We last saw the Stanford Cardinal almost eight months ago as they were running roughshod over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl on January 3rd. Since then a quarterback decided to stay, a coach chose to leave, two new schools joined the conference, and a Heisman campaign kicked into high gear. Even after all that change, things mostly stayed the same for the Cardinal -- at least according to the scoreboard -- in a 57-3 shellacking of San Jose State.
If you didn't get a chance to watch the game and only saw the score, you probably assumed the Stanford offense was clicking on all cylinders and effortlessly moved the ball up and down the field. It didn't quite happen like that.
When I was a student this game was actually a rivalry, as the two schools split their four games in the late eighties. The Spartans even beat the Cardinal in the 1999 opener before Stanford went on to win the Pac-10 and play in the Rose Bowl. Things have changed. Because of the huge talent discrepancy between these two teams, this was a game that San Jose State simply couldn't have won, even if they had played at their best.
Nowhere was the Stanford advantage more evident than when they were on defense. Entering the season there were questions about how the rebuilt defensive line might perform; if Saturday afternoon was any indication, there is no need for concern. The San Jose State running game was completely shut down, as they totalled only 27 yards on the ground. "Defensively they whipped our butts up front, we had nowhere to go," Spartans coach Mike MacIntryre said. "Stanford's got a really physical front, really good linebackers, sure tacklers and we couldn't run the ball like we wanted to."
They gave up a field goal late in the first half, but this game probably should've been a shutout. Matt Faulkner completed a pass to receiver Noel Grigsby at the Stanford six, but as he was falling to the ground beneath two or three Cardinal defenders, safety Michael Thomas ripped the ball from his arms and came away with it. The drive should've ended, but the officials didn't see it that way. The Spartan field goal on the following play would be their only points of the day.
Shayne Skov led the way with seven tackles, as expected, and Chase Thomas was active all afternoon, most notably on a second quarter play when he looped around the left end untouched and sacked Faulkner. The ball was jarred loose, and lineman Henry Anderson scooped it up and rambled thirty-seven yards before being tackled at the goal line. Luck would cash it in seconds later with a two-yard touchdown pass to fullback Ryan Hewitt.
The defense and return teams would create short fields like this all afternoon. Stanford's average starting field position on the day was the San Jose State 49-yard line, which made an unfair situation even worse for the Spartans. Working downhill on most possessions, the Cardinal piled up points, not yardage. Early in the third quarter, despite leading 29-3 following a Ben Gardner safety, Stanford had actually been outgained by the Spartans.
Aside from the defense, there were other highlights. The enigmatic Chris Owusu played the entire game and looked good. He was the leading receiver on the day, catching seven passes for seventy-six yards, and he returned the second half kickoff fifty-nine yards. He's ready.
The tight ends were as good as expected. Coby Fleener had three catches for fifty-three yards and a touchdown, and Zach Ertz found the end zone as well. We got a glimpse of how Pep Hamilton plans to use the 6'8" Levine Toilolo when Luck threw him a jump ball in the corner of the end zone. Toilolo wasn't quite able to get position so the pass fell incomplete, but I'm sure we'll see that play again.
The freshmen who were expected to play made contributions early. Safety Wayne Lyons came in at cornerback and defended a handful of passes, and wide receiver Ty Montgomery had two plays called specifically for him, a bubble screen in the second quarter for nine yards and an end-around in the fourth that went for eight. I bet we see a lot more of him. Jordan Richards also saw the field a bit, and linebacker James Vaughters played extensively later in the game, impressing with his speed on the edge of the defensive line.
If there's a concern, it's that the offensive line wasn't as dominant as the group we watched last season. Stanford running backs carried the ball thirty-seven times for just 135 yards, which makes for an unimpressive average of just 3.6 yards per carry. In their defense, the defensive line is probably San Jose State's strongest unit, but there were times in short yardage situations when the Spartan line overwhelmed the front five and the ball carriers had no chance. Stepfan Taylor scored two touchdowns, but he gained only sixty-one yards. He bettered that eight times last season.
In general, the offense played extremely conservatively throughout the game, so much so that I'm convinced it was by design. There's no need to put anything serious on tape at this point, and things will probably look just as vanilla next week at Duke. Luck only looked deep once on Saturday, but went elsewhere when his receiver was covered. The longest pass play on the day actually came from backup Brett Nottingham, who threw a thirty-nine yard touchdown pass to Fleener during mop-up time in the fourth quarter.
It didn't really matter, though. As I said earlier, this wasn't a game they possibly could've lost, and I think that's the biggest difference between a great team like this and Stanford teams from the past that have simply been good. There probably wasn't a single San Jose State player who could've started for Stanford, and most of the Stanford backups would've started for the Spartans. Things will be different once we get into conference play, but it was a nice way to open the season. Stanford 57, San Jose State 3.
[Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]