Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Fiesta Bowl: The Cardinal Sin

David Shaw performed admirably in his first season as Stanford football head coach, but one extremely poor decision turned the entire Fiesta Bowl on its head Monday.

Stanford dominated Oklahoma State in the Desert. The Cardinal’s 590 total yards of total offense easily outpaced the Cowboys’ 464. They brutalized the Big 12 champion through the air and on the ground. Andrew Luck turned in a literally unstoppable 27-31, 341-yard performance that was complemented by 243 yards on the ground.

Stanford controlled the football for an absurd 42 minutes of the game, while Oklahoma State had it for only 18. The Cardinal were lethal on third down (8-14). The Cowboys were not (4-12).

Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon did have a big game, but that was expected: the Stanford defense made up for it by smothering the Cowboys’ running attack to the tune of only 26 yards, and ultimately did its job by putting the Cardinal offensive juggernaut in position to drive for the winning score.

Stanford definitively proved that it had a better offense than Oklahoma State. It definitively proved that it also had the better defense. Yet, it lost the game because coach Shaw took the outcome out of the hands of those two superior units, and instead laid all the weight on the shoulders of an injured, struggling freshman kicker.

The Cardinal lost in gut-wrenching 41-38 overtime fashion after Jordan Williamson missed three field goals, including a potential game-winner at the end of regulation.

“Our kids played hard, but they just didn’t finish the game,” Shaw had the nerve to say afterwards.

Wait - what?!

Coach, if you want your kids to finish the game, maybe you should actually give them a chance to do so. But you never did give quarterback Andrew Luck - playing arguably the finest game of his career - that opportunity.

With a minute to work with, all three timeouts, unbreakable momentum, and the best college quarterback in recent memory at his disposal, Shaw decided to instead rely on a kicker playing with shaky confidence after missing a kick earlier in the game.

Then, after Williamson failed miserably in crunch-time, Shaw inexplicably turned to him again less than 10 minutes later, this time for an even more difficult 47-yard try in overtime. How could he possibly believe that Williamson’s second try would be any more successful than the first fiasco?

“Against a team like Oklahoma State, you can’t settle for field goals,” Shaw said after the game.

If that’s true, coach, then why did you settle for one when it mattered most?

Had Jim Harbaugh still been at the helm, his famously aggressive mentality would have certainly allowed Luck to lead Stanford into the end zone, and he might have went for two as well, just for kicks.

A near-perfect Luck was shredding through the Cowboys’ defense with unthinkable ease, and there was little chance that he wouldn’t lead Stanford into the end zone - or at least set up a true chip shot of a field goal attempt. I was at University of Phoenix Stadium, on the sidelines and in the tunnel with Stanford before the team took the field. I saw and felt the truth: Andrew Luck, if given the chance, was not going to lose that football game.

But, as it turns out, Luck’s Stanford career ends in legendary yet disappointing fashion. Perhaps it’s fitting: he was so good that only his own coach - and not a great Oklahoma State team - could stop him.

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