Boarding a connecting flight to his home in Wisconsin last weekend, a Stanford fan took a seat next to a BYU follower and eagerly launched into a football conversation. He wanted to talk about having witnessed the Cardinal's upset of Oregon the previous night. She demanded to know how Stanford could have lost to Utah last month.
That's becoming a common question, now that the Utes have followed that performance with three losses as their offense struggles and Stanford has responded with three outstanding defensive performances. After beating the Cardinal, Utah is fighting just to qualify for a bowl game. In Stanford's case, that 27-21 defeat ultimately may mean missing a shot at a national championship.
The explanation? Utah played its best football that day and Stanford simply was not sharp. Even so, the Cardinal came within 6 yards of winning the game, with quarterback Kevin Hogan throwing two incompletions in the end zone.
Stanford coach David Shaw is not haunted by what happened at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
"If anything, it's pushed us forward, as opposed to something we lament," he said Tuesday during the Pac-12 media teleconference.
Shaw likened the loss at Utah to a defeat at Notre Dame on the same weekend last season. That's when he chose to change quarterbacks, and Hogan has lost only once since then. In this year's case, a defense that struggled in a win over Washington and looked baffled through three quarters at Utah has turned itself around. That's why Shaw describes that defeat as "a huge moment" for his team.
The before-and-after numbers are stunning. Thanks partly to touchdown drives of 75, 79 and 99 yards in the first half, the Utes posted 389 total yards in three quarters, before the Cardinal defense toughened and its offense kept the ball for much of the fourth period.
In the three games that followed, Stanford held UCLA to 266 yards and 10 points, Oregon State to 288 yards and 12 points and Oregon to 312 yards and 14 (offensive) points. The Cardinal earned the Pac-12's defensive player of the week award after each win, with linebackers Trent Murphy and Shayne Skov and safety Jordan Richards being honored.
"Thankfully, we have the maturity to bounce back and learn," Shaw said.
Utah exploited Stanford's defense with a perimeter passing game that also succeeded in softening the interior for Bubba Poole's running. The Utes' offensive line has not played nearly as well since that day, while quarterback Travis Wilson has struggled mightily, in part due to injuring his hand. Wilson completed 23 of 34 passes for 234 yards against Stanford. In the three losses, he's 14 of 44 for 187 yards, with six interceptions.
Stanford (8-1) visits resurgent USC this week and then hosts Cal in its final Pac-12 game, before meeting Notre Dame. With those two conference victories, the Cardinal would clinch the host's berth in the Pac-12 championship game and compete for another Rose Bowl bid.
As for the Utes (4-5), if they fail to become bowl-eligible, the win over Stanford would become as much of an indictment as an achievement, based on their inability to follow through.