Giving up on Luck costs Stanford dearly

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Jordan Williamson sat in front of his locker, running his hands through his wavy brown hair while tears streamed down his face.

His Stanford teammates tried to console him. Fullback Ryan Hewitt wrapped his arms around the redshirt freshman kicker's heaving shoulders, telling him, "You're the best kicker I know."

Seattle Seahawks defensive back Richard Sherman, a former Stanford star, told Williamson, "There's never been a game lost on one play. There were a lot of other plays that could have changed the outcome."

Athletic director Bob Bowlsby patted him on the back.

None of it helped. A largely anonymous student-athlete until now, the suddenly infamous Williamson embodied the agony of defeat.

"Leave the kicker alone right now," All-America guard David DeCastro strongly advised media members in the locker room.

Williamson's missed 35-yard field goal to end regulation gave Oklahoma State second life in the Fiesta Bowl, and his missed 43-yarder in overtime cleared the way for the Cowboys to win 41-38 moments later.

It was a thrilling game filled with fantastic performances. The two best players lived up to their considerable hype: Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck threw for 347 yards and two touchdowns, completing 27 of 31 passes, and Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon had 186 receiving yards and three touchdowns. The Cowboys never led until the final play, when kicker Quinn Sharp nailed a 22-yard field goal.

It was the biggest victory in Oklahoma State history, a school-record 12th win in a landmark season. But as ecstatic as the Cowboys were, the Cardinal players were equally appalled at having lost a game they had all but won.

"I want to throw up, to be honest," DeCastro said.

[Recap: Oklahoma State 41, Stanford 38, OT]

The source of Stanford's nausea was that it let this game come down to the foot of a kicker. David Shaw has had a remarkable debut season as coach, but his decision to take the game out of Luck's gifted hands late in the fourth quarter and overtime will be aggressively second-guessed.

With 52 seconds left in a tie game and Stanford on Oklahoma State's 25, Shaw went into the strategic bunker. He ordered up two running plays that produced 8 yards, and despite holding three timeouts, he bled the clock down to three seconds. Shaw did not make a significant effort to improve Stanford's field position and shorten Williamson's attempted game-winning kick.

When the Cardinal had that first down at the 25, Luck had completed all eight of his fourth-quarter passes. He is almost unanimously considered the No. 1 NFL pick. He was the runner-up for the Heisman. He is the biggest reason Stanford was playing in its second consecutive BCS bowl.

But he wouldn't attempt another pass until overtime.

I asked Shaw if he considered letting Luck throw the ball on the final plays before overtime – if not going for the end zone, then at least nudging the ball deeper into the red zone.

"No," he said, pointing at the stat sheet that showed Stanford pounded out 243 rushing yards on 50 carries. "You kidding me? No way. We're a running offense. We're running for 4-5 yards a clip. Our offensive line played outstanding."

Fair enough. But the Cardinal averaged 4.9 yards per rush and 11.2 yards per pass attempt. And that decision to go away from Luck shifted the burden from the best Stanford player since John Elway to a young kicker who was not having the best of nights.

Williamson already had missed a 41-yard field goal, on the first possession of the game. He had pushed a kickoff out of bounds in the fourth quarter, giving the Cowboys great field position to start a drive. He came into the game 12-of-15 on field goals this season, but he'd attempted just three field goals in the final five regular-season games and made just one.

So a 35-yard kick on a difficult night with the game on the line was by no means a sure thing for Williamson. And, sure enough, he hooked it badly.

That set the stage for overtime. Shaw again chose the running game over Luck, choosing to run the ball on the Cardinal's first two plays. The first run gained 5 yards, but was followed by a false-start penalty. On second-and-10, Stepfan Taylor was nailed for a 3-yard loss.

Luck's likely final pass as a collegian was a harmless 3-yard completion to Ty Montgomery on third-and-13. That presented an obviously rattled Williamson with a 43-yard attempt, which he missed badly after a low snap by Andrew Fowler and rushed hold by Daniel Zychlinski left him kicking the laces of the ball.

"I said in front of the team, 'We've got to make the kick, but we can't let it come down to the kick,' " Shaw said. "He's our guy. He's extremely talented and he's going to be an NFL kicker someday. This will help him grow."

[Slideshow: Oregon outlasts Wisconsin to win Rose Bowl]

The kicking carnage helped overshadow the performances of Luck and Blackmon, who played like they might be the first two players taken in the NFL draft in April.

Luck made a couple of plays that defined why the pro scouts are in love with him. A deft play-action fake set up a 53-yard touchdown bomb for the first score of the game. His fourth-quarter throw on the run for 20 yards to wide receiver Griff Whalen was a thing of beauty.

"It's great to have good stats, efficiency, whatever," Luck said. "But at the end of the day, it's about winning. … Winning has everything to do with your best or worst game, so I do not feel like this was my best game."

It may have been Blackmon's best game as a Cowboy. His first two catches went for 110 yards and two touchdowns, and his strength and speed dazzled Shaw.

"The fact that Justin Blackmon did not get Heisman votes is ridiculous," he said. "Absolutely ridiculous. … He's T.O. [Terrell Owens]. Not as tall, not as big, but his yards after catch, he's a great blocker. Give the kid all the credit in the world. He's going to do the same thing on the next level that he does on this level."

But as good as Blackmon and quarterback Brandon Weeden were in leading Oklahoma State, the Cowboys still needed a field goal in overtime to win it. At least they presented their kicker, Quinn Sharp, with a chip shot. He smacked his 22-yarder through the uprights, then empathized with his crestfallen counterpart.

"It's not an easy feeling," Sharp said. "Everything comes down to you. You are the last one. It is on the line. And people can look at any plays throughout the game, but most of the time when that happens, they don't look at those plays. They look at the kicker messed up, or the kicker did this, it was his fault."

Some big games in 2011 have come down to field goals made and missed. Alabama missed three kicks against LSU. For the second consecutive year, Boise State was denied an undefeated season on a missed field goal. And now Williamson has added his name to that sad list.

"I wouldn't wish that upon anybody," DeCastro said. "I'm glad I'm not a kicker."

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