The teacher in me insists that we issue grades at regular intervals, just so everyone knows where we stand. It might be difficult to give fair grades after Saturday's game, but it gives us an excuse to look back at the game, so here we go...
When you checked the boxscore, I bet you were thinking that Andrew Luck had a subpar game. Let me tell you why you're wrong. At first glance his stats might seem a bit pedestrian: 17 for 26, 171 yards, and two touchdowns through the air, plus another rushing. But if we remember that he accomplished all that in only three quarters, and then we extrapolate that out over an entire season, those numbers look like this: 65% completion percentage, 2,964 yards, 34 touchdowns passing, 17 touchdowns rushing. Luck's numbers will never match Case Keenum's but if his stat line looks like that on December 10th, he'll be posing with the Heisman Trophy.
When you add in the perfect performances of backups Brett Nottingham and Robbie Picazo, this is the only grade that makes sense for the quarterbacks.
On the one hand, this was the biggest area of concern during the offseason, and the starting group didn't do much to quiet the doubters as the Cardinal only managed 141 yards rushing on Saturday. For comparison's sake, last year's team averaged 213 yards rushing per game, and only once did they run for less than a hundred and sixty. On the other hand, the line didn't allow a single sack. This group certainly has some growing to do, but I still believe they'll get to where they want to be. They've got time.
Running Backs: B-
Any grade the running backs earn will have a lot to do with how the offensive line performs, so sometimes it's hard to separate the two groups. Stepfan Taylor continues to be the lead back, as he received eighteen of the thirty-seven carries given to running backs, but his average of 3.4 yards per carry was surprisingly low. Tyler Gaffney and Jeremy Stewart looked good in limited action, but Anthony Wilkerson was disappointing, gaining just fourteen yards on eight carries. Only their three touchdowns (two from Taylor and another from Gaffney) prevent a lower grade.
Wide Receivers: A-
Andrew Luck completed twenty-two passes, and only ten of them were caught by wide receivers, so it might be surprising to see such a high grade given to this unit. Griff Whalen, Jamal-Rashad Patterson, and freshman Ty Montgomery caught one pass each, but Chris Owusu grabbed seven balls for seventy-six yards, and that's exciting enough to earn an A-, at least for this week. This offense could be above average even without Owusu, but with him they could be unstoppable. Owusu's longest gain on the day was just seventeen yards, but I think that was more a function of the conservative gameplan than an indication of his health. (Owusu snapped off a fifty-nine yard kick return in the second half, showing plenty of speed.) In weeks to come we'll watch to see who will rise up and grab the third receiver spot, but right now things look good here.
Tight Ends: A
Let me tell you a secret. It usually takes less than a week to identify the top student in your class. You grade everything she turns in, just the same as the rest of the students, but you really don't need to. You could submit her semester grade in September, because nothing will ever change. She'll get an A on everything she does. That's how it is with the Cardinal tight ends. Coby Fleener and Zach Ertz combined for five catches and seventy-eight yards, and each caught a touchdown pass, natch. Levine Toilolo didn't make the stat sheet, but we finally got to see what we've been waiting a year for, a corner route to the end zone from inside the five-yard line. He and Luck couldn't connect, but next time they will. In addition to that, Toilolo looked good as the second or third blocking tight end in short yardage formations. Business as usual for Tight End U.
Defensive Line: A
With Brian Bulke and Sione Fua lost to graduation, there was almost as much concern here as there was with the offensive line. Terrence Stephens, Ben Gardner, and returning starter Matthew Masifilo erased those concerns. San Jose State ran the ball thirty-two times and gained a total of only twenty-seven yards. Even when you disregard the two sacks which pulled twenty-four yards from their net rushing yardage, they still only averaged a bit more than a yard per carry, which is obviously phenomenal.
I'm guessing the linebackers, just like the tight ends, will earn straight As this season. Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas dominant, as expected. Skov led all defenders with seven tackles, and Thomas had a huge sack and forced fumble. Trent Murphy and Max Bergen were pleasantly surprising, and true freshman James Vaughters was incredibly active in the second half.
Defensive Backs: B+
Coach Shaw believes in building a defense from the top down, and this secondary is a pretty good place to start. Michael Thomas, Delano Howell, Johnson Bademosi, and Barry Browning did a good job on Saturday, but they did allow a sixty-four yard reception during the Spartans' only scoring drive, so they get dinged down to a B+.
Special Teams: A
There's not a lot to say here. Jordan Williamson hit both of his field goal attempts, and David Green was effective enough with an average of 37.5 yards on four punts, including two inside the twenty. The return game was a big plus, though. Drew Terrell returned three punts for sixty-two yards, and Owusu had the big kick return mentioned earlier. The Cardinal should be able to win the battle on special teams most weeks.