Everyone who graduates from Stanford is supposed to be smart, right? So what happened to head football coach David Shaw (a Stanford grad) on Wednesday at the Rose Bowl?
The last five minutes of that game looked more like he thought he was ahead by seven rather than behind. Did he misread the scoreboard? Not since “Wrong Way” Roy Riegels screwed up the 1929 Rose Bowl for California have football fans been left with such a head-scratcher as Stanford’s defeat at the hands of Michigan State.
A partial summary here:
Key offensive situations for Stanford in the second half repeatedly resulted in the Cardinal being stuffed at the line of scrimmage.
The first of these notable no-gains came late in the third quarter, when Stanford went for it on fourth and 3 from the Spartans’ 36 with the scored tied 17-17. With Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan working out of a shotgun, running back Tyler Gaffney took the handoff on a draw and lost three yards.
Based on the first 13 games of Stanford’s season, you could understand Shaw’s logic in wanting to ride an All-American running back who accounted for 1,618 yards. But based on the the second and third quarters Wednesday, during which Gaffney gained just 21 yards on 12 carries, giving him the ball seemed synonymous with giving Michigan State the ball.
Didn’t matter. This would become the motif of Stanford’s second half.
The Cardinal’s next drive went as follows: 2-yard run by Gaffney, negative-5-yard run by Gaffney, 2-yard run by Gaffney, punt.
After the Spartans took a 24-17 lead via a 25-yard touchdown pass from Connor Cook to Tony Lippett, the Cardinal’s next drive went like this: 5-yard run by Gaffney, 2-yard run by Gaffney, Kevin Hogan incomplete pass, punt.
On its next offensive series, Stanford finally showcased some creativity when Hogan flipped the ball to receiver Michael Rector on a reverse that netted 27 yards.
At this point, the drive stalled inside the MSU thirty yard line, fourth and four, with five minutes to play, behind by 7, and with his best running back hobbled with a sprained ankle, the running game paralyzed and his best receiver out of the game, Shaw elected to go for a field goal!!!. Thus, even if the field goal was successful, Stanford would have to stop MSU after the ensuing kickoff, and march the length of the field in whatever time remained on the clock, and score a touchdown… with his best running back hobbled with a sprained ankle, the running game paralyzed and his best receiver out of the game. In other words, Shaw had to score a touchdown. What he did by going for the field goal was refuse the opportunity to get one, and to set his already handicapped offensive team clear back at the other end of the field with very little time left, still with the need to score a touchdown.
So what happened next? The field goal was, ultimately, successful, Stanford kicked off and forced MSU to punt. Stanford then essentially ran out out the clock, as if they were ahead, with four straight running plays, casually lining up as the time ticked away. The last run was from the jumbo formation on fourth and one, with nine MSU players bunched up to stop what they knew was coming, and they did stop fullback Ryan Hewitt for no gain.
But Stanford fans who have watched Shaw over the last three years see this episode as nothing more than pure Shaw. Time management is poor. Decision making is slow and predictable. Personnel groups and formations tip off the plays. The offense goes into a shell after getting ahead, and hopes the other team can’t come from behind; if they do, it’s pretty much game over, because the time management is so poor. Shaw plays not to lose or be criticized. Not to win.
The running game is overrated. Yes, it works against weakling defenses, like Oregon. But this wasn’t Oregon. It was Michigan State. Even Cal did a pretty good job on the Stanford running attack, and MSU led the nation against the run.