Ronnie Harris made a picture-perfect play vs. USC
The top 10 plays of Stanford's magical Rose Bowl run are
coming. But the under-the-radar dirty work
must be addressed first. Fittingly, the defense, which received limited award recognition
despite its stellar season, dominates our list of unheralded plays.
The fascinating aspect of this list, a characteristic which also
applies to the upcoming top-10 plays collection, is that the value
of each play is dependent on the epic success of the others. Because
of the year's shaky 4-2 start, Stanford had been fighting Rose Bowl
elimination since midseason. The Cardinal strung together seven
consecutive victories by the skin of their teeth in bar-fight
fashion, so every pivotal moment proved central to the final result
of three-peat BCS glory. In that way, this list is a reflection of
the 2012 Stanford team, a refreshing sum of many contributing parts:
No. 5: Trent Murphy to the House (at Washington)
Stanford's jumbo-sized outside linebacker had barely finished
talking about the time he outwrestled a cow back home in
Arizona when he flashed an infinitely more nimble part of his skill
set. To neutralize a Cardinal pass rush that had been tearing their
offensive line apart like it was made of tin foil, Washington
attempted a quick flat pass to running back Bishop Sankey.
Coming off the edge, though, Murphy wasn't
fooled. He anticipated Keith Price's throw and paused in his
path to the quarterback. No. 93's country-strong six-foot-six frame
came in handy when it came time to tip the outlet throw, while his
self-touted "hybrid wide receiver/defensive end gloves" were good
for snagging the deflected ball before it hit the ground. From
there, the Scottsdale Steer enjoyed 41 yards of daylight to the end
zone, thrilling the national television broadcasters by outrunning
Price and the fleet-footed Sankey to the barn.
The score put Stanford up 13-3 late in the third quarter, and while
the Farm Boys would lose in gut-wrenching fashion, it firmly
established the defensive prowess that would guide the Cardinal to
the Rose Bowl: these guys were not only smart and strong; they were
No. 4: Chase Thomas Overtime INT (vs. Arizona)
By a longshot, the day that the Stanford defense struggled most didn't come at
Autzen Stadium. Instead, tough times occurred a
week after the demoralizing loss in Seattle, at Homecoming against
Arizona. The Wildcats had gashed the Cardinal for 617 total yards,
but Derek Mason's vaunted front seven flashed its trademarked
cohesion when it was needed most.
With the game tied at 48 in overtime, quarterback Matt Scott finally
ran into the wall. After 491 yards worth of quick Arizona throws
had gotten by him and his teammates all afternoon, six-foot-six defensive end Henry Anderson raised his hand to deflect the Wildcats' next attempt high
into the air. Along the far side of the field, Chase Thomas circled
under the wobbler and outmuscled his own teammates for the
interception. Moments later, Stepfan Taylor crossed the goal line to seal
Stanford's 54-48 victory.
The preceding interception remains the unheralded moment that
announced Anderson's arrival. (He conquered Randy Hart's quandary of
playing low and tall simultaneously, while becoming the
team's Nick Fairley later at Oregon.) It also kept a precarious season
from entering a downward spiral.
No. 3: Ronnie Harris Changes Course of Stanford, USC Seasons
It was Trojan arrogance (and Lane Kiffin mismanagement) at its
finest: leading Stanford 14-7 halfway through the third quarter, USC
had a chance to open a two-possession lead against the Cardinal's
then-inept offense by kicking an easy field goal from the 13-yard
line. Instead, Troy opted to run an end zone pass on fourth and two out
of a tricky field goal formation that kept Matt Barkley on the field
(but took Marqise Lee off of it -- splendid decision).
Reserve Stanford nickel back Ronnie Harris was not fooled. He
tracked USC fullback Soma Vainuku to the side of the end zone. Even
when Barkley's perfect pass planted its way into Vainuku's chest,
Harris continued fighting. He ripped the ball out as both players
hit the turf, saving his team from what likely would have been a
fatal 14-point deficit.
What happened next was only possible because of Harris' play. The
Trojans never again sniffed the goal line, Josh Nunes channeled his
inner Tim Tebow, and Barkley became a rag doll. 21-14, Stanford:
"unfinished business" would remain... unfinished.
No. 2: Times Have Changed, Oregon
The second spot on this countdown belongs to a duo of plays that
emblemized Stanford's swap with Oregon atop
the Pac-12. Early in the contest at Autzen Stadium, the Cardinal set
the tone for what would be one of the finest defensive efforts in
Marcus Mariota burst out of the pocket, down the right sideline,
open turf between him and first quarter paydirt. No team had come
close to catching Oregon in the open field all season, and Stanford
in particular had proven poorly equipped to do so in previous years.
That's probably why the Ducks' De'Anthony Thomas didn't bother to
block for his quarterback and instead began celebrating.
Finishing an epic headlong sprint that cut the field on a diagonal,
Cardinal safety Devon Carrington ran down the
fleet-footed Mariota to hush the home crowd's premature
touchdown celebration. It was a stunning display of newfound
Stanford back-end speed that gave the Farm Boys second defensive
life on Oregon's drive.
The front seven punctuated the reversal the very next series, when Chip Kelly opted to go for fourth and two from the Cardinal seven.
Shayne Skov stone-walled Mariota with a beautiful tackle in space at
the line of scrimmage, extinguishing Oregon's chance at a score that
would have been a lock just a year prior. Buoyed with confidence,
Stanford's defense would ride the fuel of these two game-saving
plays to a 17-14 upset that dethroned the country's top team.
The Ducks' 2012 scoring outputs: 57, 42, 63, 49, 51, 52, 43, 70, 62,
59, 14, 48. One of these is not like the others. Mason's unit achieved the extraordinary.
No. 1: Immaculate Recovery
Stanford's colossal win and Jordan Williamson's Shakespearean
moment of redemption were a breath away from never happening. With
overtime victory within touching distance following Oregon's missed
field goal, Kevin Hogan committed a massive blunder. Ducks'
linebacker Kiko Alonso stripped him from behind on a play-action
scramble, leaving the football rolling with Stanford's Pac-12 championship
hopes on the Autzen Stadium turf.
Oregon's Michael Clay had the first shot at the elusive prize. He
fell on top of the ball, seemingly rescuing his team's national
title aspirations. But it slipped away, and the ensuing scrum
produced a legendary tale that Khalil Wilkes will relate to his
grandchildren. Somehow, someway -- few know the exact details -- the
Cardinal guard wrestled the fumble to himself, setting up the
climactic moment no one will ever forget.
Williamson nailed the field goal, and the Road to Pasadena was
David Lombardi covers Stanford
sports for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. He can also be heard
on San Francisco's 95.7 The Game. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @davidmlombardi.
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