Although Stanford football’s road to the Rose Bowl was a process and much more significant as a whole than as its parts, there were still many memorable moments and plays that contributed to what made this season so special. This week’s column takes an in-depth look at my top five plays of the Stanford football season in a continuation of last week’s column, where I talked through plays 6-10.
In case you missed them or are too lazy to go back and find them, the plays that I talked about last week were as follows:
Honorable mention: Keller Chryst touchdown pass to Rollins Stallworth against Arizona
No. 10: Kevin Hogan finds Bryce Love for 93 yards against UCF
No. 9: Solomon Thomas’ scoop-’n-score in Pac-12 Championship
No. 8: Hogan’s long touchdown run against Washington State
No. 7: Quenton Meeks’ second interception against Washington State
No. 6: Hogan’s second touchdown pass to Michael Rector in the Rose Bowl
Let’s not beat around the bush; here are my top five plays. As always, feel free to call me out if you disagree with me in any way — no column is fun without its share of controversy.
No. 5: Kevin Hogan 41-yard touchdown pass to Francis Owusu (vs. UCLA, Oct. 15)
You knew this play was going to be up here. Maybe you’re surprised that I ranked it so low (Michael and Vihan still, to this day, give me crap over not having this No. 1). Regardless of where you stand on the issue of where this thing of beauty should be ranked, though, one thing is abundantly clear: This might be one of the most improbable catches — nay, moments — that any Stanford football fan has ever observed on a football field. Ever. It might very well be just the second time in college football history where a receiver has caught a no-look pass off the back of a defender.
No, it ultimately did not have any effect on the overall outcome of the game, a 56-35 trucking of UCLA by Christian McCaffrey and the Cardinal. No, the trick play design was not anything we hadn’t seen before from David Shaw. But the absurd catch was one of those moments that was played over and over for nights on end by aghast SportsCenter anchors and marveled at by fans all around the nation for weeks as everybody tried to figure out just… how he caught that ball. Well, Owusu himself had no idea either, which means that the answer to that question will likely take its place among life’s greatest mysteries. All we can do is stare… and enjoy.
No. 4: Christian McCaffrey 11-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Hogan (vs. USC, Dec. 5)
When I talked to Kevin Hogan before his Senior Day, I asked him if there was anything he had yet to accomplish in his Stanford career that he wanted to check off the bucket list before he hung up his Stanford pads for good.
He told me that he wanted to catch a touchdown pass.
Now, I’m not saying that David Shaw was listening to that interview (though, would it really surprise anyone if he had ears all over his practice field?) but you do have to say that the timing was great, as Shaw shocked the country just two weeks later against USC by pulling out the halfback pass to Hogan on one of the biggest stages the team had faced all season. And it worked beautifully.
This play marked the culmination of all of the trickery that David Shaw had pulled out of thin air all season — yet another ballsy call in a bigtime situation — as the previously strait-laced coach made us expect the unexpected every week. McCaffrey added to his Heisman (runner-up) portfolio with a second passing touchdown. And Hogan’s wish came true. He deserved that.
No. 3: Kevin Hogan 75-yard touchdown pass to Christian McCaffrey (vs. Iowa, Jan. 1)
I know they didn’t mean it in a bad way. But the fact of the matter is that Iowa’s defensive leaders did say during Rose Bowl media days that they hadn’t really heard all too much about McCaffrey or seen him play during the season — and believe me, the Stanford team was definitely listening and got fired up over it (if you don’t want to take my word for it, take it from a fired-up Josh Garnett in the locker room after the game). In all likelihood, they (along with the rest of the country) were probably asleep while McCaffrey tore apart opposing defenses.
Well, this time, they were definitely awake to watch No. 5 zoom by.
This play, Stanford’s first from scrimmage, set the tone for a Rose Bowl demolition derby from the onset, tied Iowa’s biggest deficit of the season just seconds into its biggest game in program history, silenced 50,000 Iowa fans in the audience and gave McCaffrey his vengeance against not just the Iowa Hawkeyes, but against everybody that had slept on him all season.
No. 2: Conrad Ukropina 45-yard field goal (vs. Notre Dame, Nov. 28)
I don’t have the words to properly do this game justice, and I’m not going to try. All I know is that two months later, I still get shivers when I watch highlights of this incredible spectacle — there truly could not have been a better way to send off our seniors and close out an incredible regular season.
The game truly had it all — explosive touchdown passes, elite quarterback play, timely defense — and at the end, to cap off a night of sheer insanity, one final connection between two seniors that set the stage for the Stanford kicker to determine the fates of two teams that had given it their all on the field.
Just a few months earlier, Ukropina had missed all three of his field goals in the Spring Game, giving everyone concerns that the kicking game — which had let Stanford down on the biggest of stages before — would again be a liability during the 2015 season. By the time Nov. 28 rolled around, though, he had proven himself time and time again as the best kicker in the nation. I don’t think there was any doubt in anyone’s minds that Ukropina would send that 45-yard kick through, and to cap off a truly incredible Senior Night, Conrad kicked the straightest, truest long field goal I’ve ever seen in my life to seal the deal.
No. 1: Kevin Hogan 53-yard touchdown pass to Michael Rector (vs. UCF, Sept. 12)
Remember back in Week 1 and Week 2 when we thought that our offense was going to be awful?
Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it? And really, given what we’ve seen in the weeks following those first two games, it’s really hard to even fathom the idea that this edition of the Stanford offense could have even looked anything close to… bad.
And yet, there we were, tied 0-0 with UCF (who would go on to finish the season 0-12) with the time ticking down to halftime, after not finding the end zone against Northwestern a week earlier and with previously high championship hopes dwindling to somewhere between the fifth and sixth circles of hell.
Then, the sparkplug. I don’t think anybody outside of the Stanford locker room had even fathomed the possibility that Stanford could pull out a flea flicker, which made it so astonishing, invigorating and energizing when Shaw did so to give Stanford its first touchdown of the season.
As you all know, Stanford never looked back from there in the following four months and rode that high all the way to a No. 3 year-end national ranking. There might have been better-diagrammed, better-executed or more surprising plays than this one throughout the season, but I think there was no single play that was more meaningful to this team’s fortunes than this flea flicker. This was where it all started.
Give Do-Hyoung Park a hard time for putting Francis Owusu’s mind-boggling catch, arguably the play of the college football season, at No. 5 by emailing him at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.