Stanford's endgame and heartbreak

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
11:47
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Stanford CardinalsJason O. Watson/US PresswireAndrew Luck (12) and Stanford went 23-3 and played in two BCS bowl games in the past two seasons.


Got a text from a former Stanford player, "My heart hurts."

You can understand why. The Cardinal physically dominated the No. 3 team in the country in the Fiesta Bowl, and many believed Oklahoma State should have been playing LSU for the national title.

Physically dominated? Stanford outgained the Cowboys 590 yards to 412. While 412 yards is a chunk of change, the Cowboys had been averaging 557, including 170 yards rushing per game. They had 13 yards rushing against the Cardinal, which piled up 243 yards on the ground.

Stanford lost the turnover battle 2-1. It lost the penalty battle, getting flagged six times for 35 yards against just once for five yards for the Cowboys (42 pass plays, no holding? Obviously, not a Pac-12 crew officiating).

But, most critically, it lost the field-goal battle. The Cowboys were 2-for-2 on field goals. Stanford was 1-for-4, including missing a 35-yarder that could have won the game in regulation and another miss in overtime that sealed the Cardinal's fate.

Let's quickly reiterate: Field goals are important, particularly at important times during important games. Ask Auburn about last year's national title game win against Oregon. Ask Oregon about its home loss to USC. Ask Alabama about its regular-season loss to LSU.

And no one gives a flip about being physically superior when the scoreboard thumbs its nose at you. Missing field goals is no different than missing blocks, tackles and tossing interceptions. It's part of the game, so bemoaning this defeat as being any different than another is ultimately a moot point for message boards. History measures it a loss, which, yes, seems like a lousy way for QB Andrew Luck and a great group of Cardinal players done with their eligibility -- or joining Luck early in the NFL draft -- to go out.

Still, 23-3 over the past two years, two BCS bowl games. You couldn't have sold the notion to any Stanford fan in the summer of 2010.

So as we consider end-of-game second-guessing, let's keep that in perspective.

But, yes, just like many other sportswriters who have never coached a down of football, I have entertained the thought Stanford coach David Shaw should have been more aggressive at the end when he had a first down on the Cowboys 25-yard line with 52 seconds left and three timeouts. In fact, there seemed to be a plurality of opinion among the sportswriters gathered around a small TV in the Rose Bowl press box that articulated that very thing before the fact. And I am on record with Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett and Michael Lev of the Orange County Register as twice remarking that Stanford's freshman kicker Jordan Williamson looked nervous, including just before the kick.

Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News says it very well here: "In my opinion, there was a better chance of Williamson missing from 35 yards than Luck throwing an interception in the red zone."

Still, when I type "more aggressive" what does that mean? Would you say that Oregon coach Chip Kelly was more or less aggressive in nearly the same situation against USC? Oregon had a first-and-10 on the Trojans 32 with 38 seconds left and two timeouts remaining, but Alejandro Maldonado missed from 37 yards as time expired to give USC its signature win of the season.

Here's what a coach is thinking at that moment:

  • We can't turn the ball over.
  • We don't want to give the ball back to Oklahoma State.
  • We'd like to kick on third down so if we botch the snap, we can get a do-over on fourth down.
  • We want to get as close as possible. Without turning the ball over.

There's also this: Based on how both teams moved the ball up and down the field, I'd have given Oklahoma State a 30 percent chance of tying the game in regulation if Stepfan Taylor scored a 25-yard TD on first down. Or if Luck threw a TD pass in the endzone. In the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin got all the way to Oregon's 25-yard line in 16 seconds, just missing getting a final shot for the tie.

What Shaw opted to do, ultimately, is go by the book and trust his kicker, who, by the way, was second-team All-Pac-12. And, if Luck had tossed an interception, or the Cardinal had fumbled on a third-down run, fans and media would be yammering, "What the heck was Shaw thinking?"

Kelly and Shaw are two of the more IQ-smart coaches you will meet. They didn't get dumb in these two instances. They rolled the dice and lost.

There's nothing wrong with second-guessing, by the way. It's part of the sports. Kelly and Shaw are paid well to roll the dice and win. Reporters are paid poorly to speculate after-the-fact when highly paid coaches roll snake eyes.

Yes, hearts are hurting on the Farm and in all the well-heeled places where Stanford alumni end up. Justifiably so.

Still: 23-3 over the past two years, two BCS bowl games. That's pretty darn special for the most elite academic university playing FBS football.

Ted Miller | email

College Football

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