PALO ALTO, Calif. -- The wall of Stanford players reacted in unison as the scene unfolded in front of their sideline late Saturday night. Their arms waist high and flailing, they tried to will an official's call that would end the threat. If they waved their arms hard enough, Washington quarterback Keith Price's worm-burner to Kevin Smith would be ruled incomplete. That would result in a turnover on downs, and the game would be over. The official closest to the play sprinted in, waving his hands above his head. He thought the pass complete.
Several dozen Stanford players screamed in unison. But to no avail. The Huskies lined up. Price frantically called for the ball. Stanford had unsuccessfully used its only replay challenge four plays earlier on a Price pass to Kasen Williams on the opposite sideline. If the ball got snapped before the replay official upstairs buzzed referee Land Clark, the play couldn't be reviewed. "As I was snapping it," Price said, "the whistle blew." The official in the booth -- the Pac-12 does not provide that person's name -- would get another look. The replay ran on the video boards at Stanford Stadium, but it didn't appear conclusive. Smith might have gotten his arms under the ball, or the ball might have touched the ground.
On the high definition system in the press box, the view must have been a little more clear. Clark received word from above and clicked on his microphone. "After further review," Clark said, "the ruling is the ball hit the ground."
And that was it. The furious comeback hit a wall. Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan took a knee twice, and the Cardinal's national title dreams remained intact. Stanford had escaped with a 31-28 win on a night when neither team had played perfectly. Washington allowed Stanford's Ty Montgomery to gain 204 kickoff return yards. His first return went 99 yards for a touchdown. In the third quarter, a 68-yard Montgomery return to the Washington 19-yard line set up another Stanford touchdown. Stanford, meanwhile, allowed 489 yards. The Cardinal allowed Price to carve them up for 221 passing yards in the second half. But it was the 15 yards taken away by that replay review that left Washington coach Steve Sarkisian steaming.
"It's unfortunate the game had to come down to a judgment call like that," Sarkisian said. "That was unfortunate, because it was two good football teams battling and competing with one another. I wish the game would have gotten won on the field and not in a booth upstairs with some guy who didn't get to feel the emotion and the hard-fought football game that that game was."
He wasn't done.
"From my vantage point, it looked like it was pretty hard to overturn it," Sarkisian said. "But, again, I didn't get to sit 50 yards up in a booth and play a video game and make a call."
Stanford coach David Shaw had a better view of the play but a very different rooting interest. "I saw it live very quickly, and I didn't see the ball hit the ground," Shaw said. "So the guys upstairs said they saw a replay from behind, especially -- a view I didn't have. You could see the ball go through, hit his chest, bounce off the ground and into his hands."
Sarkisian's anger is perfectly understandable. To vault into the upper echelon of the Pac-12, to contend for titles, his team must beat teams like Stanford and next week's opponent, Oregon. The Huskies came tantalizingly close on Saturday. They were lined up to run that next play. Mere fractions of a second away from another chance.
But Sarkisian shouldn't blame the replay official. That official never had to be involved in the outcome. Had the Huskies covered the opening kickoff, had they not kicked it to Montgomery again expecting a different result, had tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins not dropped a perfect Price pass over the middle on third-and-10 of that last series, that replay official would have been powerless. Price understood that. "Who is to say? I don't know if he caught it or dropped it," Price said. "I didn't see the replay. But to have a game end like that is no fun. ... I'm not blaming the refs at all. We just have to play better."
The Cardinal were in this position last year at Oregon. They had risen up, and they were ready to knock off the Pac-12's reigning king. Stanford made just enough plays that night and left with a three-point overtime win. Washington didn't make quite enough plays Saturday, but the Huskies did prove to the nation that they can compete with anyone. Unfortunately, that's little solace for a team that had a chance at victory in its grasp until a replay official determined that chance was trapped and not caught. "There's no award for losing," Sarkisian said. "We're a proud football team, and we're proud of the way we played. But we came here to win a football game."
The good news for Washington? A back-to-back set of games that looked brutal when the schedule was released now seems perfect. The Huskies know how close they are to an elite level. What better way to prove it than by beating Oregon? If the Huskies can beat the Ducks, a three-way tie atop the Pac-12 North is certainly possible. Price can throw with anyone. Tailback Bishop Sankey (125 rushing yards, two touchdowns) can run with anyone. Linebacker Shaq Thompson can tackle anyone. Washington's defense watched Stanford line up with eight offensive linemen on a late third-and-one and stuffed Hogan for no gain. A team that can hold its ground against Stanford's herd of rampaging elephants might also be able to slow Oregon's Blur offense.
If Washington didn't have enough motivation to beat the Ducks, it certainly does now. Its chance to upset the reigning Pac-12 champ was ripped away. Now it has a chance to beat the program that won the previous three conference titles and has designs on a fourth in five years. "We know that we're not far off," Price said. "We're not far off at all. We understand that Stanford is a good team. We understand that Oregon is a good team. These are both games that are going to determine the championship. That's ultimately our goal."
The Huskies are so close. Next time, they need to make enough plays to ensure the game gets decided on the field.