If there had been any concerns about the Stanford offense through the first three games this season, most worries focused on slow starts, vanilla play calling, and the rebuilding offensive line. On Saturday night against UCLA, Andrew Luck led his team to scores on all three first half possessions, the Cardinal rushed for more than 200 yards, and Drew Terrell threw a pass to Andrew Luck. I think we can put those concerns out of our minds for a while.
The Cardinal came out in their alternate home jerseys (for the record, I'm looking forward to the Pro Combat look, but I'm not a fan of the black unis), but the Bruins weren't impressed. Quarterback Richard Brehaut led an efficient drive that began at the 20 and stretched seventy-nine yards to the Stanford one. The Bruins ate up most of that yardage in small bites, courtesy of running back Johnathan Franklin and the short-passing game of Brehaut.
More and more, this is looking more like a defensive philosophy than a weakness. The defensive backs' prime directive appears to be to keep the receivers in front of them and make the tackle if the pass is completed. It can be frustrating to watch when a quarterback gets on a roll (you might remember Arizona's Nick Foles completing his first seventeen passes two weeks ago, most of them for short gains), but the theory behind the strategy makes sense. Few college quarterbacks are as accurate and consistent as Luck, so it isn't likely that opposing teams will be able put together the long, sustained drives necessary to score against such a system. So far this season, it's worked.
When the Bruins earned their first and goal at the Stanford four, they turned to their short-yardage look and featured Derrick Coleman, but the bruising tailback was turned back twice, forcing coach Rick Neuheisel into what would be his only important decision of the game. He could've chosen to kick a field goal, allowing his offense to come to the sidelines with an early lead and at least some measure of success, but instead he kept that offense out on the field. (In Neuheisel's defense, the Bruins have had some serious kicking issues this season, as we'd see later on.)
UCLA's pistol offense is a disconcerting array of options, fake handoffs, and quarterback runs, reminiscent in a way of the Oregon offense two years ago when Jeremiah Masoli was under center. Bruin fans who are used to all the smoke and mirrors might have a better idea what's going on, but I found myself uncomfortable all night long, as I kept falling for the misdirection only to find the ball at top of the television screen rather than the bottom where I expected it. (The cameras and announcers were also guilty of this.) On UCLA's fourth and goal play, Brehaut took the snap, stood stone still for a beat as a tailback flashed in front of him, then chose to keep the ball himself and rush towards the line. There was nothing there, and Stanford took over. They had bent as far as the dimensions of the football field would allow, but they hadn't broken.
The offense took over from there at their own one-yard line, and the clinic began. A balanced mix of Luck passes and Stepfan Taylor runs brought the ball into UCLA territory, and where's the trickeration began. Luck handed the ball off to Tyler Gaffney, who sprinted left and flipped the ball to wide receiver Drew Terrell, who was sweeping back in the other direction. Terrell immediately shifted the ball into his right hand and gathered himself to ready for a pass... to Andrew Luck. Luck had swept out into the right flat after the handoff, and now he was wide open. Terrell's pass wasn't perfect, but it didn't really matter, because Andrew Luck can do whatever he wants on a football field. He leapt in the air and caught the pass with one hand and somehow had the presence of mind to drag his feet as he fell out of bounds. The play was initially ruled incomplete, but the replay was definitive. Here's the proof:
Not to be outdone, tight end Coby Fleener came up with his own one-handed grab as he leapt high in the end zone to snatch a Luck pass from nine or ten feet up in the air. It had been a sixteen play drive that consumed more than eight minutes, and coming after UCLA's failed drive, it made the 7-0 lead seem even larger.
The first of UCLA's many mistakes would come just a few plays later. Facing a third and six near midfield, Brehaut dropped back to pass but was hit almost immediately by linebacker Chase Thomas. Thomas stripped the ball out of Brehaut's right hand, and Devon Carrington recovered the fumble at the UCLA forty-three. Four minutes later Taylor was rumbling into the end zone and the lead was up to fourteen.
The Cardinal would add a field goal to stretch the lead to 17-0, but the Bruins finally answered, coming up with another long drive built on the short passing game. This time they were able convert, however, as Brehaut found Joseph Fauria in the flat. Fauria eluded one tackler, hurdled another, and the Bruins had their first points against the Cardinal since 2009.
That play game the Bruins some confidence as they headed into the half, and coach Neuheisel acknowledged that they came out of the locker room with lots of energy, but Andrew Luck and the Cardinal are merciless. Even though Ty Montgomery still can't fight his way into the wide receiver rotation, he's talented enough that he's impacting games. He returned the second half kick off thirty-eight yards to give the Cardinal another short field, and the offense took advantage almost immediately. On second and one from just short of midfield, Luck went to his bread and butter. He faked the handoff, ducking down deep below his offensive linemen to exaggerate the deception. The play action worked perfectly. When he stood up in the pocket he immediately spotted Fleener deep behind the defense. Luck threw a perfect strike, and Fleener gallopped the final twenty-five yards untouched. If the Bruins had emerged from the break with hope, this play took it away. "We came out with a lot of energy," said Neuheisel. "We had an unbelievable amount of energy and they came out and score in two downs. We've got to be better than that."
They wouldn't get much better. They'd score a touchdown (but miss the extra point) to cut the lead to 24-13, but more mistakes and another big play from Montgomery would squelch any hopes they had for a comeback. After the Bruin defense stopped the Cardinal for a three and out, Montgomery perfectly timed his hit on punt returner Tyler Embree, forcing and recovering a fumble.
The offensive line was playing well enough that they probably could've just pounded the ball in, but Shaw thought differently. On first and ten from the UCLA sixteen Luck started under center, but then split out wide to the right, leaving Gaffney alone in a wildcat formation. He took the direct snap and broke through the line, stumbled a bit, but regained his balance at the ten and sprinted home for the back-breaking touchdown and a 31-13 lead.
The Bruins responded with a touchdown (and another missed PAT), but two more Stanford touchdowns in the fourth quarter led to the final margin, Stanford 45, UCLA 19.
UCLA wasn't supposed to provide much of a test for the Cardinal, but a dominant conference win is always a good thing. We also learned a few things. The offense is possibly even more creative than what we had seen over the past two seasons, and that's obviously due to Andrew Luck's increased experience. He looks more like Peyton Manning all the time, sorting through options in his head, changing the play at the line of scrimmage, and skillfully executing the call.
We saw the double-reverse pass play to Luck, a few runs out of the wildcat formation, some wide receiver screens, and several different play action looks. Defensive coordinators will have a lot to prepare for over the next two months, and I'm not sure what they'll come up with to stop this offense, especially when Luck is as efficient as he was on Saturday. He completed an impressive 23 of 27 passes for 227 yards and three touchdowns, numbers that have Heisman written all over them.
Aside from that, the run game was dominant, as the Tunnel Workers Union paved the way for 202 yards rushing, helping the Cardinal offense hold the ball for a stifling 34:17 as compared to UCLA's 25:43.
And so the Cardinal sits at 4-0, and they've now won twelve consecutive games stretching back to last season, the longest winning streak in the nation. Not bad.
[Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]