Stanford wins Sun Bowl despite statistical disadvantages

Stanford running back Cameron Scarlett, 22, is taken down following a short gain against Pittsburgh during the Sun Bowl on Monday. Photo by Ruben R. Ramirez of the El Paso Times via the Associated Press.

With all of the struggles it had on offense, it was a wonder that Stanford was able to hold off Pitt for a 14-13 victory in the Sun Bowl in El Paso on Monday (Dec. 31).

Pitt had an advantage in nearly every statistical category. The Panthers had more yards (344-208), first downs (18-12), rushes and yards (42-208, 34-103), passing yards (136-105) and third-down conversions (5-1). And Stanford was playing without five starters — star tailback Bryce Love, receiver Trent Irwin, tight end Kaden Smith, left tackle Walker Little and right guard Nate Herbig.

Finally, Pitt’s defense was stingy. Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello saw a streak of 16 games with a TD pass end, and the Cardinal was 1 of 10 on third downs.

“Pitt’s a very physical football team with two outstanding runners,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “As indicative of our entire season, we had more guys get banged up and guys stepped up and played. Thankfully, guys didn’t stay out very long. Guys were able to come back in and make plays and keep fighting. Can’t say enough about the heart of some of our older guys.”

Even the game-winning score was ugly — the Panthers had stopped Costello on a first-and-goal from the 2-yard line and forced a fumble, which tailback Cameron Scarlett recovered in the end zone.

Scarlett carried 22 times for 94 yards, including another score on a 1-yard run, to earn game MVP honors while filling in for Love.

Love decided to skip it to rehab an ankle injury ahead of the NFL draft, becoming the second Stanford back to do that in the past three Sun Bowls. In 2016, Christian McCaffrey skipped the game, was drafted eighth overall by Carolina and just finished sixth in the NFL in rushing in his second season.

And just as Love kick-started his career with that opportunity, Scarlett gave himself a similar boost.

Of the game-winning score, Scarlett joked, “Just like we drew it up. I was fortunate enough to carry out the fake and look back and the ball was in my hands.”

Pitt drove into position for a 55-yard field goal try on the ensuing possession, but Alex Kessman’s try was no good.

The Panthers still weren’t sure how to explain it all afterward.

“It doesn’t add up how that score’s 14-13,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Offensively, defensively we outplayed them. We just didn’t win on the scoreboard.”

The Cardinal (9-4) finished on a four-game winning streak, much the same way they did two years ago when Stanford won the Sun Bowl for a season-ending six-game streak.

“Our defense gave up some yards, but we didn’t give up a bunch of TDs,” Shaw said. “We made them kick a couple of field goals, and that’s the difference in the ball game.

“It’s not a beauty contest. It’s a football game, and I’m thankful we were able to win it.”

The Panthers (7-7) lost their fourth straight bowl game and sixth in the past seven after falling to playoff championship finalist Clemson in the ACC title game. The past three losses have been in four years in under coach Pat Narduzzi.

— Associated Press