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From the Vault: Stanford-Washington State Football 2015

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Remembering a Halloween thriller and near upset the last time Stanford traveled to face Washington State.

Stanford v Washington State Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Welcome to The Vault, a A weekly series where I look back at a great game from the past ten years featuring Stanford and their opponent of the week. This Saturday, the Stanford Cardinal travel to Pullman for their showdown with the Washington State Cougars. For this week’s post, I’ll be looking back at the last time Stanford played at Martin Stadium, a down-to-the-wire thriller.

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2015 was a banner year for Stanford football, but it didn’t start that way. The Cardinal’s embarrassing 16-6 loss to Northwestern to begin the year brought out a ton of fan anxiety and a litany of reasons and excuses for why the team’s offense played its worst game since Jim Harbaugh became the head coach.

As it turned out the Stanford offense wasn’t a problem for the rest of the season. The Cardinal’s 41-31 upset of #6 USC in week three demonstrated that this team wasn’t finished. As the season wore on, it became increasingly apparent that this was a truly special Stanford team fielding its best offense since Andrew Luck was behind center.

fifth year senior Kevin Hogan, had a strong command of the quarterback position both on and off the field playing a crucial role in turning their 6 point from a continuation of a 2014 trend into an inexplicable 2015 anomaly. Hogan’s crucial role that season was lost once Christian McCaffrey became the most electrifying player in all of college football. If Hogan was the steady pilot, McCaffrey was the jet fuel that drove the Cardinal offense to soaring heights.

Stanford v Washington State
McCaffrey was the lifeblood of the Stanford offense in 2015.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

With this great offense now clicking, Stanford began to breeze through PAC-12 play. Following the victory over USC, the Cardinal ran through Oregon State, Arizona, UCLA, and Washington. They either had the game in the bag by the first quarter or pulled well away in the second half without much fuss. The Cardinal had scored 31 or more points in every game since the loss to Northwestern. By the end of October, Stanford was 6-1, and with Oregon finally faltering, they had a wide open shot at the North Division and conference title. Stanford only needed to navigate their PAC-12 schedule, which appeared to contain no serious threats, and then take down Playoff hopeful Notre Dame in order to make the College Football Playoff.

However, Washington State turned out to be a serious threat. The Cougars had long been a Pac-12 doormat, but by 2015 the worm had turned. Arriving in 2012, Mike Leach slowly built Washington State into a competent football team, and with his air raid offense they could make even good defenses lose their composure. In his first year in Pullman, the Cougars were their usual 3-9 selves, but in only his second season, Leach took Washington State to their first bowl game in ten years. They had another down year in 2014, the pieces weren’t all aligned just yet, but they would be in 2015. With gunslinger Luke Falk at quarterback and a stable of reliable receivers, the Cougars were a very explosive team.

Stanford v Washington State
Luke Falk has turned into one of the most prolific quarterbacks in conference history.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

For the Cougs, 2015 would eventually be a turning point for the program but not before, they started the year off with a loss to Portland State and followed it up with narrow win over Rutgers. Like Stanford, the glitches hadn’t all been ironed out just yet, but eventually the air raid took off. The Cougars won game three over Wyoming then lost to a peaking Cal team. If Washington State had still been a bad team, the season would have seen them struggle to the finish line and likely failing to secure bowl eligibility. Instead, they went on the road and knocked off their frequent tormentor and Pac-12 bully in a double overtime victory over Oregon in Autzen Stadium.

The Cougars offense improved even more with wins over Oregon State and Arizona. Despite giving up a combined 73 points, the air raid offense scored 97 points in the same period. It was just too difficult for other teams to keep up. Optimism was warranted but at the time it was well established that for any other team to get out of the Pac-12 North Division you had to accomplish the highly improbable task of beating both Oregon and Stanford.

Washington State had finally ended almost a decade of losing to the Ducks and had improved since then. Washington State now hosted their biggest test of the season: #8 Stanford a team that had not defeated since 2007 and whose offense was surging right along with the Cougs and seemed capable of keeping up with them in a shootout. On a rainy Halloween night in Pullman two seemingly unstoppable offenses found themselves mired in a sloppy, grinding, defensive battle in the first half.

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Stanford received the opening kickoff, but neither team was able to do much in their first possessions, and both resulted in punts. The Cardinal had good field position coming off of Washington State’s punt, but the drive stalled at the Cougar 14 yard line and Stanford settled for a field goal to take the early lead. Stanford’s defense kept the WSU locked up, forcing two consecutive three and outs, but mistakes on the Cardinal’s part proved an issue. Kevin Hogan fumbled the ball while he was being sacked on Stanford’s possession following the field goal. Then, after being bailed out by the defense, Hogan was intercepted on the Cardinal 31 yard line. Again, the defense held the air raid in check, but the Cougars kicked a field goal to tie the game.

Stanford v Washington State
Neither team was able to mount any serious drives in the first half.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

By the end of the first quarter, both of these high powered offenses had only managed two combined field goals. Kevin Hogan, having already turned the ball over twice, was laboring. The Cardinal run game was then beset by the Cougar defense, corralling McCaffrey and keeping Stanford from gaining significant yardage. In the second quarter, Stanford managed three first downs on three possessions and punted all three times. Washington State also couldn’t find the endzone either, but they crossed midfield every time and were three for three on field goals. The score was a surprising 12-3 Cougar advantage at the half.

Both teams made adjustments in the second half, and when the game was underway again they both started scoring a lot more points an taking us all on an emotional roller coaster.

Washington State received the ball and promptly kicked another field goal. Stanford’s offense finally put the pieces together, and in a short drive featuring a 40 yard run by Hogan, the Cardinal scored the first touchdown of the game. The dogfight was on, as Luke Falk ran the Cougars all the way down the field in less than a minute and a half, scoring Washington State’s first touchdown on a 20 yard pass play to Gabe Marks. The score was now 22-13.

Stanford v Washington State
Both teams began scoring in earnest in the second half.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

Momentum swung Stanford’s way in the tail end of the third quarter. The Cardinal kicked a field goal and then forced the Cougars to punt. Then, on the first play from scrimmage, Kevin Hogan dashed 60 yards into the endzone to bring Stanford within a field goal. It was now Washington State’s turn to make mistakes, as Luke Falk was then intercepted by Quenton Meeks on Wazzu’s own 17. Taking advantage of the short field, Stanford scored again on another Hogan run to take the lead back. The score was 27-22 with fourth quarter underway.

Washington State engineered a long and frankly Stanford-like drive down the field. At 15 plays and taking six and a half minutes, it was the longest drive of the game. It ended with a 1 yard pass to River Cracraft in the endzone. The Cougars attempted a two point conversion but failed, they led 28-27. Stanford’s next drive stalled before reaching midfield and they were forced to punt. There was still time left for one more shot if Stanford could could get a stop. The Cardinal got it as Falk was again intercepted by Quenton Meeks in Washington State territory. The Cardinal made it all the way to the two yard line, but were forced to kick a field goal to take the slight lead.

Stanford v Washington State
The game boiled down to one final play.
Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images

There was just under two minutes left and Washington State only needed to hit a field goal to win the game. The Cougars threw the kitchen sink at Stanford, and with all of their pass attempts managed to slowly make their way towards midfield. Falk met Dom Williams through the air twice to reach field goal range. Both teams burned their final timeouts, with Shaw calling timeout to ice Cougar kicker Erik Powell. Powell, a left-footed kicker lining up from the left hatch, overcompensated, and his field goal attempt sailed wide right as time expired. Stanford had won the game 30-28.

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Stanford barely escaped Pullman with the win. The Cardinal were a great team, but they had a couple of exploitable weaknesses that made them susceptible to an upset. Oregon was taking notes. The Ducks beat Stanford 38-36 on The Farm two weeks later, ending the Cardinal’s bid for the College Football Playoff. The 9-game Conference schedule took its pound of flesh. Oregon actually would have won the division had Washington State beat Stanford, as the Ducks romped through the rest of the regular season unscathed. Stanford’s slight win over the Cougars was made all the more important in hindsight.

However, Stanford rebounded from the Oregon loss with confidence, and the Cardinal wrapped up the season by beating Cal, Notre Dame, and USC for the second time that year in the PAC-12 Championship Game. Stanford’s crushing victory of Iowa in the Rose Bowl capped their 12-2 season and earned the Cardinal a #3 ranking when the dust settled, the best of the Harbaugh-Shaw era.

Washington State also rebounded from their loss. The Cougars won their next three games, including upsetting #18 UCLA on the road to enter the rankings for the first time in over a decade. They lost the Apple Cup to Washington, but a win over Miami in the Sun Bowl gave the Cougars a 9-4 record, their best season yet under Leach.

Washington State got their revenge against Stanford the following season, demolishing the Cardinal 42-16 at Stanford Stadium. The Cougars have cast off both Oregon and Stanford, and are now a force to be reckoned with in the PAC-12. That certainly remains the case as the Cardinal undertake their first trip to Pullman since that near disaster two years ago.