Stanford is still alive in the Pac-12 championship race after defeating Utah, 23-20, Saturday night.
That’s not to say that the Cardinal were perfect in this contest. They weren’t. Stanford shot itself in the foot with penalties all night long, committing nine of them for 84 yards. That total included two targeting penalties on Utah’s final possession, which allowed the Utes to move within an onside kick recovery of winning the game.
More importantly, those ill-advised fouls will force the Cardinal to play the first half of next week’s crucial showdown against Oregon without two starters — Peter Kalambayi and Harrison Phillips — on the defensive line. That’s a huge blow against a Ducks team that has one of the better rushing attacks in the country.
While it wasn’t always pretty, you’ve got to tip your cap to Stanford for how well it played in this contest. Even though the Utes defense made it a point to take away Bryce Love, he still finished the game with 150 yards, including a 68-yard run that put the Cardinal up by 10. Of course, that monster gallop was set up by quarterbacks Keller Chryst and KJ Costello burning the Ute D with the option keeper several times throughout the course of the evening.
The Cardinal defense was outstanding as well. Yes, Stanford gave up some yardage, but it came up with big plays when it needed to. When faced with first-and-goal situations in the second and third quarter, the Cardinal D rose to the occasion and forced the Utes to settle for a field goal. These stops were absolutely huge because they prevented Utah from retaking the lead and changing the complexion of the contest.
Of course, the biggest plays that the defense made were at the end of the contest. With the pass rush barreling down on Utah quarterback Troy Williams, he had to try to squeeze the ball into a very tight window to avoid a sack. This resulted in interceptions on back-to-back plays, effectively killing any hope of a Utes comeback. If not for the aforementioned penalties, the defense would have pitched a shutout in the second half, which is an impressive feat against a team that entered the contest averaging 35 points per game.
So what does this mean for the Cardinal going forward?
Simply put: it proves that Stanford is still a factor in the Pac-12 championship race. A loss to Utah would have essentially knocked the Cardinal out of the North division race. But with the win over Utah, Stanford still controls its own destiny. If – and it’s a big if – the Cardinal were to win the remainder of their conference games, it would play for the Pac-12 championship for the fourth time in the last six years.
Is that likely to happen? That’s tough to say right now. After all, the Pac-12 is arguably the toughest conference in the land from top to bottom.
However, the fact remains that Stanford racked up 196 yards on the ground against a Utah D that came into the contest ranked eighth nationally against the run. Provided that the Cardinal finds an answer at quarterback, they’ll be a very difficult team to beat over the final few weeks of the season.