Defense Bears Down on Cats

The story of last week's win at Washington State was all about the offense, though the follow-up effort Saturday in Tucson left much to be desired. Instead, it was a stifling Stanford defense that came up with a load of big plays to hand the Cardinal a 20-16 win over the Arizona Wildcats. Not quite pretty, Stanford celebrated their third hard-fought road victory of 2005.

Stanford improved Saturday to 3-2 overall and 2-1 in the Pac-10 with a 20-16 win against their host, the University of Arizona (1-5, 0-3).  Stanford has won its last three road games, the first time that has happened since 1995.  It was also Stanford's third consecutive win in Tucson, with their last loss on the road to the Wildcats coming in 1997.

While it is hard to judge whether Stanford's win will be viewed as a major turning point in the program in a few years, or simply the difference between 3-8 and 2-9 at the end of the season, first-year Cardinal head coach Walt Harris knew the game against Arizona was important because it could indicate the direction of both programs. "It was a great win for us," he matter-of-factly states.  Meanwhile, Arizona halfback Mike Bell bemoans, "This was a must-win game and we didn't come out with the win."

Neither offense could consistently move the ball on Saturday, but the Cardinal were able to score by taking advantage of five turnovers.  In a game involving only 466 yards of total offense for both teams, the fact that Stanford had five takeaways while never turning the ball over themselves proved to be the difference.

Turnover ratio is something Harris routinely emphasizes to his players. Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Jon Alston describes, "Every Friday night, [Harris] gives the statistics from the NFL.  Who's winning the turnover ratio.  Who's winning games because of the turnover ratio.  He gave us college statistics [Friday] night.  It is something he pounds on."

To start the game, Stanford won the coin toss and elected to defer.  Arizona proceeded to march 80 yards in 15 plays, ending the drive with a Gilbert Harris plunge into the end zone from one yard out.  Stanford was seemingly helpless to stop the Wildcats, who converted five times on third down.  With only 6:25 off the clock, Arizona led 7-0.

The Cardinal failed to generate any lengthy drives of their own in the first half.  However, the defense and special teams kept Stanford in the game and later helped them take the lead.  According to fifth-year senior nose tackle Babatunde Oshinowo, Stanford did not improve on defense after the first drive due to adjustments.  "There were no magic calls; we just started playing better," he shares.  Alston remarks that after Arizona's first drive, "We looked at ourselves and just said we couldn't allow this to happen."

Early in the second quarter, Arizona moved the ball to the Stanford 48-yard line. Redshirt sophomore outside linebacker Udeme Udofia came into the backfield on a blitz and leveled Arizona quarterback Richard Kovalcheck, causing a fumble.  Redshirt sophomore cornerback Nick Sanchez' "nose for the ball" paid off again as he came up with the recovery at the Wildcat 42-yard line.

Stanford redshirt junior quarterback Trent Edwards had success scrambling against Washington State a week ago and continued to rack up pedestrian yards against Arizona.  On the first play after the fumble, Edwards faked a hand-off to redshirt sophomore tailback Jason Evans and then called his own number, rushing for 24 yards to the 18-yard line.  Stanford's drive then bogged down, and fifth-year senior kicker Sgroi was called in for a field goal attempt.  His kick from 37 yards out split the uprights, putting Stanford on the board with 11:28 left in the first half.

Edwards acknowledges that when he runs with the ball, it isn't because he is being attacked by defenders, but rather is a result from him having time to scan the field and decide that taking off is the best course of action. "Our coach says that if it's not there - if you go through your progression and the receivers aren't open - you can't force it into coverage, so you might as well get what you can," the signal caller says.

Arizona receiver and return man Syndric Steptoe gave the Wildcats excellent field position for the ensuing drive, fielding Sgroi's kickoff at the two-yard line and running it to the 38.  Bell carried the ball four times in Arizona's next five plays for 26 yards.  On 2nd & 6 from the Stanford 34-yard line, Kovalcheck swung the ball to receiver Michael Thomas, who proceeded to race down the sideline. Redshirt junior inside linebacker Mike Silva stripped the ball from Thomas, and Trevor Hooper recovered.  Once again, the defense had stopped a Wildcat drive by producing a turnover.

The offense then let the defense down, failing to make a first down after the fumble.  Arizona took over at their own 26-yard line after redshirt sophomore punter Jay Ottovegio's punt but could not retain possession long, as the Stanford linebackers helped the secondary on consecutive plays.  Kovalcheck's pass to receiver Michael Johnson fell incomplete after he was pressured by Alston, who leapt over one blocker en route to the quarterback. On 3rd & 10, Stanford blitzed all of its linebackers.  Kovalcheck tried to force a pass but was intercepted by senior cornerback T.J. Rushing, who returned it 19 yards to the Arizona 35-yard line.

The offense, with a short field at their disposal again, quickly took the ball to the 10-yard line, with Trent Edwards sandwiching a five-yard scramble between 12- and eight-yard completions to Evans and fifth-year senior receiver Gerren Crochet.  Two plays later, redshirt freshman tailback Anthony Kimble scored on a screen pass for a 10-yard touchdown with 3:17 left in the first half.  Sgroi's PAT conversion made the score 10-7.  Stanford never trailed again.

With no other scoring in the first half, the visiting Cardinal enjoyed a three-point lead at the break, although Arizona dominated time of possession by a 20:02 to 9:58 margin.

In order to win the game, Stanford would have to drive the ball in the second half.  They did just that after receiving the kickoff to start the third quarter.  On the second play from scrimmage, Kimble blocked and released his man, racing 22 yards on the screen pass.  Edwards completed two more short passes to send Stanford to the Arizona 38-yard line.  Three players later, he rushed for 12 yards more to the 10-yard line. On 1st & Goal, Evans went in motion out of the backfield and lined up as a receiver to the right side.  Redshirt sophomore tight end Michael Horgan found open space in the end zone for a touchdown, the first of his college career.  The Cardinal needed just 3:43 to push their lead to 10 points, at 17-7.

Walt Harris explains that bringing Evans in motion was designed to clear space in the middle. "We were hoping that it might work, but we were real fortunate," he humbly offers.  "A bunch of plays didn't work, though."

While Stanford's first drive of the quarter was a success, they could not generate any lengthy drives for the remainder of the game.  It cost Stanford after they went three-and-out on their second possession of the half, giving the Wildcats possession at the Cardinal 40-yard line.  Off a play fake, Kovalcheck found Steptoe open along the right sideline, who stepped out of bounds at the 19.  Gilbert Harris rushed twice for 14 yards, giving Arizona 1st & Goal from the five-yard line.  Bell came in off the sideline to provide fresh legs, a move that paid off for the Wildcats.  On the next play, Bell took a handoff to the left and used a crushing stiff-arm to get past a defender and find the end zone.  Arizona was back within one score at 17-14, with 5:23 left in the third quarter.

Stanford failed to move the sticks again on their next drive, but the defense was able to make amends.  After a penalty for an illegal block and a loss of four yards on a Bell rush, Arizona had 3rd & 22.  Alston flew around the end on a blitz and hit Kovalcheck.  The ball came loose, and senior defensive end Julian Jenkins recovered at the Stanford 26-yard line.

Alston finished the game with seven tackles, including four tackles for a loss of 24 yards.  Three of those tackles for loss were sacks, including the one that led to the fumble.  Harris praised his senior after the game. "Jon Alston was all over the field," the coach commented.  "Jon's getting in shape.  He's been away from football and missed spring practice.  He was beat up when he came back.  I don't think he has started to feel good until the last couple of weeks.  He has got talent, and we've been needing him to play that well."

Despite the outstanding field position, the offense could not find a way to score what would have been their third touchdown of the evening.  Sgroi's 34-yard field goal from the left hash mark did prevent the Cardinal from coming up empty-handed, making the score 20-14 with less than a minute left in the third.

Trent Edwards concedes that the offense needs to do a better job in the red zone.  "If you're going to be a successful offense and a successful team in the Pac-10 and even nationally, you need to be able to convert when you're in the red zone - put the ball in the end zone," Edwards opines.  "So that's something where we need to go back to the drawing board and see what worked and what didn't work."

The defense continued to shut down the Wildcats, preventing them from obtaining a first down on their next two drives.  However, the Stanford offense was nearly as inefficient, only picking up one first down the next two times they had the ball.  The Cardinal let their opponent remain in the game, while a score by Stanford could have put it out of reach. A disastrous drive ended when Edwards was sacked for a loss of 13 yards at his own five-yard line.

Edwards admits that "a couple of those three-and-outs were pretty ugly." However, he also believes the offense should take credit for not turning the ball over. "We can go back to the turnover battle.  We can talk about that all week.  Harris is a guy who is a big believer in how a punt can be a positive play."

Ottovegio produced his best punt of the evening when his team needed it the most, booming the ball 55 yards.  Arizona needed only 49 yards for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown.  On 1st & 10 from the 34 yard-line, redshirt sophomore defensive end Chris Horn sacked Kovalcheck for a loss of four.  A personal foul penalty moved the ball back an additional 15 yards.  After two incompletions, the Wildcats had 4th & 28.  Kovalcheck's pass was intercepted by junior strong safety Brandon Harrison near the goalline.  Stanford caught a lucky break as Harrison's momentum carried him into the end zone for a touchback.

Although the defense was given little time to rest, they were able to respond repeatedly in the second half.  Oshinowo attributes the defense's stamina to the team's conditioning. "We train a lot and practice pretty hard," he explains.  "We try to make practice like the game.  We're that much more likely to step it up because you know you've put in the work.  In practices and pre-game workouts, we run a lot and we made a real commitment to finishing.  It definitely had a lot to do with the turnaround."

Arizona had two timeouts left when Stanford took over with 1:19 remaining in the game.  Two rushes and two timeouts later, the Cardinal had 3rd & 8.  Knowing that a run would probably not generate a first down, while an incomplete pass would have stopped the clock, Harris had Edwards take a knee.  However, Edwards waited until the Wildcats broke through the line to do so, burning a few extra seconds off of the clock.  Even though Stanford had a timeout left to use, they accepted a delay of game penalty after the full play clock ran to zero, moving the ball back to their own 13-yard line.  In the last step of a brilliant stratagem, Harris had Stanford line up in punt formation, only to have Ottovegio scramble around in the end zone before taking the ball out of bounds for a safety.  Ottovegio took a late hit after he went out, penalizing Arizona 15 yards and allowing Stanford to take their free kick from the 35-yard line with only 17 seconds left.

Harris explains that taking a safety was something that was well thought out and not just a spur of the moment decision.  "We've worked on all phases of that, whether it's the offensive team taking a safety - we do that every Friday - or it's the punting team taking a safety," he states.  "I thought we managed the clock probably as well as you could.  We couldn't run the clock out, with their timeouts.  There was no way we were ever going to throw the ball in that situation.  I thought we gave Arizona very little opportunity with the long field.  [The personal foul] was very key because it backed them up a little bit more, and they couldn't throw a Hail Mary pass to the end zone because it was too far away."

Sgroi's squib kick was fielded by Steptoe and returned 16 yards to Arizona's 36-yard line.  Kovalcheck's three pass attempts all fell incomplete in the waning seconds as Stanford held on to win, 20-16.

Although Sgroi could have sent the ball into the end zone on the free kick because the ball was placed on the 35-yard line following the penalty, he says that sqiubbing in that situation "is the right thing to do."  "We just don't want any type of big return," he maintains.

After the victory, Stanford's head coach and offensive coordinator was quick to praise the defense and special teams.

"Our defense wasn't very good early but they changed and played tremendously for the whole second half," Harris declares.  "I thought our special teams were under a lot of duress with regards to the skill of [Arizona's] players.  We presented the game ball to [special teams coordinator] Tom Quinn.  Watching their special teams tape, I knew the challenge we were in for.  I thought our guys really did an outstanding job, so we awarded the graduate of the University of Arizona [Quinn] for all of the players on our special teams.  We also awarded a game ball for Tom Hayes, representing our defensive players who I thought played so magnificently."

Harris also comments on the fact that all of Stanford's wins in 2005 have come in games that were disputed until the end.  "It's awesome, man," the head coach beams.  "One of the areas we focus on the most is finishing.  With the heartache that we had last year, with how close we were, to find a way to win is a great credit to our players, who have bought into what we're trying to do.  And they're starting to see the results."

Statistics of interest:

  • Arizona outgained Stanford 271 yards to 195.
  • Stanford was a pitiful 1-of-12 on third down conversions while Arizona was 9-of-19.
  • The Wildcats had possession of the ball for 34:25 compared to the Cardinal's 25:35.
  • Stanford had five sacks for a loss of 36 yards.
  • The special teams were lauded in the locker room by Harris.  Fifth-year senior Timi Wusu deserves recognition for his five tackles, four of which came on special teams.
  • Nick Sanchez led both teams in tackles with 11 (nine solo).

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