Welcome back to The Vault. Stanford plays Utah this week for the first time since 2014 and to commemorate the event I’ll be looking back at the most important game that these two teams have played. Granted, it’s not a particularly pleasant memory for Cardinal fans.
2013 was shaping up to be a very good year for the Stanford Cardinal. After years of trying and failing to beat Oregon, win the PAC-12, and win the Rose Bowl, Stanford did just that the previous season. Kevin Hogan and David Shaw had triumphed where Andrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh somehow hadn’t. With much of that talented roster coming back, things were looking promising for a return to Pasadena, and this time Hogan would be starting all year long. The Cardinal began the season ranked 5th in the AP poll, their highest preseason ranking ever and a major achievement for a program that had hit rock bottom less than a decade earlier. Stanford had passed their first few early season tests when they beat a fast improving Arizona State program 42-28. Two weeks later the Cardinal held off #15 Washington, who had beaten Stanford the year before and were looking to usurp Stanford and Oregon atop the PAC-12 North. The Cardinal were perhaps looking forward to a big home game against undefeated UCLA when they traveled to Salt Lake City to play the struggling new member of the PAC-12.
2013 was shaping up to be a bad year for the Utah Utes. After so many successful seasons in the Mountain West and a promising first year in the PAC-12 that saw Utah nearly claim the South Division, the Utes hit a big wall in 2012. Utah went 5-7, only managing to beat the very bottom tier of their PAC-12 opponents. It was head coach Kyle Wittingham’s first losing season in his eight years at the helm. 2013 wasn’t going much better. The Utes managed to sweep in-state foes Utah State, Weber State, and BYU in non-conference play, but once they were playing PAC-12 competition they struggled mightily. They lost at home to Oregon State in overtime and then fell to South Division favorite UCLA 27-34, again at home. Now Utah had to welcome the defending PAC-12 Champions and they hadn’t yet won a conference game nearly midway through the season.
The game began and the expected Cardinal triumph commenced. On the first play from scrimmage, Kevin Hogan sailed a pass to Ty Montgomery that ended up netting 34 yards to take Stanford past midfield. Another pass to Kodi Whitfield brought the Cardinal all the way to Utah’s five yard line where Tyler Gaffney hammered the ball home. Stanford was up 7-0 and all was seemingly well. Ute quarterback Travis Wilson lobbed a ball to RB Bubba Poole who ran all the way to the Cardinal 40 on Utah’s first play from scrimmage. The Utes managed to convert a fourth down attempt in order to keep the drive alive and Bubba Poole knocked off a 21 yard run to set up Utah’s first touchdown of the game. It was a wrinkle in Stanford’s plan of attack, but it seemed to be of little consequence so early in the game. Ty Montgomery righted the ship immediately, with an exceptional 100 yard kickoff return to put the Cardinal back up 14-7. The Utes were then forced to punt on their first set of downs. It seemed like the game was unfolding as designed.
Stanford immediately began driving down the field once more. Hogan found Michael Rector who scrambled for nearly 40 yards to take the ball to Utah’s 26 yard line. The drive unfortunately stalled, and Jordan Williamson was called in to tack on three points. Williamson missed the 38 yard field goal, taking points off the board that would soon be desperately needed. The Utes responded with their own long drive, but with a more successful ending. After being backed to 3rd and 17 on their own 49, Travis Wilson aired the ball to Dres Anderson, who took it all 51 yards into the endzone. The game was once again tied as the first quarter was ending.
The second quarter went much worse for the Cardinal. The Ute defense tightened up and held Stanford to three possessions, each of which ended in a punt, two of which were three-and-outs. Following Stanford’s sole possession which took the ball past midfield (only to be punted away), Utah executed a five minute long touchdown drive that put the Utes up for the first time all game. The score at half was 21-14 Utah.
The Utes started with the ball in the second half and began yet another five minute drive down the field. However, right on the Cardinal 14, Travis Wilson was picked off by Stanford’s Joe Hemschoot. With the opportunity to prevent the game from getting away from them, the Cardinal began a drive and approached midfield, only for Montgomery to fumble the ball and give it right back to the Utes. Utah was held to a field goal but their lead widened to 24-14. Hogan then immediately fumbled the ball on Stanford’s next possession. The Cardinal defense held strong but Utah added another field goal to go up 27-14 as the third quarter rolled over into the fourth.
After a pair of punts, Stanford got the ball back with ten minutes left. From, midfield, Hogan connected with Ty Montgomery to bring the ball to the Utah 7. Hogan then found Devon Cajuste in the endzone to bring Stanford within a touchdown. The entire drive lasted under a minute. The Cardinal defense smothered the Utes’ next drive, forcing them to punt with just under eight minutes remaining. The score was 27-21 Utah, if Stanford could find the endzone and kick the extra point they would leave Salt Lake City disappointed in their performance but still undefeated. The Ute defense had held the Cardinal off for the past two quarters but their hold was beginning to slip.
Stanford then began a long and excruciating drive designed to get the ball into the endzone and leave little to no time left on the clock for Utah to respond. It nearly worked. Stanford started on their own 12 yard line with 7:41 left on the clock. With 6 minutes left they were on their own 30, with 4 minutes left they were on their own 42. The Cardinal crossed midfield with 3 minutes left in the game on a 14 yard reception by Montgomery. Hogan’s pass to Whitfield brought Stanford to Utah’s 14 yard line with two and a half minutes remaining. On first down, Tyler Gaffeny rushed to the 10 yard line. After a timeout, Hogan himself brought the ball to Utah’s six. It was 3rd and 2 and there was just about 1 minute left. With the first down marker only on the 4 yard line, Stanford went for the touchdown instead. Hogan’s pass to Charlie Hopkins sailed out of the back of the endzone. It was now fourth down with 51 seconds left. The entire game boiled down to one play. Under pressure, Kevin Hogan lobbed the ball out of the endzone a second time and just like that the game was over. Stanford forfeited possession and all Utah had to do was sit on the ball until the clock ran out.
Jubilant Utah fans rushed the field as time expired and Stanford headed back into their locker room having lost their shot at the BCS National Championship Game once again. For Stanford, it was a bitter pill to swallow. They were outmuscled by a hardnosed team playing the Cardinal’s own game. It would turn out to be a recurring theme, as similar losses to USC and Michigan State defined the ceiling of that 2013 team. It was a high ceiling to be sure, but a ceiling nonetheless. Stanford beat Oregon once again and beat Arizona State in the PAC-12 Championship Game to claim their second conference title in a row, but the loss to Utah will always leave a big what-if in the minds of ever fan and player.
The Utes would again finish 5-7, but the win over Stanford was a landmark in their short PAC-12 tenure. Since 2013, Utah has rebounded and has been a factor in the PAC-12 South race every year since. Ute fans will tell you that the home win over the undefeated Cardinal ranks among the best in program history.
This Saturday, Stanford makes their first trip back to Salt Lake City since 2013.