EL PASO, Texas – For the second time in three years the Stanford Cardinal came to El Paso and were outgained yardage-wise by their opponent, and for the second time in three years the team from the Pac-12 came out with a Sun Bowl victory as the Cardinal outlasted the Pittsburgh Panthers, 14-13, to win the 85th Annual Hyundai Sun Bowl.
Stanford (9-4), which had to stave off a late North Carolina rally in 2016 to win by two points, had to do the same on Monday in front of 40,680 fans to hold on to a one-point win over Pitt (7-7). It is the first one-point final in the Sun Bowl since 2006. The game was also turnover-free for the first time in 20 years.
With the win the Cardinal move to 4-1 in the Sun Bowl. The four wins are the most my any team, other than El Paso’s own UTEP (five wins), in Sun Bowl history.
Stanford was outgained in total yards 344-208, lost the time of possession battle by over seven minutes and went 1-for-10 on third downs, but found a way to pull out the victory on a lost fumble by quarterback K.J. Costello at the 3-yard line that somehow found its way right into the hands of running back Cameron Scarlett who was standing in the end zone.
“It’s not about yards, it’s about points. There’s so many different stats and I appreciate the Pro Football Focus stuff, but that doesn’t win football games,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “You’ve got to run the ball well, you’ve got to stop the run, you’ve got to be great on first down, you’ve got to be great on third down and you’ve got to be great in the red zone.”
Pitt had a final possession to try and steal the win, and after a 4th-and-11 conversion from its own 3-yard line with 2:27 left it seemed as if it might just be the Panthers’ day. But another fourth-down conversion fell short a few plays later and sealed the win for the Cardinal.
Scarlett finished with 94 yards on the ground and two touchdowns for Stanford on his way to being named the C.M. Hendricks Most Valuable Player of the game. Costello finished with 105 yards through the air while senior wide receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside had three catches for 90 yards, including the biggest catch of the game, a 49-yard catch and run that set up the wacky winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. Defensive end Thomas Booker nabbed the Jimmy Rogers, Jr. Trophy as the game’s best lineman.
“Coach Shaw referred to it in the locker room, I mean this game was a lot like the season, the first half of the season, but effort was never a question with these guys, they are going to figure it out,” Costello said.
On the Pitt side, quarterback Kenny Pickett finished 11-of-29 for 136 yards passing. Senior running back Darrin Hall finished with a game-high 131 yards on the ground while receiver Taysir Mack accumulated 68 yards on four catches.
“I look at our 208 yards rushing and 344 total yards to their 208 and I just doesn’t add up how that score ends up being 13-14 but that’s really the only stat that matters,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said.
The game got off to a slow start as the Sun Bowl had a scoreless first quarter for the first time in six years.
The Panthers drove into Cardinal territory during its first two drives, including getting to the Stanford 28-yard line on its second drive of the day. But a loss of yardage during a running play and a 10-yard sack thwarted the Panthers’ drive.
Pitt finally broke through on the second play of the second quarter as its third drive ended on a 29-yard field goal by Alex Kessman. The biggest play on the 6-play, 54-yard drive was a 47-yard scamper by Hall. Kessman was named the John H. Folmer trophy winner as the game’s top special teams player after going 2-for-3 on field goals.
“Really we just wanted to take advantage of the coverage that they were showing. We felt that we could get the ball out quick and do some work there, which I thought we did,” Pickett said. “We only had a couple of explosives down the field passing. I wish we had some more deep shots that would’ve ended up in touchdowns.”
Stanford, on the other hand, could not getting anything going during its first four drives as the team from the Pac-12 started the game with four consecutive three-and-outs. The Cardinal were held to a total of three yards in the first quarter and did not get their initial first down until the 10:53 mark of the second quarter.
But after its initial first down, the Stanford offense finally came alive as the Cardinal went on a 7-play, 64-yard drive that was capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by Scarlett.
Even though Stanford was outplayed by the Panthers, they still held a 7-3 lead midway through the second quarter.
Pitt, however, had an answer. The Panthers showed the power of their running game as they answered the Cardinal touchdown with one of their own.
Pitt’s 75-yard drive ate up over five minutes of playing time and culminated with a 6-yard touchdown run by Hall, who finished with 93 yards rushing in the first half. The touchdown gave the Panthers a 10-7 led at the half.
The teams traded three-and-outs to start the second half, but with Pitt at midfield during it s second drive, Pickett hit Mack down the left sideline for a 41-yard hookup that put the ball at the Cardinal 9-yard line.
The Panthers could not punch it in the end zone, however, as they settled for Kessman’s second field goal of the day, a 28-yarder that increased the Pitt lead to 13-7 at the 8:13 mark of the third quarter. It would be the only score of the quarter.
“Offensively we have to finish drives in the red zone,” Narduzzi said. “Overall, offensively and defensively we outplayed them we just didn’t win on the scoreboard which is unfortunate and I feel bad for our seniors.”
Stanford’s winning drive began in the third quarter, and after eight plays and 78 yards the Cardinal marked the final points of the game with 11:28 left.
Pitt drove down the field on its next possession trying to answer Stanford’s score as it had in the first half. The Panthers drove to the Cardinal 35-yard line, but a couple of negative plays forced a 55-yard field goal, which Kessman missed short and wide right.
Pitt would get its final try after forcing a Stanford punt, but the drive ended after a non-conversion of a 4th-and-three with 1:44 left.