A friend of mine called me a few hours before kickoff and asked me how I was feeling about the game. My response? I told him I was getting tired of watching games like this, tired of watching the Cardinal beat up on listless opponents, tired of waiting for Washington and USC and Oregon and...
And then the game started and I realized that I could never get tired of this. Not in a millions years.
Colorado chose to kick the ball short, landing it in no man's land and forcing up-back Jeremy Stewart to race forward in an attempt to field it. He arrived at the ball roughly the same time as the first line of Colorado defenders, and the ball kicked loose.
The Buffs recovered at the Stanford thirty-six and quickly took advantage by driving the ball down the field and eventually arriving at the twelve yard line, first and ten. Statistically speaking, Rodney Stewart is one of the top running backs in Colorado history, but he wasn't able to rush for much of anything against the Cardinal. He got the ball on first and second downs from the twelve and was stoned for no gain both times. After quarterback Tyler Hansen threw incomplete on third down, coach Jon Embree sent out the field goal unit for a twenty-nine-yard attempt. If nothing else, Colorado would be able to say it was the first team to take a lead against the Cardinal.
Linebacker Max Bergen would have something to say about that. He lined up directly over the center, and as soon as the ball was snapped, the offensive line opened up, allowing Bergen to streak in untouched. He blocked the kick easily, scooped it up on one bounce at the twenty-five, and then rambled seventy-five yards for the touchdown. Colorado's potential 3-0 lead had turned into a 7-0 deficit.
After the defense forced a three and out, Andrew Luck and the Stanford offense finally took the field for the first time with 9:22 left in the first quarter. It didn't take long to see what was going to happen. Luck hit wide receiver Griff Whalen for nineteen yards on the second play of the drive, then went back to him immediately for sixteen more. After Stepfan Taylor was bottled up for a total of three yards on the next two plays, the Cardinal faced a third and seven at the Colorado thirty-eight when Luck looked to tight end Levine Toilolo. Toilolo started with his hand in the dirt at the edge of the offensive line, then simply ran straight up the field until Luck hit him with a strike in the middle of a gaping hole in the Buffalo zone for a twenty-seven-yard gain. Two plays later Luck went back for another taste of Toilolo, this time for ten yards to the Colorado one. From there Taylor powered his way into the end zone and it was 13-0. (Jordan Williamson would miss the PAT.)
The Buffs would answer on the ensuing possession. On his own nineteen and facing a second and twenty following a holding penalty, Hansen dumped off a screen pass to Stewart in the right flat. Stewart broke through an arm tackle, spun away from a few defenders who over-pursued near the right sideline, then sprinted diagonally across the field towards the opposite sideline. He was finally pushed out of bounds at the Stanford five after a seventy-six-yard gain. Two plays later Hansen hit Tony Jones for a touchdown to cut the lead to 13-7.
The Stewart run was a cause for concern, simultaneously bringing back memories of Jacquizz Rodgers and raising fears about LaMichael James. But it was only one play, and when the day was done, those seventy-six yards accounted for 28% of Colorado's total offense.
Looking to respond, the Stanford offense came out quickly, with Luck going back to his tight ends, first short to Coby Fleener then long to Zach Ertz. With a first and ten at the Colorado thirty-four and Andrew Luck at the controls, another touchdown seemed likely. Two plays later, though, Luck looked towards Chris Owusu on an inside slant and delivered the ball exactly where it needed to be. The ball hit him on the hands, bounced into the air, and was intercepted by defensive back Terrell Smith at the nineteen. It was Luck's second interception this season, and both have been off deflections. For those waiting for Owusu to impact a game, he finally had. Only it wasn't a positive impact.
Luck's defense bailed him out. (Or, more accurately, they bailed Owusu out.) A.J. Tarpley and Trent Murphy split a sack in half on third and eight, and any momentum the Buffs might have gained from the interception was gone in three plays and eighty-eight seconds.
Two plays into the next drive, Stanford brought out the wildcat. Last week I wrote that I never really understood why the wildcat became so popular in the NFL a few years ago, but I like what it's doing for the Stanford offense. (I would like it even better if they'd come up with a cool nickname for it. Something like "Sequoia" or "Redwood". You know, because they're big trees.)
As Stanford runs Sequoia, I mean, the wildcat, two things stand out. First, Luck has to be accounted for when he splits out wide. On its surface, Luck's one-handed grab last week seemed like nothing more than window dressing on his Heisman campaign, but now it's clear there was much more going on. Every team on Stanford's schedule now knows that Luck can catch the ball. Instead of cheating towards the middle of the field, we'll see cornerbacks actually pressing Luck at the line, and that's just what happened on Saturday night.
Also, Tyler Gaffney does a great job reading what the defense gives him. Rather than simply pounding the ball into the line, he understands that the direct snap gives him an extra moment or two, and he takes advantage. On this play from the Colorado forty, Gaffney broke through the left side of the line for fifteen yards. They'd run the play again later in the game, and Gaffney would go for twenty-one.
A personal foul penalty on tackle Cameron Fleming (one of three PF flags thrown at the offense on the evening) would push the ball backwards, eventually leading to a third and 26 from the Colorado 28. It looked like the Cardinal would have to settle for a field goal, but then Luck happened. He dropped back to pass, but felt pressure and stepped to his right through the collapsing pocket. Running forward now, he fired a pass off of the wrong foot and delivered an absolute strike to Whalen at the seven. Whalen was tackled at the one for a first and goal, and Jeremy Stewart nosed his way into the end zone on the next play for a 20-7 lead.
The defense turned the ball over quickly again, and the Stanford offense scored quickly again, marching five plays for seventy-eight yards in just a bit more than two minutes. The drive was highlighted by the aforementioned Sequoia run by Gaffney and a thirty-seven-yard pass from Luck to Fleener, and ended with an easy one-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Hewitt.
The Cardinal took a 27-7 lead into the half, and although the score looked good, it had been a far from perfect thirty minutes. When Coach Shaw was asked his impressions on his way off the field, he said as much. "It's not good enough. We gave them too many opportunities. We talk all the time about how it's not who we play, it's how we play. We didn't play up to our standard. We can play so much better, and we put some pressure on our guys to play to the level of their capabilities."
Was he being overly critical? Perhaps not. Against an inferior team the Cardinal had turned the ball over twice, missed a field goal, and surrendered a seventy-six yard screen play. They could play better, and in the third quarter they would.
After shutting down the Colorado offense to open the half, Luck led three consecutive touchdown drives with bloodless efficiency. He was three for four for thirty-three yards and a second touchdown to Hewitt on the first drive to make it 34-7. He was six of seven for sixty-three before handing the ball to Gaffney for a touchdown on the next drive, and it was 41-7. Next he went three for four for fifty-five yards, including a thirty-yard touchdown to Whalen. Stanford 48, Colorado 7.
In those three game-sealing drives, Luck was a combined 12 of 15 for 151 yards and two touchdowns. A good day for some quarterbacks. But when you add in what he had already done before those drives, his numbers get ridiculous. He finished 26 of 33 for 370 yards, three touchdowns, and that deflected interception. The yardage total is the second highest of Luck's career, and serves as a nice response to those who have been comparing his stat line each week to the prolific numbers of some of the other Heisman candidates. "He was outstanding," said Shaw. "He was phenomenal. He was pretty close to flawless. Every game he does something that not many humans can do." He was Andrew Luck.
Even though this victory was expected and came at the expense of yet another outclassed opponent, there are a lot of positives that came out of it. Griff Whalen had his best game of the season by far, catching four passes for ninety-two yards and a touchdown and showing that Stanford wide receivers must be accounted for. The Sequoia formation adds an interesting wrinkle to the offense and gives defensive coordinators one more thing to prepare for. The defensive backs were working against a short-handed group (Paul Richardson, Colorado's top receiver, was out with an injury), but they still forced Hansen to throw 29 times for his 202 yards, more than a third of which came on that long screen. Also, early in the fourth quarter Michael Thomas came up with the team's first interception of the season.
There's still a lot for the team to work on as it gets ready for an important trip to Washington State next Saturday, but there's also a lot to be happy about. The Cardinal is 5-0 and ranked near the top of both polls; they've won thirteen games in a row, the longest streak in the nation and the longest in school history; and most importantly, all of their goals are intact.
Go Mighty Card!
[Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]