A Stunner in Seattle

48 hours later, it still boggles the mind. The best teams in modern Stanford Football have walked away from Washington with a loss, yet the lowliest Cardinal squad we have ever seen ended a 31-year drought at Husky Stadium. How did this happen?

How could this have happened?  Seriously, is there a more stunning event that has taken place during this dumbfounding 2006 Stanford Football season?

Two titanic forces of football collided on Saturday in Seattle.  1) This is arguably the worst football team in Stanford's history, scraping the very bottom of the barrel in every imaginable offensive statistic and a number of them on defense and special teams.  2) Husky Stadium is far and away the most nightmarish destination for the Cardinal, with a full three decades of futility playing at Washington - Stanford last won there in 1975.

The Streak is something we talk about every time Stanford strolls up to Seattle: "Could this be the year?"  The answer I gave to that question this week was, "Are you kidding me?"  Stanford's very best teams of the last 20 years went into Husky Stadium and left empty-handed.  The 1992 Bill Walsh team that went 10-2 and dominated Penn State in the Blockbuster Bowl - they had their lunch handed to them, 41-7.  The 1999 team that brought Stanford back to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 28 years dropped at 35-30 game in Seattle that was not as close as the score sounds, with Marques Tuiasosopo running and passing for more than 500 yards against the Card.  The 2001 team that was a play away from a BCS bowl and enjoyed a 9-2 regular season was slapped silly, 42-28.

The Streak could not be undone by the best of the best that the Cardinal could offer.  Instead, yesterday it was the Stanford squad on the brink of ignominious history that won at Washington.  0-12 looked like a forgone conclusion for the Card, who were 19.5-point underdogs on Saturday and had much less hope against Oregon State and Cal.  This Stanford team hasn't just looked bad.  They have looked utterly and completely non-competitive.  They apparently didn't belong on the same playing field with many opponents they had faced this year.

And then they won yesterday in convincing fashion, 20-3.  They won in the house where Stanford last won when current wide receivers coach Tucker Waugh was four years old.  Recruiting coordinator Nate Nelson was more than three years away from being born.

Only one other time since I have followed this program have I seen an upset so out of place relative to a Stanford season, when the Rose Bowl-bound Cardinal in '99 lost at home to San Jose State.  Stanford had jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the Pac-10 standings and hammered those three opponents by an average margin of 25 points.  The Cardinal would motor to a 5-0 Pac-10 record before losing (of course) at Washington, their lone conference defeat that year.  Yet Stanford found a way to lose - at home - to San Jose State in the midst of that Rose Bowl run.

It is worth noting that the common man in the two losses: Tyrone Willingham.

It is also worth noting that Stanford wasn't supposed to play this game.  Up until the NCAA added a permanent 12th game to the schedule in late 2005, Stanford and Washington were supposed to miss each other this season.  On the old 11-game schedule, the Cardinal could still be spiraling toward a winless season today.

Some might say that Stanford beating Washington on Saturday was not so surprising.  The Huskies had lost five straight, and they had thrown eight interceptions in their most recent three losses.  In scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense, it was Washington who nestled right up against Stanford in the cellar of those conference statistics.  This is not a good Washington team.

But the Huskies averaged more points per game (22.4) than Stanford had scored in their combined previous five games.  Washington ranked in the middle of the conference in rushing offense at 138.7 yards per game, including a standout 162 yards on the ground at Cal just a few weeks ago.  The Huskies also added back to the lineup their best running back in Kenny James, who had been injured for the previous two games.

Stunning is seeing this Stanford defense, ranked dead last in Division I-A football, hold the Huskies to a net of 39 yards on the ground.  Sometimes heavy sack yardage can warp rushing numbers in college, but Washington was sacked just twice for a combined 13 yards.  James was held to 23 net yards on 13 carries - a 1.8 ypc average.  Louis Rankin ran for a 1.7 ypc clip.  James and Rankin came into the game with averages of 4.5 and 4.3 ypc, respectively.

After holding USC a week earlier to under 100 yards for 59-plus minutes, the Stanford run defense looks legitimately improved.  More than that, they played inspired on Saturday in Husky Stadium.  The defense was flying to the ball, with the intricate parts of the front seven playing in a perfect mesh.  During the decisive second have, Stanford allowed a total of one rushing yard.

The defense kept Stanford in the game through a sluggish first half, when the offense had one first down in its first five series.  The Cardinal collected six total yards of offense until the sixth and final drive of the half.  Then the big play emerged.

On 2nd & 9, redshirt junior quarterback T.C. Ostrander threw deep and hit freshman wide receiver Richard Sherman for 41 yards.  Two plays later it was 2nd & 10, and Ostrander again went long to Sherman, this time for 34 yards.  Stanford suddenly had 1st & Goal at the Washington four-yardline, which moved back to the 14-yardline after a big sack of Ostrander, but the Cardinal kicked a field goal on the final play of the half to tie the game at 3-3.

At that moment, Stanford ran into the locker room inspired by the knowledge that they were not in a hole, for the first time since the second half of the September 9 game at San Jose State.  The Cardinal had not enjoyed anything better than a 0-0 tie at kickoff in any of their previous seven games.

For once, the big play was in Stanford's corner.  That continued into the second half.

Stanford intercepted Washington quarterbacks three times in the second half, after snaring four total interceptions in the previous nine games.  Two of the picks came by the hand of redshirt freshman free safety Bo McNally, who was making his first collegiate start.  The first came on the opening play of the second half, handing Stanford the ball at midfield.  The Cardinal offense moved the ball nine yards but stalled on a 3rd & 1 run, subsequently punting.  Nevertheless, the field position battle was tilting early toward Stanford.

Two possessions later, McNally again intercepted a pass.  This time he ran to daylight for 49 yards and the go-ahead score.  Stanford led the game, 10-3, and the Cardinal players were going wild.

The offense rejoined the "big play" party in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter.  A play called numerous times this year, with mixed success, finally broke big.  With Sherman and fifth-year senior Marcus McCutcheon lined up on the same side of the field, Ostrander hit Sherman with a quick pass at the line of scrimmage behind McCutcheon on a bubble screen.  McCutcheon handled Husky cornerback Roy Lewis, and Sherman took off.  After the fleet-footed freshman beat a safety in the open field, he was off to the races.  74 yards later, Stanford had a two-touchdown lead.

They ran the ball pitifully, averaging 0.5 yards per carry.  In the first half, the most favorable third-down yardage for Stanford in six possessions was 3rd & 8.  In the second half, Stanford has 3rd & 1 on three straight possessions and netted zero yards.  For the game, Stanford was 2-of-14 on third downs.  They were 0-of-3 on fourth downs.

But Stanford finished the day +3 in turnover margin, and their big plays put up all 20 of their points on the board.  The deep balls to Sherman at the end of the second quarter resulted in a field goal.  McNally's interception went for a touchdown.  The Ostrander-to-Sherman 74-yarder scored a touchdown.  The third and final interception of the game gave Stanford the ball on the Huskies' 26-yardline, which four plays later became another field goal.

It was the first Saturday all fall when Stanford didn't beat itself.  Despite an ungodly number of injuries on defense and offense, including three starters newly lost on the offensive line, the team played a four-quarter game and played together.

For the record:

  • The 177 receiving yards by Richard Sherman was the most for a Stanford wide receiver since Mark Bradford hauled in 185 against Arizona State last season.  Sherman today was honored by the Pac-10 as its Offensive Player of the Week.
  • Stanford has four wins against Washington, home or away, in the last 30 years.  All four of those Cardinal squads (1982, 1994, 2004, 2006) finished with losing records.
  • Which company did the Cardinal nearly join this fall?  The last winless team in the Pac-10 was Oregon State in 1980.
  • Numerous teams in the Pac-10 have gone without a win in conference play since that Beavers squad.  Washington (2004), Cal (2001), Washington State (1998) and Oregon State (1997, 1995, 1992, 1987, 1982, 1981, 1980).

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