge underdog, but in their final game of the year, it is the last and biggest contest they have.
"I think most guys on this team weren't thinking if we would go to a bowl game at the beginning of the year, but what bowl game we would go to," Moore allows. "Cal is our bowl game now."
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