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 its workhorse.
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 week.)
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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