Stanford efficient at closing out games

“Coffee is for closers.” -- Blake, Glengarry Glen Ross

PALO ALTO, Calif. -- If coffee is for closers, put a Starbucks in the Stanford locker room.

The Cardinal have been fantastic in the fourth quarter through the first four games of the season. It’s when they are at their best running the ball. It’s when they are grinding out yards and knocking opponents off the line of scrimmage.

“For us to be able to run the clock out, give our defense a break and be able to go down and score is a good feeling,” said tight end Coby Fleener. “Anytime you can move someone against their will in a football game, that’s the epitome of playing football.”

Through the first four games, Stanford has been strongest on the ground in the fourth quarter -- averaging 63 rushing yards per game in the fourth. It makes sense. They have had healthy leads going into the final 15 minutes in each of their four games. Why bother throwing? They average just 45 yards through the air in the fourth.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said guard David DeCastro. “Especially knowing that you don’t have to pass block and every play is going to be a run and you can just try to grind people down and grind down the clock and move the ball into the end zone.”

Defensively, the numbers are a little skewed because there have been such one-sided scores. Opposing offenses are averaging 25.5 yards on the ground in the fourth and 55.5 yards in the air.

Stanford has yielded just two touchdowns in the fourth quarter -- one coming against Duke in the final minute when both teams were playing reserves. The other came Saturday against UCLA when the game was pretty much decided.

“We do this ‘We will’ type of thing,” explained noseguard Terrence Stephens, making a fist and pounding his chest. “We will finish this game. Start fast, stay focused and finish in the fourth quarter. That is the mentality. Because if they don’t score in the fourth quarter and we’ve done everything right up until that point, they don’t win. Yes it’s a different type of attitude. But it’s the way of living for Stanford football.”

Through the first four games, Stanford has scored more points in the fourth quarter than in any other, out-distancing opponents 56-13. Quarterback Andrew Luck, who has only played in about half of the fourth quarters so far this season, said he remembers watching former Stanford running back Toby Gerhart and the mentality he took into the fourth quarter. Luck said he and some of the other players from the Gerhart era have tried to adopt that for themselves.

“You always want to finish strong and that was one of the great things about playing with Toby a couple of years ago,” Luck said. “You’d watch him play and late in the third and fourth quarter he was going 100 miles per hour and he was just punishing people. A lot of guys noticed that. The running backs and offensive line saw if we can keep our poise and keep our technique we’ll wear down an opponent.”

Coach David Shaw explained that there is a certain attitude he wants his team to have in the fourth quarter.

“I think it always starts up front and the physical nature with which we play,” Shaw said. “They like it. DeCastro likes when it comes down to the line. The scores have helped. We’ve got the running backs that can run through there.”

And they are getting better at it lately. The Cardinal have four fourth-quarter touchdowns in the past two games. They have strung together impressive drives that have widdled the clock. In Arizona, it was a 12-play, 91-yard drive that consumed 6:55 and ended with a 2-yard Jeremy Stewart touchdown run. On Saturday against the Bruins, it was a 12-play, 59-yard drive that sucked up 6:28 off the clock, capped with a 5-yard pass from Luck to Chris Owusu.

The Cardinal haven’t had a “narrow” lead yet in the fourth quarter. They led 43-3 against San Jose State, 30-7 against Duke, 23-10 against Arizona and 31-13 against UCLA. In all four games, they managed to strengthen that lead, but haven’t had to put together that nail-in-the-coffin drive. Because when the final 15 minutes came around, opponents were already sealed up.

Which begs the question: Does this team have the killer instinct it needs in crunch time?

“Moving forward, we’ll see,” said Fleener. “It’s got to be something that good teams have -- great teams have -- so it’s something that if we don’t have enough of it yet, we need to develop more.”

There are a lot of smart guys at Stanford so it shouldn't be hard for them to remember the A, B, C’s: Always Be Closing.