Cowboys get landmark win, but misses don't erase Cardinal rise
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In his corner on the far right side of the Stanford sideline, kicker Jordan Williamson ran through the routine at least a half-dozen times in the moments before he took the field.
Two steps back. Two steps left. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Kick.
Between two of the practice runs, Williamson, who had made seven of nine attempts between 30 and 39 yards, knelt to pray. The Fiesta Bowl stood tied. The Cardinal had moved down the field, but this time, quarterback Andrew Luck -- the likely top pick in the 2012 NFL draft -- couldn't lead them into the end zone before time expired. Williamson, a sophomore from Austin, Texas, would have to boot a 35-yard game-winner.
With eight seconds remaining, Williamson dropped his practice tee and walked toward the field. A Stanford timeout stopped the clock with three seconds remaining. Williamson took the field.
Two steps back. Two steps left. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
While his teammates huddled near the sideline, Williamson stood alone between the hash marks, practicing the routine. Seconds later, everyone had returned to the field.
Two steps back. Two steps left. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Snap. Hold. Kick.
When Williamson's head sprang up, he knew. He knew even before the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching band (to his right) drooped and the orange-shirted Oklahomans (to his left) threw their hands toward the sky. Wide left.
Williamson returned to the sideline for overtime. If the offense couldn't find the end zone, he would have his chance at redemption. The offense moved zero yards in three plays. Williamson's chance would come from 42 yards. Oklahoma State coaches wouldn't dare waste their timeout to ice him. Back between the hash marks, he steadied himself.
Two steps back. Two steps left. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Low snap. Great hold. Kick.
Wide left again.
Williamson ripped both sides of his chinstrap from his helmet. The Oklahoma State sideline exploded. The Cowboys, who hadn't held a single lead all night, suddenly had a chance to grab a program-changing win.
They thought they had it when quarterback Brandon Weeden tossed a short pass to Colton Chelf and Chelf careened toward the goal line, but a replay showed Stanford's Delano Howell had snared Chelf at the one-yard line. So Weeden took a knee, and Quinn Sharp kicked the 22-yard chip shot to give the Cowboys a 41-38 win -- the most important victory in school history.
"When there's a game like that," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said, "you hate that there has to be somebody to lose."
You hate it even worse for Williamson, who sobbed in his locker as receiver Chris Owusu tried in vain to comfort him. "He's a good kid," Owusu said.
The two teams, each capping historic runs for program-changing senior classes, gave America precisely the game it expected. Stanford mixed a smashmouth, jumbo-package run game with a flurry of did-he-really-make-that-throw passes from Luck, who finished 27 of 31 for 347 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Oklahoma State, meanwhile, used its no-huddle attack to strike like lightning, averaging 97.4 seconds on five touchdown drives. Receiver Justin Blackmon, who fought an inner thigh infection that limited his practice time and launched at least 1,000 versions of the same joke on Twitter, caught eight passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns.
When the fifth-year seniors on these teams arrived in 2007, the idea of the Cardinal and Cowboys meeting under these circumstances seemed preposterous. Stanford had gone 10-24 the previous three seasons. Oklahoma State had gone 18-18 in the same stretch. But there was reason to believe things would change.
Not coincidentally, 2007 was Jim Harbaugh's first year as Stanford's coach. Harbaugh infused the program with a spirit that the Cardinal could compete with anyone on the field, even if Stanford's rigorous academic standards limited the recruiting pool. Harbaugh left after last season to coach the San Francisco 49ers, but the program he built still clings to his stated desire to win with character and cruelty.
In 2005, Oklahoma State had elevated Mike Gundy to head coach after Les Miles left for LSU. The following year, megabooster T. Boone Pickens made the $165 million -- at the time; the stock market changed the number over the years -- donation that allowed Oklahoma State to spend along with the big boys in the Big 12.
"I've gotten my money's worth," Pickens said before Monday's kickoff. "No question I've done that."
In a better college football environment, these teams wouldn't have played one another Monday. They would have been matched with LSU and Alabama in national semifinals. The fact that Oklahoma State was excluded from the BCS title game in favor of an Alabama-LSU rematch might have been the tipping point that will lead to a college football playoff, even if it is only a four-team arrangement. But that won't happen for at least two years. Monday, the teams had to play a meaningless exhibition that meant everything.
In most ways, the Fiesta Bowl was the antithesis of the Nov. 5 Alabama-LSU game so many people hoped to avoid seeing again. The offenses were fantastic. The defenses weren't. In one critical way, it was exactly the same. Just as Alabama did, Stanford challenged its kicker with tougher field goal distances. Just as LSU did, Oklahoma State gave its kicker gimmes.
Of course, Oklahoma State defensive end Jamie Blatnick believes it was more than a hooked kick that sent the game to overtime. During that end-of-regulation kick, Blatnick was lined up over the gap between the tackle and tight end to the defense's right. Blatnick had already shown he could jump, hurdling Stanford back Stepfan Taylor to sack Luck in the third quarter. ("I've been getting a lot of questions about whether I'm excited to play Andrew Luck," Blatnick said. "I was wondering if he was excited to play me.") Tired of trying to use brute strength to split the tackle and tight end, the 265-pound Blatnick decided to use his springs. He hurdled over the line and closed in on Williamson.
"I'm about positive I got a piece of the first one," Blatnick said. "I'm just sayin'. I don't think I got credit for it. If I didn't get a piece of it, it was my presence. You can watch the replay."
The replay was utterly inconclusive.
"My pinky probably got it," Blatnick said. "It was enough for him to miss it."
That's how close Stanford and Oklahoma State were Monday. One pinky finger apart. Stanford safety Michael Thomas knows that years from now, he'll look back on this period and smile. As much as Monday hurt, it can't erase four years spent helping raise a program from laughingstock to dominant force.
"Overall, you're going to see a bunch of guys who came in wanting to change the culture around Stanford," Thomas said.
The same goes for the Cowboys, who for so long were the runners-up in their own state. They didn't earn any votes for a split national title should LSU lose to Alabama, but they did prove they belong among the nation's elite with the program's first 12-win season. Blatnick and his classmates will move on, but they hope Monday's win was only the beginning.
"It's going to be a great building block," Blatnick said. "We put ourselves on the map."