Keith Price couldn’t have done more if he had been born on Krypton. Except for maybe growing to eight feet tall.
The Huskies quarterback took a pounding for four quarters, but a pass batted at the line of scrimmage into a red-zone interception on the third-to-last Washington possession was the opportunity missed, and Stanford survived 31-28 in a spectacular, nationally televised match of Pac-12 Conference unbeatens Saturday night in Palo Alto.
After never being behind through a 4-0 seasonal start, Washington never led against the fifth-ranked Cardinal (5-0), but looked as if they might grab the lead the only time it counted. Getting the ball back with 1:51 left, Price was down to fourth-and-10 desperation at midfield. He scrambled wildly before hitting WR Kevin Smith on a 16-yard completion at the Stanford 33 for an apparent first down with 1:31 remaining.
But a replay review claimed that the ball slipped from the grasp of a diving Smith. The ball went over to the Cardinal, which closed out a perilous triumph that avenged a 17-13 loss a year ago in Seattle, Stanford’s only conference loss in a 12-2 season.
Price was 33 for 48 for 350 yards and two touchdowns, but the one pick, off a splendid leaping block by all-conference linebacker Trent Murphy that blooped the ball into the arms of A.J. Tarpley, was the late-game difference-maker.
But after the Huskies defense, which had numerous big-play denials of the Cardinal offense, forced a three-and-out, the Huskies took over at their own 21 and screamed downfield in six plays over 90 seconds, the last yard on a pass in the flat to Jaydon Mickens (his game high ninth of the game). That TD cut the Stanford lead to 31-28.
The Huskies eschewed an onside-kick attempt and counted on their defense, which delivered a 3-and-out that forced Stanford to punt and set up the final drive that was decided in the replay booth.
Coach Steve Sarkisian was not pleased with how the end went down.
“It was ruled a catch, and to overturn a catch you have to have conclusive evidence,” he told KJR radio. “If it takes three minutes (to deliver a verdict), I’m not sure there’s conclusive evidence. If it was the other way, where it was ruled a no-catch and then reversed, I could live with it. But to say it was complete (on the field) and then take three minutes, I have a hard time swallowing that one.
“To have two teams play like this on national TV, and have it decided by some man in a glass box in a suite . . . it’s like a great movie with a bad ending.”
Equally annoying for Sarkisian was Stanford’s late-game tactic of faking injuries to slow down Washington’s uptempo offense. At least two players went down in theatrical agony and staggered off, only to return in a couple of plays.
“Their defensive-line coach (former UW assistant Randy Hart) was telling them to sit down,” Sarkisian said. ” I guess that’s how we play here at Stanford, so we’ll have to prepare for that next time. At some point, we’ll get repaid for it. That never serves a purpose for us, and we’ll never do that.”
The unpersuasive replay and the dubious Cardinal ethics diminished an otherwise dramatic game in which the Huskies fell behind 10-0 and 31-21, but kept delivering blows nearly as fast as Stanford.
Washington outgained Stanford 489 yards to 284, and limited Cardinal QB Kevin Hogan to 100 yards passing. But the game was lost with special teams, normally a big point of pride for Sarkisian. And even though Huskies fans will lament the Smith reversal, it was the game’s first play that decided the outcome.
Ty Montgomery, clocked in 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash, demonstrated that he was the weapon of the game when he returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for a 7-0 Stanford lead. In the second half, he had another 68-yard kickoff return. And in his regular job as wide receiver, he caught a 39-touchdown pass from Hogan — the best ball he threw in the game — just before halftime for a 17-7 lead.
The TD drive was set up by another special teams miscue. After Bishop Sankey — the nation’s leading rusher had 125 yards and two TDs on 27 carries — scored on a seven-yard run to cut UW’s deficit to 10-7, Sarkisian wanted to avoid kicking to Montgomery. But the “popover” kickoff was poorly executed and Stanford took over at its own 39 with about three minutes left in the half. The short field make it easier for the Cardinal.
For the game, Stanford began its drives on average at the 42, Washington at the 23.
The Huskies made up for the misplay by coming out of the second-half gate with a booming drive of 79 yards that required only four plays and 59 seconds. The last 29 came after a long scramble by Price when he found Smith wide open on a crossing pattern at the eight-yard line and scored easily.
Stanford counterpunched, going 67 yards in 10 plays, with Hogan, lined up in the “elephant” package of seven big linemen and a full-house backfield, went in from four yards untouched.
Sankey’s 15-yard TD run cut Washington’s deficit to 24-21, but Montgomery took the kickoff 68 yards to set up Stanford at the Washington 19, from where it scored in three plays.
Besides the disappointing end, Sarkisian was happy with how hard and well his team played.
“The heart our kids displayed tonight, I couldn’t be more proud of them as a coach,” he said. “Our teams in the past might have folded in the extreme situations we found ourselves in tonight. These guys didn’t. But you can play in a fantasy world of what-ifs.”
Price received special mention.
“What an absolute stud,” he said. “That’s what we were hoping for. We knew their plan was to get after him and hurt him. To deliver the ball the way he did under real duress, I’m really proud of him.”
Said Cardinal coach David Shaw of Price: “I can’t say enough about their quarterback. He played great.”