Let’s face it: the final score of today’s Stanford-Washington State football game was just a tad (read: sarcasm) surprising. Stanford was a 34-point favorite, it’s Homecoming Weekend, and Washington State hasn’t defeated an FBS opponent this season. So casual fans who look up the final result and see 38-28 Cardinal will most likely be taken aback. But what happened?
I offer two theories:
Theory 1: Sekope Kaufusi
Who’s Sekope Kaufusi, you ask? Good question. He’s a 6′ 3″, 236-pound, Redwood City-raised linebacker for the Cougars. He didn’t make enough tackles to even appear on the Stanford Press Relations stat sheet. He’s a member of a defense that let Stanford accumulate 28 first downs, 439 yards, and 38 points. But Sekope Kaufusi just might explain the unexpected closeness of this afternoon’s game.
In the often strange world of collegiate athletics, little things can often make the pregame underdog the postgame victor. Remember the 2006 George Mason run to the Final Four, which started when a nut punch galvanized the Patriots and inspired them to keep outplaying themselves? Remember when the 2007 Appalachian State Mountaineers beat #5 Michigan in Ann Arbor for absolutely no reason? What I–and I think nearly everyone else–love about college sports is their unpredictability and amateur athletes’ susceptibility to be influenced by the most seemingly trivial factors.
And that’s exactly why Sekope Kaufusi may have given his team the boost they needed to finish within 10 points of the heavily favored and clearly superior Stanford Cardinal. Sekope Kaufusi has awesome hair. His hair is so awesome that his jersey number cannot be read from behind because his Troy Polamalu-esque hairdo completely covers the numbers. Does it have any effect on his football performance? Probably not. But could it be a strange good luck charm? Perhaps.
Theory 2: Legitimate Football Matters
The Card didn’t play their best game of the year today, but don’t lose sight of the box score. Heading into the 4th quarter, Stanford led 31-7. They led the Cougars in time of possession by 12:18. They had converted 5 of their 6 red zone appearances, converted all 3 of their fourth down conversion attempts, and had already run for 178 yards. The game was more or less over, and the substitutes began coming into the game for Stanford.
Jeff Tuel and the Washington State receiving corps turned it on in the fourth, and Washington State managed 21 points in the quarter. But considering that Stanford needed only to nurse a 24-point lead (which they could have done without scoring at all in the final 15 minutes) the Card’s issues in the secondary can be forgiven, at least for this week. After the game, Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh expressed his frustration with his freshmen safeties, who “can’t make excuses when [they’re] in the game,” Harbaugh said. “There can’t be any ‘I thought this, I slipped, I didn’t get the call, the quarterback looked me off.'” But in putting second-team players into the game when the result is virtually guaranteed, a team has to expect that they won’t perform as well as the starters would have. Harbaugh can certainly be disappointed with his defense’s play in the fourth quarter, but the last 15 minutes were garbage time, no matter how poorly the defense played. Stanford never had a legitimate chance to lose.
Lest we forget, Stanford won this game. In the tunnel after the final whistle, several people told me that by reading the Stanford players’ faces as they ran off the field, anyone would have thought that Washington State won. Indeed, the players were somber, but I’m not sure what else to expect from a team that played a mediocre fourth quarter on a rainy day in a stadium that didn’t even reach 3/4 capacity on Homecoming Saturday. “A lot of our fans didn’t even bother to come to the game today,” said Harbaugh in the postgame press conference, in a remark that will surely worry Cardinal fans already concerned that the coach may leave the Farm when NFL teams and more prestigious college programs request his services this winter. The press room after the game bordered on depressing. “At times it looked atrocious,” said Harbaugh; linebacker Shayne Skov said that the Cardinal defense “just let [Washington State] slip by”; when asked what the team should look to improve upon as the second half of the season arrives, Andrew Luck responded: “Everything [. . .] Things can run away from you like that.”
The 20-somethings that wear the cardinal and white on Saturdays are human, as much as the media and football fans would like to elevate them to god-like status. Stanford played sloppily (8 penalties for 80 yards) but Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel and the Cougar offense are much better than their reputation may lead the casual observer to believe. Tuel’s last touchdown pass, a 74-yarder to Marquess Wilson with 35 seconds left to play in the game, was a gorgeous throw. Tuel posted 298 yards and 4 touchdowns on the day, but that yardage is comparable to the passing numbers Tuel put up the last two weeks against top-25 teams Arizona and Oregon. We all knew that the Stanford secondary was less than spectacular, and Tuel is a good enough quarterback to exploit the Cardinal weakness at safety and cornerback.
It would have been much more troublesome had the Washington State running game been particularly productive. Stanford limited the Cougars to just 90 yards on the ground, and only senior Cougar RB Marcus Richmond looked good carrying the ball for the visitors. The Stanford run game, on the other hand, carried the Card offense this afternoon. Stepfan Taylor broke out for 143 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns in what was easily the game of his career thus far, and true freshman Anthony Wilkerson looked electric in his 9 carries en route to 55 yards, which more than doubles the production of his next-best college game.
Even though Andrew Luck did not look spectacular, one need only see his perfect throw to Doug Baldwin in the corner of the endzone to be sure that Luck is as gifted a passer as any quarterback in the country. However, with another statistically unimpressive game (190 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT), Stanford fans should come down to Earth and realize that Andrew, as good as he is, is not going to win the Heisman Trophy this year. Heisman voters love Southern and Midwestern players that consistently put up huge statistics. Luck could very well be the best quarterback in the nation, but his numbers do not even begin to compare to those of Heisman front-runners Cameron Newton of Auburn and Kellen Moore of Boise State, both of whom have undefeated records to add to their resumes. If last season taught Stanford fans anything about the awards process, it should have been that Stanford players have to post statistics that dwarf those of players from the SEC and Big Ten to even have a chance at winning the trophy. Right now, Luck’s numbers don’t.
So cheer up, Cardinal fans. The sun will come out, the team will shake off some of the evident bye week rust, and hopefully play a good game next week against Washington in Seattle. Today’s final score was close but also deceiving.
And the Cougars may have Sekope Kaufusi’s flowing locks to thank for their slim margin of defeat.