By Jeremy Harness
STANFORD – Head coach David Shaw said that what he likes most about his team is the mental toughness that it has, that “of all the things you can ask for as a coach, that’s what you want.”
That’s what got Stanford through in the fourth quarter, as No. 15 Washington put the pressure on time and again in the fourth quarter while it gripped tightly to a three-point lead.
Although Stanford never trailed in the game, it wasn’t really over until the Keith Price’s would-be first-down pass to Kevin Smith on fourth down was ruled incomplete with 1:15 remaining, allowing the Cardinal to run out the clock and avenge their only loss last year in Pac-12 play, coming away with a 31-28 win Saturday night at Stanford Stadium, marking the third time since World War II that Stanford has started the season with a 5-0 record.
Getting stops against Price was by no means easy, especially Saturday night. The dual-threat quarterback torched Stanford for 350 yards by completing 33 of his 48 throws, and even though the Cardinal sacked him five times, there were plenty other opportunities.
“We were trying to keep him in the pocket, but he kept high-stepping (out of trouble),” Trent Murphy said. “But we just couldn’t put him down.”
If anyone had a turnaround game from last year’s humbling loss to the Huskies, it was Ty Montgomery, who had a less-than-glorious performance in Seattle. This time around, he sliced the Huskies up for 290 all-purpose yards, including taking the opening kickoff 99 yards to give Stanford a lightning-quick 7-0 lead as well as a touchdown catch with 10 seconds left in the first half.
“(Also,) when he wasn’t carrying the ball, he was blocking his tail off,” Shaw said. “I would say that Ty was the difference in the ballgame. He’s a special player that we think his future is extremely bright, and he’s only going to get better.”
After that opening kickoff, the rest of the first quarter was a real struggle between two of the top defenses in the nation. The Huskies got as far as the Stanford 44 before they were forced to punt the ball away and were not able to get into any sort of rhythm on offense, a far cry from what they’ve been accustomed to this year.
Stanford’s offense, on the other hand, fared a tad better than Washington’s but ultimately came away with only three more points. The Cardinal advanced into Husky territory three times in the quarter but turned the ball over twice, once on an interception and the other on downs, as a fourth-and-four pass at the Washington 30 fell incomplete.
The Cardinal got to Washington’s 35 late in the second quarter, but rather than try a long field goal that would have been around 50 yards, they elected to punt it away and put the rest of the half in the hands of the defense.
That move backfired, though. Washington suddenly found its offensive groove and drove 88 yards down the field and capped things off with a 7-yard touchdown run by Bishop Sankey to cut Stanford’s lead to three.
Stanford countered beautifully to bring that lead back up. To close out the first half, Kevin Hogan saw Montgomery single-covered on the right side and dropped in deep ball on Montgomery’s outside shoulder for a 38-yard touchdown that cornerback Marcus Peters, who had intercepted Hogan earlier in the half, had no chance of defending.
While the first quarter was a struggle on offense for both teams, the third quarter was anything but. Washington took the ball to start the quarter and again ripped the Stanford defense, this time for 75 yards on only four plays and capping it off by getting into the end zone. Keith Price, using his legs to maneuver out of trouble, found an open Kevin Smith for a 29-yard touchdown to again cut the Stanford lead to a trio.
The Cardinal’s ensuing drive was a bit more time-consuming and methodical, but it ended up netting the same result. They ran the ball seven times on that drive, simply moving the chains until they got into position to strike. Hogan’s 4-yard touchdown did just that.
Washington answered with a touchdown of their later in the quarter and was again within striking distance late in the fourth, riding the legs of Sankey and the dual skills of Price to pierce their way inside the Stanford 10. At that point, Stanford’s came up with the big play that it needed. Linebacker Trent Murphy got his hand on a Price pass and knocked it straight into the air, and A.J Tarpley came down with it to thwart the rally.
But that didn’t stop the Huskies. They got a big stop of their own and forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, getting the ball back with plenty of time left in the game. They once again got deep into Cardinal territory, but this time, they were able to punch it in to cut the lead to three.
Stanford, however, could not put them away, as the Huskies drove just past midfield with a chance to tie or even win the game until the fourth-down pass fell through Smith’s hands.
“It’s not a beauty contest; it’s a football game,” Shaw said. “No matter how imperfect the whole game is, (when) we get to the fourth quarter, we’ve got to finish.
“Our guys finished well.”