Andrew Luck dropped back to pass with 2:28 remaining in the first half and the Cardinal holding a modest 10-0 lead. He was looking for Chris Owusu, who working on the left side against tight coverage by Duke cornerback Johnny Williams. Luck tried to force the ball in to his receiver, but Owusu and Williams were locked in an intense battle for position and the pass was tipped out into space where it was picked out of the air by safety Lee Butler. Butler raced seventy-six yards down the sideline for a touchdown, and suddenly Stanford hearts were beating a bit faster.
Moments later things got even stickier when Duke head coach David Cutcliffe called for a surprise onside kick, and the Blue Devils executed it perfectly. The home crowd was going crazy (perhaps not Cameron Crazy, but crazy nonetheless), and thoughts of an upset must've crept into the minds of even the most level-headed Cardinal fans.
Since scoring a touchdown on its opening drive, the Stanford offense hadn't looked overly impressive. The second and third drives ended in punts, and the fourth netted only a field goal. The Duke defense was handling the Stanford offensive line, making Luck uncomfortable in the pocket and hitting him several times. After the Butler interception, Luck's stat line didn't look like an Andrew Luck stat line: 10 for 18, one touchdown, one interception.
The good news for Stanford was that the defense had come to play. When Duke took over after the onside kick, they immediately looked to keep their momentum building, and Sean Renfree dropped back to pass, looking downfield for a quick strike. But Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas (GMC's pick to lead the conference in sacks), blasted through the line and dropped Renfree for a seven-yard loss. Thomas struck again two plays later, this time sacking Renfree for an eight-yard loss, and the Blue Devils were forced to punt away their momentum.
When punter Alex King dropped a fourteen-yard shank to the Stanford forty-one with 1:17 before the half, things looked even worse for the Blue Devils. Here are the next four plays: Luck, nineteen yards to Zach Ertz; Luck, 17 yards to Owusu; Luck, 13 yards to Jeremy Stewart; Luck, 10 yards to Owusu for the touchdown. (Owusu was the best athlete on the field on this day; he would catch 7 balls for 106 yards.) It was only 17-7, but it really felt like much more than a ten-point lead.
Duke took the second half kick off and marched down to the Stanford 14, but because of injured and ineffective kickers they were forced to keep the offense on the field on 4th and 6, and they weren't able to convert. A few minutes later Luck threw a thirty-yard strike to tight end Coby Fleener who broke free from double coverage to race thirty yards on his own to complete a sixty-yard scoring play. It was 24-7, and the game was essentially over.
A Duke turnover on their next possession created a short field for the Stanford offense, and they took advantage, needing just three plays before Stewart rushed up the middle on a third and short and broke free for a thirty-yard touchdown. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski was in the booth with the ESPNU announcers at the time, and he could be heard groaning as Stewart broke through the line. As Stewart crossed the goal line, Coach K immediately announced he was leaving the booth. "All Stanford's done is score touchdowns since I've been here." Actually, coach, that's all Stanford does whether you're in the booth or not.
Early in the 4th quarter Luck would find Ertz for a short three-yard touchdown, Luck's fourth scoring pass of the day, and Brett Nottingham and the backups would put together a sixty-five yard touchdown drive for Stanford's final score of the day and a 44-7 lead.
Duke finally got in the end zone with under a minute to play, scoring a touchdown that was significant only because it was the first the Cardinal defense had allowed this season. The final score was 44-14, and it was hard to remember that the game had once been close.
There had been much hand-wringing in Stanford circles over the past seven days, with much of the concern directed at the offensive line and what was perceived as an overall lackluster performance in last Saturday's win over San Jose State. It should be noted that the Cardinal rushed for 205 yards on Saturday and that in these opening two games they've outscored their opponents by an impressive 101-17. I'm sure that a whole new crop of worries will sprout between now and next Saturday's conference opener at Arizona, but maybe for now we should just relax and enjoy the win.