Tight end Coby Fleener was still sitting on the bench, not having seen any action since taking a violent blow to the head midway through the first quarter, and wide receiver Chris Owusu had joined him after landing awkwardly on his right shoulder while returning a kickoff.
Fleener's injury was a helmet-to-helmet blow, a likely concussion, and even before he wobbled off the field it looked like he'd be out for the game (he would be), and there are concerns any time Owusu is tackled (he would return), but things really begin to look grim when linebacker Shayne Skov went down with just under ten minutes to play in the second quarter.
Arizona quarterback Nick Foles hit wide receiver Juron Criner over the middle,cornerback Johnson Bademosi quickly wrapped him up, and the two of them rolled into Skov, who was rushing to assist with the tackle. Skov immediately grabbed for his left knee and began writhing in pain at the thirty-yard line. When the game came back from commercial, the first image we saw was Skov being assisted off the field by the trainer and an assistant coach. Moments later his teammates were holding up towels to shield him from ESPN's cameras while he was being attended to on the sidelines and reportedly screaming in pain. It wasn't long before he was loaded onto a cart and driven into the lockerroom.
While the medical staff was busy dealing with Skov, Foles was busy completing one pass after another and marching his Wildcats deep into Cardinal territory. With Stanford leading 13-3 (Anthony Wilkerson had surprised everyone by turning a 4th-and-1 toss sweep into a 24-yard touchdown, and Jordan Williamson had hit two field goals), the game was suddenly in doubt. More important than that, the entire outlook of the season had altered dramatically.
The first two games seemed to indicate that even though Heisman-in-waiting Andrew Luck was leading the offense, the Stanford defense might be the stronger unit. With their physical and emotional leader certainly out for the game and possibly lost for the entire season, how would the defense respond?
Initially, they didn't respond well. When Foles found Criner on a six-yard slant for a touchdown, it was his fifteenth consecutive completion to start the game, and the Wildcats had drawn to within three at 13-10. The crowd was going crazy, and Stanford fans were surely having flashbacks to all those games in years past that had disintegrated in the Arizona night.
But Andrew Luck is Andrew Luck. On 3rd and 2 from his own twenty-eight, when a three-and-out would have sent the stadium into paroxysms of joy and perhaps permanently swung the momentum in Arizona's direction, Luck scrambled for fifteen yards, his longest run of the season, to quiet the crowd and move the chains. The drive would eventually stall at the Arizona fifteen, but Williamson's third field goal stopped the bleeding and moved the score to 16-10 heading into the half.
Down by six, Arizona opened the second half with the ball and seemed intent on exploiting Skov's absence from the middle of the field. (As an indication of Skov's stature amongst his teammates, fellow linebacker Chase Thomas emerged from the break with Skov's #11 marked in eye black on his left biceps.) The Wildcats ran the ball four times and passed only twice, their only run-heavy drive of the night, and they had some success as tailback Keola Antolin had runs of thirty-one and eighteen yards. In the end, though, they came away disappointed as kicker Jaime Salazar missed his second field goal of the night.
Two possessions later and still up by just six, the Cardinal went to work again. Fleener remained on the bench, but Luck still had two stellar tight ends in Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz. On third and one from their own twenty-eight, Stanford came to the line in a power formation with three tight ends, and Arizona responded by stacking all eleven men in the box. The linebackers bit hard on Luck's play action fake, Toilolo released, and Luck lofted a perfectly thrown ball in his direction for a thirty-nine-yard gain. A few minutes later, facing a third and eight from the Arizona sixteen, Luck rolled out to his right, waited for Ertz to separate from cornerback Shaquille Richardson (in case you missed that, that's a tight end running away from a cornerback), and hit him between the numbers for an easy touchdown to stretch the lead to 23-10.
Those were all big plays, but it could be argued -- and I'll make that argument -- that the biggest play of the night was made by a true freshman. As Arizona's explosive offense came back onto the field with almost twenty minutes left and down by just two possessions, the game was certainly far from over. Foles completed his first pass for thirteen yards and a first down, but two plays later the Wildcats faced a critical third and two near midfield. Foles took the snap in the shotgun, but he felt pressure almost immediately. Linebacker James Vaughters had exploded out of his stance on the left end and sprinted around right tackle before burying Foles for an eight-yard-sack. Vaughters is the most highly-touted member of last spring's recruiting class, and the expectation was that he would contribute some this season before earning a starting position in 2012. With Skov's injury, that schedule just might be accelerated.
While that play was obviously huge, I'm guessing that Arizona coach Mike Stoops would probably point to another play. Arizona punted following the Vaughters sack, but their defense stood tall, immediately forcing Stanford to send out their punting squad on fourth and three at their own twenty-seven. It seemed they would get the ball back, still down by only two scores, with a few minutes left in the third quarter. But whistles blew before David Green could punt the ball, and Arizona was called for defensive encroachment. The five-yard penalty resulted in a Stanford first down. Five plays later Luck made them pay when he found a wide open Toilolo for a thirty-four-yard touchdown to make it 30-10.
The game was essentially over right there, but it was on their next possession when the Cardinal offense reached into Arizona's chest, ripped out their still-beating heart, and held it up to the heavens for all to see. Taking the ball on their own nine, Stanford trotted out with six offensive lineman and a tight end on the line, two fullbacks (one of whom was tight end Zach Ertz), and tailback Stepfan Taylor. Taylor would carry the ball 22 times for 153 yards on the night, and thirty-five of those yards came on the first three plays of this drive. Andrew Luck completed a couple of play action passes to Ryan Hewitt for 12 and 31 yards, but it was senior running back Jeremy Stewart who pounded the final nails into Arizona's coffin with four straight rushes starting from the eleven and finishing in the end zone. Stanford 37, Arizona 10.
As the final seconds ran off the clock, it was hard to believe that this game had once been in doubt. It was even more difficult to believe that there were those who were doubting this team after the first two weeks of the season. No one will be comparing Arizona to Oklahoma or Alabama any time soon, but they're definitely a step up from the likes of San Jose State and Duke.
The vanilla playbook opened up enough to allow Luck to complete 20 of 31 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns. The offensive line was dominant enough to pave the way for 242 yards rushing. The much-maligned defensive secondary was resilient enough to hold Foles under 300 yards. Most importantly, the entire defense was strong enough to shut down one of the most prolific offenses in the conference. After Nick Foles hit Juron Criner for that touchdown to make the score 13-10, they didn't score again. Stanford outscored them 24-0 the rest of the way, leaving little doubt about who was the superior team.
But as impressive as this win was, there is obviously a huge dark cloud hanging above the Cardinal. We likely won't know the extent of Shayne Skov's injury until early in the week, but I'm guessing we won't see him in uniform until next September. If that's the case, and if Stanford is to win a championship of any kind this season, people like Blake Leuders and James Vaughters will have to step up to fill Skov's incredibly large shoes.
Those questions will be answered in the coming days and weeks, but we know one thing now. Stanford is 3-0 and has won eleven straight games stretching back to last season, good for the longest winning streak in the nation.
Go Mighty Card.
[Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images]