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Washington State win could be Stanford season's defining moment

PULLMAN, Washington -- No. 9 Stanford became the darling of the national media over the last eight weeks, its offense a powerful mix of ground game and passing, its quarterback fulfilling every prototype of the cerebral tough guy that the Cardinal wishes to promote, its tailback forcing his way into the Heisman race.

But it wasn't until Saturday night, when Stanford withstood horrid weather, a jacked-up opponent and its own mistakes to come back from two 12-point deficits in the second half to win at Washington State, that the Cardinal looked the part of a true playoff contender.

Let's face it: there's nothing all that difficult about winning when you're playing well. But win when you have to overcome their 11 guys and your own 11 -- that's the stuff of championships.

It doesn't say here that Stanford will make the College Football Playoff. The Cardinal put itself at the mercy of others when it lost the opener to Northwestern. But it does say that a rite of passage for many championship teams is to have that one game where a lot goes wrong, and yet the team figures out a way to win.

USC fans remember Reggie Bush's 65-yard, fourth-quarter punt return through the fog that pushed the Trojans to victory at 4-4 Oregon State in the unbeaten 2004 season. Alabama fans recall Terrence Cody blocking two field goals in the fourth quarter, one as the clock expired, to hold onto a 12-10 victory over 3-3 Tennessee in the Crimson Tide's unbeaten 2009 season.

The Vols have a memory of their own from their championship season of 1998. Unbeaten Arkansas led Tennessee 24-22 in the final two minutes when Razorback quarterback Clint Stoerner tripped, fell and fumbled the ball to the Vols. They call it the "Hand of God" fumble.

Stanford head coach David Shaw knows something about divine intervention. Washington State kicker Erik Powell had made all five of his field goal attempts Saturday night, including kicks of 46 and 47 yards. As time expired, with Stanford leading, 30-28, Powell's 43-yard game-winner curved wide right.

Shaw is a methodical man, "process-oriented" as the modern football argot goes. In his way of thinking, Lady Luck is Andrew's mom. But even Shaw paid homage to events beyond his control. "And then you know, just getting fortunate with a missed kick at the end," he said.

That luck wouldn't have come into play without Stanford coming back. And Stanford wouldn't have come back without the resourcefulness common among championship teams. When the normal stuff isn't working, you scrape your knuckles on the bottom of your toolbox and dig out something that will.

Washington State controlled the line of scrimmage in the first half. Senior tackle Destiny Vaeao refused to be blocked. Cardinal offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren complimented the Cougars' plan of, as he put it, "12 hats in the box." Washington State committed everything to stopping Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey, who leads the FBS in all-purpose yards.

The Cougars refused to send any of their eight kickoffs anywhere near McCaffrey, sometimes sacrificing field position to do so. Not until the game-winning drive, when McCaffrey broke to the left sideline and tightroped a 30-yard gain, did he surpass 100 yards rushing for the game.

When a defense crowds the line of scrimmage, you throw over it. But in cold, rainy, occasionally windy conditions, that didn't work, either. Senior quarterback Kevin Hogan had a miserable night passing, finishing 10-of-19 for 86 yards with one interception. So Stanford chose, as Bloomgren put it, to play 11-on-11 football. Run the quarterback.

When Hogan won the starting job in the middle of his redshirt freshman year, his running became an important cog in the Stanford offense. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry in the Cardinal's Rose Bowl championship season of 2012. As his passing matured, however, the importance of his ability to run diminished.

Once Hogan sprained his ankle against USC in the third game of this season, it was all he could do to move in the pocket. Seven weeks later, Hogan isn't 100 percent, but he is capable enough. He had to be. He was Stanford's only chance.

"Absolutely," Shaw said. "Nothing else was working. ... That was the last thing. I don't know what we would have done if that didn't work."

Hogan laughed when informed of that description, and joked about outgaining McCaffrey for the game, 112 yards to 107, Hogan's first career 100-yard game.

"I guess miracles do exist," Hogan said.

That hadn't happened before. Nor had Hogan ever rushed for more yards than he passed in any of his 39 previous starts. But on this night, when Stanford had nothing else, Hogan ran a career-long 39 yards to set up the first Cardinal touchdown. That personal record lasted two possessions. He added a 59-yard touchdown run that pulled Stanford within 22-20, and scored from six yards out in the fourth quarter.

Shaw marveled at his quarterback's ability to fight, to push and will the Cardinal to victory.

"I wish you could have put a microphone in the huddle on that last drive," Shaw said. "He almost shook us to tears, how hard he was going to push this team and find a way to win this game. I don't know what else you can say about a guy who is a fighter, who can will his team to victories. I don't know how many victories we've had with him as a starting quarterback, but it's been a lot."

The answer, Coach, is 31, which ties him with Luck for the most in Stanford history.

"Every good team has a game like this," Shaw said. "Every good team ... It wasn't pretty. It wasn't perfect. Not the way you want to draw it up necessarily."

You may not want to put a frame on this victory and hang it in the football office, but it's a good guess that the story of the 2015 Stanford Cardinal will turn on what happened at Washington State.

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ESPN college football reporter Adam Rittenberg breaks down Stanford's nail-biting, 30-28 road win over Washington State. The Cougars bottled up Christian McCaffrey and were a last-second field goal from upsetting the Cardinal in Pullman.

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