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The Cardiac Cardinal Strike Again: Can Stanford Continue to Win Close Games?

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A closer look at just how frequently the Card finds itself in one-score games

Steve Dykes

Stanford's 2012 football season was a wild one.

The Cardinal opened its season by squeaking one out against regional rival San Jose State, edging out the Spartans 20-17 on a fourth-quarter Jordan Williamson field goal. Two weeks later, Stanford stunned then number-two USC 21-14 thanks to two second-half touchdown passes from quarterback Josh Nunes. The season's nail-biting fashion continued with an overtime victory against the Arizona Wildcats in week 6, a controversial goal-line call on a Stepfan Taylor carry a week later at Notre Dame and a fourth-quarter two score comeback against Oregon State in Week 11. In one of the signature wins in Cardinal history, Stanford then beat a then-undefeated Oregon team on a 37-yard overtime field goal by Williamson. This win paved Stanford's road into a conference championship and a Rose Bowl appearance for the first time since 2000. Their 20-14 defeat of Wisconsin gave Stanford its first Rose Bowl championship in 40 years.

In all, Stanford compiled an 8-2 record in 2012 in games decided by one score or less. Since the start of the Jim Harbaugh era through the 2013 season, Stanford has played in 39 games decided by this margin, just over 40 percent of all their games and by far the most in the Pac-12. They've compiled a 24-15 in these games, and their 61.5% winning percentage also leads the conference.

This season, Stanford seems ready for more squeakers. Despite blowout wins against FCS UC Davis and an overmatched Army squad, both in-conference games have been close. Stanford lost 13-10 in their conference opener against USC and eked out a 20-13 win this past Saturday in Seattle.

Stanford shouldn't have been in that position in either of those games, however. Stanford has outgained its first two Pac-12 opponents 777 yards to 470. For one, Stanford hasn't taken very good care of the ball. The Cardinal has turned the ball over nine times in its first four games, a mark they took until mid-October to hit in 2012 and 2013. The offense has struggled mightily in the red zone. Against USC, the offense failed to score six times when inside the USC 25. Although they played marginally better against Washington, the offense was twice shut down within the Huskies' 25.

On Saturday, Stanford finally broke away from the Huskies on a Hogan touchdown run with just over four minutes to go. To set up this play, Washington coach Chris Petersen called for an controversial and ultimately unsuccessful fake punt facing 4th and 9 at his 47-yard line.

"We need to execute a bit better, but it was asking to get too many yards," Petersen said in his postgame press conference. "We should have checked out of it. That was on me."

Statistically speaking, at least in the NFL, how teams fare in games decided by one score or less is random (you can see an explanation of this phenomenon from Grantland's Bill Barnwell here). From 2007 through 2013, Pac-10 teams have amassed an overall record of 505-391 (I left out Colorado and Utah, as both teams joined the conference in 2011). In games decided by eight points or less, the Pac-12 is almost exactly dead even, with a record of 142-141. When a football game is this close, chance comes into the equation. Teams blow it in special teams, or cough up the ball in opponent territory. One play can decide the outcome.

Some teams fare better in close games than others. Maybe they have a marquee quarterback, à la Andrew Luck (the Colts' quarterback has put together an uncanny 15-4 record in one-score games). Good coaching can eliminate the possibility of blown calls deciding the game. Hogan's a solid game manager, and David Shaw is one of the best coaches in the conference.

Stanford's smash-mouth, ground-and-pound style is blowout averse, with the Cardinal relying on its defense to keep games close. But Stanford is too good of a team to rely on squeezing out victories. Blowouts against tough in-conference competition may be tough to come by, but Stanford can improve by not shooting itself in the foot. Stanford needs to stop making small mistakes (missing field goals, making dumb penalties, turning over the ball) so it can get out of these close games. That way, the Cardinal won't have to rely on the other team to win the game for them.