If you want to know why it's taken so long get this recap up, it's because it's taken me this long to wrap my head around what happened on Saturday night. This was Reunion Weekend at Stanford, and I spent much of Friday and Saturday wandering around a campus that was strange and familiar all at the same time. There were dozens of buildings that hadn't been there during my time, but my freshman dorm (Rinconada, if you must know) hadn't changed a bit. My old friends from the Class of '91 had grey and thinning hair, but they were still the same people I'd bonded with two decades earlier.
The Stanford football team presented a similar paradox. The helmets and jerseys looked the same, but the results? Slightly different.
The game opened beneath a sell-out crowd with yet another wrinkle from the Stanford offense. With the Washington defense still smarting from last year's 41-0 beatdown and looking to establish itself early, the Cardinal took advantage of their expected aggression by running a reverse. Andrew Luck handed the ball to Stepfan Taylor who headed left and took the defense's attention with him. Almost immediately, though, Taylor flipped the ball to Chris Owusu who sprinted back around to the right and followed his blockers for an easy forty-five yard gain. Jeremy Stewart trucked into the end zone a few plays later, and Stanford had its quickest lead of the season.
The offense has obviously never been a concern with this team, but the Huskies are clearly the best offensive unit the Cardinal has faced thus far. Washington's offense is built around two dynamic players, quarterback Keith Price and running back Chris Polk. But when Price was sacked by Jarek Lancaster on his first play from scrimmage and Polk's first carry resulted in a two-yard loss, it led to a punt and increased confidence in the Stanford defense. Luck and company would parlay that stop into a field goal and a 10-0 lead. Everything was peachy.
But then suddenly it was a game. The Huskies started a drive from their own twenty and methodically moved the ball to midfield, thanks to several good plays from Price and a few missed tackles by the defense. Polk took a handoff on second and ten from the Stanford forty-six, quickly swung out to the left, took advantage of some nice downfield blocking by a couple Husky receivers, then sprinted down the sideline untouched for a touchdown and the first first-quarter points allowed by the Cardinal defense all season long. A roar arose from a distant corner of the stadium, a sprinkling of purple-shirted fans in our section stood and cheered, but I wasn't worried. Big plays happen.
If anyone was worried about the Cardinal, the offense immediately allayed any fears -- and offered a glimpse of what would come -- by turning to the running game and effortlessly moving the ball down the field. Tyler Gaffney carried the ball on four straight plays in the middle of the drive, chewing up up fifty-nine yards and single-handedly moving the ball into the red zone. Luck took over from there and closed out the drive with a one-yard touchdown pass to Coby Fleener.
The lead was back up to ten, but it lasted about a minute. Washington started its next drive at their own thirty-one and wisely went right back to Polk. He gained eight yards on his first carry, and it was so effortless that Price gave him the ball again to run the same play on second down. This time Polk broke through a few tackles at the line and was almost immediately behind the defense. He raced sixty-one yards for the touchdown, and the Huskies were again within three points at 17-14.
The cheers from the Husky fans were a bit louder this time, and the doubts welling in Cardinal hearts were a bit more urgent. It was easy to explain away Washington's fourteen points since they had come on two big plays covering 107 yards, but the idea of a shootout was... unsettling.
There were thirteen minutes left to play in the second quarter, but the next four possessions would determine the game. Stepfan Taylor took the handoff from Luck on the first play of the next drive and blasted through a cavernous whole on the right side of the line before sprinting seventy yards to the end zone. It would have been touchdown even if they had been playing two-hand touch.
The Huskies looked ready to respond as they mounted their first sustained drive of the game, taking ten plays to move all the way to the Stanford twenty-eight before stalling and turning to their field goal kicker. It certainly wasn't an automatic field goal, but if Erik Folk had split the uprights from forty-six yards out and cut the lead to seven, the Huskies could've maintained a bit of momentum and the defense would've taken the field knowing they were only one possession down. But he didn't split the uprights. His attempt caromed off the right crossbar, and the Huskies had nothing to show for their efforts.
Stanford went to work immediately. Starting at their own twenty-eight, the Cardinal ran the ball seven straight times for forty-nine yards before Luck brought them the rest of the way with a fourteen yard pass to Zach Ertz and a five-yard bullet for a touchdown to Drew Terrell. Moments earlier the Huskies were poised to climb within seven; now they trailed by seventeen.
The Huskies went right back to the recipe that had been working all night, as Price handed the ball to Polk on their first two plays and he gobbled up eight yards each time. Two plays later Washington faced a critical third and four when Price dropped back to pass and locked in on a receiver running a slant across the middle. The Stanford defense had had trouble defending the inside slant for much of the night, but this time safety Michael Thomas was ready. Normally the free safety, Thomas had moved to strong safety in place of the injured Delano Howell, so he was able to jump the route and get inside of the receiver on a play he was expecting. "That was a play we've been working on for about three weeks, so I knew it was coming. I'm just glad the quarterback finally threw it." Thomas made the interception and was able to outrun Price on his way to the end zone for the pick-six and a 38-14 lead that put the game away.
If there was any suspense in the second half, it was only about the final score and the final rushing yardage total. The team had totalled 247 yards rushing in the first half, and Taylor revealed after the game that he and Gaffney had talked about pushing that number past 500 for the game. Ridiculous, right? Maybe not.
The Huskies opened the first half with three straight three-and-out possessions, and the Stanford offensive line stole their souls with their two possessions in between. The first Cardinal drive didn't feature a single pass as the Tunnel Workers Union cleared the way for Taylor, Gaffney, Wilkerson, and Stewart to cover sixty-four yards on six plays. Gaffney jumped into the Sequoia formation a couple of times, and we even saw an option look as Gaffney faked a pitch to a trailing Stewart before keeping the ball and sprinting diagonally across the field for a thirty-four yard gain. He'd score on the next play.
It was more of the same on the next Stanford possession -- although Luck actually passed the ball twice -- and the Cardinal added a field goal to take a commanding 48-14 lead.
The Huskies would get into the end zone once more, but the Cardinal would add a field goal and two Wilkerson touchdowns to account for the final margin. Stanford 65, Washington 21.
Stanford's last drive of the game was given to Wilkerson. He carried the ball seven straight times, culminating with a thirty-eight yard gallop that pushed the team rushing total to a school-record 446 yards.
If this was Stanford's first true test, they passed.
[Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images]