Backup QB Brett Nottingham, Stanford fans' Godot
Sleep in Seattle featured a 17-13 nightmare. At every
position, a burly Stanford team was more physically imposing than
its Washington opponent. But that physical prowess was kept caged,
never in position to be truly unleashed. It almost felt as if Andrew
Luck locked it all up and took the key with him to Indianapolis.
Even with all its super-sized talent, Stanford was left vulnerable Thursday night. There were flashes of
brilliance here and there - particularly on the defensive side of
the ball. But the glue that the Farm has taken for granted was so
painfully absent. Josh Nunes, shaky in the pocket and maddeningly
inconsistent with his throws, never commanded order. He was exposed
in hostile territory by an awfully ordinary, depleted Washington
Was that 2011 Luck-led 65-21 humiliation of the Huskies real?
In less than a year, Stanford's offense went from scoring 58 points,
rushing for 446 yards, and averaging 10.1 yards
per carry to mustering just six points, 70 ground yards, and a long
run of seven yards in its match-up with the Huskies. For the first time
since 2007, the Cardinal attack failed to score a touchdown.
The Stanford O has tumbled off a cliff, statistically performing
Thursday at only about 10 percent of its 2011 level - despite being
buoyed by a significantly improved defense.
Under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, Washington swarmed to
the football with passion, deception, and intelligence that was
absent at Stanford Stadium last year. Still, the
Huskies' personnel remained considerably lighter than the Cardinal. A simple
eye test immediately indicated they should have been no match for
David Shaw's stable of weapons - particularly his running backs and
gigantic tight ends.
Should have, could have, would have. In the end, Stanford's failure
to coordinate wasted a boatload of talent and damaged a promising
season. A year after being mauled so viciously on the ground, the
Huskies said "never again." Wilcox's defensive alignments included
borderline suicidal nine to 10-man boxes, anchored by linebacker
Thomas Tutogi (10 tackles) in the middle.
Nunes would have to keep Washington honest with his arm, a venture
that actually began decently. Stanford's second drive featured a
nice slant to Ty Montgomery and a pretty third down conversion
downfield to Zach Ertz. Good times were fleeting; Ertz, despite
hauling in six passes for a career-high 106 yards, would not be
targeted nearly enough beyond that point. Jordan Williamson trotted
on for a field goal after Nunes threw into the turf on the
subsequent third down.
Thus began the horror story No. 6. It would feature delay of game
penalties, 19 off-target passes - many straight into the ground or
10 yards over the head of prospective receivers - and an
inexplicable scramble out of bounds two yards behind the line
scrimmage when simply throwing the ball away was an option. In
fairness to Nunes, Montgomery's rough day contributed deep drops
that further sullied his outing. But the short passing game is
especially critical to the Cardinal's ground-and-pound approach, and
the quarterback's favorite receiver here was the ground.
Despite their quarterback's struggles, Stanford never fully
committed to establishing the run. The Cardinal's attack is
predicated on wearing down smaller defenses in the first half to set
up murderous play-action down the stretch, so the team's lack of
ground creativity in the first half was perplexing. All-everything
Stepfan Taylor wasn't even in the game on a
failed third-and-one attempt in the second quarter, and Stanford
neglected to use its loaded stable of running backs to complement
Kelsey Young's electric speed certainly could have been used to
loosen up Washington's stacked interior, but his number was called just once. Remound Wright and Ricky Seale didn't get a single touch, though third-string quarterback
Kevin Hogan did. Despite the lack of deception, the offensive line's
push was still there in the first half, so it's impossible to
understand why Stanford virtually abandoned the run: Taylor racked
up 46 yards on 11 vanilla first-half carries. The Cardinal were getting push without getting fancy. Yet they
passed 18 times and ran the ball only 15 times in the first half.
Keep in mind that this preference to throw in favor of establishing a
creative running game came less than a year after the Cardinal
rushed the ball twice as often as they went to the air (44 to 22) -
and that was with a golden arm at quarterback.
Inept short-yardage passing attempts ruled the day instead and
produced a parade of three-and-outs (four in a row at one point) that slowly began to fatigue the
Cardinal defense. Not surprisingly, the trademarked wear-down and
knock-out punch never came. Washington, bolstered by a CenturyLink
Field crowd that produced ear-splitting noise, was the team that
grew stronger instead. The tables, so decidedly tilted in Stanford's
advantage the year before when the Cardinal scored on their first eight possessions, had completely turned. Could the absence
of one player really be so devastating to a football team?
The respective teams' approaches on fourth and short perfectly
illustrated the dramatic shift in mentality from 2011 to 2012. Faced
with a fourth and less than a yard from their own 40-yard line in
the second quarter, Stanford punted. With this decision, the same team that had rolled
up an absurd 10.1 yards per carry against the Huskies just a year
prior completely surrendered its punishing physical advantage up
front. The open admission that Washington had suddenly become good
enough to prevent an eight-inch gain energized the home team. The
punt firmly stuck the Cardinal on their heels for the remainder
of the game, while the Huskies - despite the physical disadvantage
that comes from missing four of five offensive linemen - attacked the
rest of the way on their toes.
In fact, when faced with a nearly identical fourth and one from
their own 39 late in the third quarter, Steve Sarkisian took control
of the game by making the appropriate aggressive call. As the third quarter game clock wound
down, the Cardinal might have thought the Huskies were timid, too.
It appeared that Stanford's defense was surprised Washington rushed
to the line and snapped the ball. Bishop Sankey blasted through the
line of scrimmage and sprinted 61 yards to the promised land. A
commanding 13-3 Stanford lead turned into a tight 13-10 contest.
Entering the final period, the momentum was on the
Huskies' sideline to stay. Fortune favors the bold.
With that, Trent Murphy's spectacular 40-yard pick six was wasted.
Stanford, which has now reached last season's seven interception
total in just four games, desperately needed to force one more
turnover to bail out its punt-happy offense. It suffered through a devastating
missed tackle from Terrence Brown instead. Kasen Williams took a
Price screen, shook the cornerback, and bolted 35 yards down the
sideline to give Washington a permanent 17-13 advantage.
Four minutes, 53 seconds remained at that point. There might as well
have been only 10 seconds left on the clock, though. As I observed
the Cardinal's final gasps from the sidelines, I couldn't imagine
that offense, immobile all night, marching to the end zone in the
teeth of a furiously loud crowd. Without Luck facing them, the
normally porous Huskies defense became the Steel Curtain. It was
absolute doom, and the blank expressions and body language on the
Stanford sideline reflected that.
So did the Farm Boys' final, desperate play. Despite needing only
four yards on fourth down, they resorted to a low-percentage
desperation lob to Levine Toilolo down the sideline. Nunes' badly
overthrown ball was intercepted by future NFL cornerback Desmond
Trufant, the strength of the Husky defense. Inexplicably, he was the
guy Stanford tried to pick on all evening. Needless to say, it
didn't work out. (The Cardinal's chances probably would have been
better by chucking one up to the opposite corner of the end zone and
trying for simultaneous possession. After all, the same stadium had
awarded a gift to the NFL's Seahawks in the same spot earlier that
In the final box score, Price's numbers (19-37-177-1 INT) almost mirrored those put up by Nunes (18-37-170-1 INT). But the two
quarterbacks' games were markedly different. Whereas Stanford's man
struggled despite excellent protection from his offensive line,
Price posted his statistics while being pile-driven into the Seattle
turf by Stanford's front seven for the entirety of the game. He hung
in there with his trademarked smile long enough to see his team rip
off two big touchdown plays.
Last year's Stanford defense also missed pivotal tackles on separate
occasions to surrender 14 Washington points. Nobody's talking about
those miscues now, though, because the Cardinal put up 65 points to
counteract them. This time around, though, 26 first downs
whittled down to 10 and an offensive touchdown never came. Defensive
mistakes were magnified tenfold.
To unchain its embarrassment of riches at all other positions,
Stanford needs decent quarterback play. That will have to come
via massive Nunes improvement, since Shaw indicated that he
does not plan to turn to back-up Brett Nottingham.
In their failed
road test Thursday, the Cardinal were defeated as a disorganized
band of warriors. That cohesive field general presence was sorely
missing. The success of 2012 relies on quickly finding it and
preventing immense talent from producing mediocrity.
David Lombardi covers Stanford
sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports NEXT. He was the Cardinal
football KZSU play-by-play voice for several years. He can also be
heard on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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