Before a college basketball game involving Stanford many years ago, my dad asked the Stanford Tree a question: Why Cardinal for the university’s mascot?
The name was adopted in 1972 and, like Ivy League counterparts Harvard, Dartmouth and Cornell, referenced the school color. However, the student inside that googly eyed, goofy-grinning tree on that day replied Cardinal represented a concept.
The conversation was short, as conversations with mascots tend to be, and he didn’t have time to explain the “concept.” In much the same way, debate over the concept of momentum in sports has never reached a satisfying conclusion.
Momentum is an increasingly polarizing topic with the rise of advanced statistical analysis. Leave it to a Stanford man to devise a formula to try measuring the unquantifiable.
“I call it the only equation in team sports: field position plus momentum equals points,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw.
Solving for points, the end result of Shaw’s equation Saturday at USC was six, courtesy of a touchdown pass from quarterback Kevin Hogan to wide receiver Devon Cajuste.
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Trailing the then-sixth-ranked Trojans 21-17, the Cardinal marched down the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum field just before halftime. Stanford cut into a two-score USC lead just a few minutes earlier, and sought to take its first advantage of the evening.
Reaching the red zone, Shaw had a decision to make with concrete math behind it: The Cardinal were 17 yards out with eight seconds on the clock; a field-goal attempt from this distance is 34 yards, had Shaw opted to send Conrad Ukropina out.
Stanford would go into the locker room down a point in this scenario. Taking a shot at the end zone was Stanford’s only option for securing a lead – and momentum – heading to intermission.
For Shaw, the decision to call for more one play at the end zone was high-percentage.
“It was a very safe call. People said that was kinda [risky],” Shaw said. “Most plays take six seconds; we had eight seconds left and a timeout. If something happened inbounds, we’re going to be able to take the timeout and still kick the field goal.”
The play call was Shaw’s to make, but the execution was on the players, which holds true to Shaw’s concept of how momentum is enacted.
“I’m not in charge of momentum as a coach,” he said. “They’re in charge of momentum. Christian McCaffrey’s in charge of momentum. Our quarterback’s in charge of momentum: The guys [who] can change the game.”
One such Cardinal Saturday was tight end Austin Hooper, who caught a team-high four passes for 79 yards and a touchdown.
Don’t count Hooper among momentum skeptics. He saw the Cajuste touchdown grab as a key factor in Stanford’s decisive second half performance.
“In college football, momentum’s a real factor,” Hooper said. “To be able to put some points on the board was huge.”
Had Cajuste not beaten USC defensive back Chris Hawkins in the end zone, or Hogan hadn’t thrown a perfectly placed ball on the rollout, the Cardinal may have still scored. But the difference in going into halftime trailing by one and leading by three was perhaps the difference in USC sweating vs. the Trojans feeling real pressure.
“We had to get the momentum,” wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said was USC’s goal coming out of the locker room, in part because the Trojans saw how the proverbial pendulum swinging Stanford’s impacted the flow of the game.
“It’s very difficult. For offense, we just have to get points on the board,” he added. “We can’t let Stanford get the ball back, because they’ll just control the clock.”
USC did in fact regain the lead in the third quarter. Stanford building momentum before halftime didn’t sink the Trojans by any means, which explains some skepticism toward the concept.
Were you to chart momentum by score, it would be wildly nonlinear – particularly in a back-and-forth game like USC and Stanford played.
But then, that metric is score. Score and momentum aren’t the same, though Shaw said the latter “equates to points.”
So how exactly is momentum gained?
“There’s no formula for it,” Shaw said. “But if you can run the ball and get first downs. You can get to a third [down]-and-4 and convert that third-and-4; you can get to third-and-3 and convert that third-and-3, and now you can slowly get momentum back on your side.
“The other side starts to get tired, and your guys start to feel good again. We’re moving the ball, we’re driving."
What he describes is the Cliffs Notes version of Stanford’s final possession: a 6:52 drive that ended with a 46-yard Ukropina field goal, giving the Cardinal a 10-point lead that proved to be the difference.
Momentum as it pertains to football may not be tangible, but in that possession on the Coliseum turf, it sure felt tangible.
Were it not for the lights continuing to shine or the west-end video board showing the kick pass through the uprights, one might have sworn the Coliseum was hit by a rolling blackout that’s common in Southern California this time of year.
“It’s hard to quantify, but it’s something you can certainly feel,” Shaw said.
Momentum may exist only in concept, but Stanford proved it’s a concept with very real impact.