It isn't about adjusting expectations as much as it understanding the new reality. This team is different, like it or not.
At the outset, however, things looked pretty much the same. The Cardinal took possession of the opening kickoff, and it looked like they were working from the same script as last season. Stepfan Taylor took the first handoff, much as he did in almost every game last year, and then on 2nd and 8 Josh Nunes rolled out to his right and hit Ty Mongtomery with a perfect pass for a nine-yard gain and a first down. It was a play we've seen countless times over the past three years, and it was comforting.
From there, it got even more familiar, more comforting. The next play was another completion to Montgomery, this time for ten yards, and two plays later Taylor rambled for 38. The drive almost stalled a few plays later when the Cardinal faced a 4th and 1 at the ten yard line, but redshirt freshman Remound Wright took his first collegiate carry and plowed ahead for the first down. Three plays later Taylor did the same thing, converting a 4th and goal for his first touchdown of the year. Taylor finsihed that opening drive with nine carries for 61 yards and that touchdown, and it certainly looked like he was on his way to a monster game. (Unfortunately, those numbers would turn out to be more than half of his production on the night, but we'll get back to that later.)
It was a successful start for the offense, and the defense held serve with a three and out as they allowed just a single yard to San Jose State and its untested quarterback, David Fales.
That defensive stand resulted in great field possession for Nunes and the Cardinal offense as they took possession at midfield for their second series of the game. Immediately it was more of the same as Nunes hit Montgomery with two short passes and handed the ball to Taylor and Anthony Wilkerson to set up 2nd and 9 at the SJSU 11. From there, Nunes sent wide receiver Drew Terrell on a post-corner fade and hit him with a perfect pass a step short of the pylon for the touchdown and a 14-0 advantage.
Really, though, that play was about much more than a two-touchdown lead. As Rule of Tree's Scott Allen tweeted at the time, it showed that Nunes was much more than just a game manager. He could make the throws, and this one was absolutely beautiful. Also, it must've meant a lot for Terrell as he fights to hang on to the number two receiver spot.
More than all that, though, it sent a shockwave through Mighty Card Nation. This was what we were used to seeing: dominant offensive line play, powerful running, stiff defense, and precision passing when necessary. (Nunes was 5 of 6 for 46 yards and a touchdown during those first two drives.) Some of the names on the backs of the jerseys might've changed, but this was still Stanford football.
It looked as if this game might be headed in the direction of last year's 57-3 stomping, but the Stanford offense sputtered a bit in the second quarter while the defense softened some and allowed a 38-yard field goald. But Nunes and company were able to recover and mount an impressive drive to close out the half with an equally impressive 46-yard field goal from Jordan Williamson. Field goals are worth only three points, but for obvious reasons this one probably meant a lot more than that for Williamson, who seems to have put his Fiesta Bowl horror show behind him.
The Cardinal opened the second half with a 17-3 lead, but that quickly changed. The Spartans took the third quarter kickoff and promptly drove 78 yards for a touchdown to pull within one score at 17-10. The Stanford offense managed just one first down following that score, and the San Jose State offense was back out on the field before they even had a chance to celebrate their last score.
The Spartans marched down the field and scored again, this time on a 21-yard strike from Fales to wide receiver Noel Grigsby. The score was tied at 17, but that wasn't the disturbing part. First game or not, it was terribly disconcerting to see the Stanford defense being absolutely manhandled by a Big West offense with a rookie quarterback at the helm. The Spartans didn't rely heavily on their running game (they would only rush for 102 yards on 27 carries), but their passing game looked good, largely because the vaunted Stanford front seven couldn't pressure the quarterback. Chase Thomas, in particular, was largely quiet all game, and Coach David Shaw might've been referring to him when he mentioned in his press conference that several defensive players hadn't played up to his expectations. "You know who they are, I don't have to say their names.... They were blocked, and they stayed blocked."
As the Cardinal offense took the field after that equalizer, it certainly felt like an important drive. Even though the third quarter still hadn't ended, there was a real sense that all the momentum was on the San Jose State sideline. The Stanford team that had rolled out to that 14-0 lead had disappeared, and the Spartans were thinking upset. A long drive with a handful of first downs and a touchdown at the end would go along ways towards securing the victory, but it wouldn't happen that way.
Three and out.
With the game in doubt and the offense looking pedestrian to say the least, the Stanford defense stepped up and won the game. They forced the Spartans into a 3rd and 12 situation, then grabbed some momentum when backup linebacker Alex Debniak forced a fumble and GMC Player of the Game Usua Amanam (6 tackles, 4 TFLs, 2 sacks) added a fumble recovery to his stat line, setting up the Stanford offense on the San Jose State 38 yard line.
Again, however, the offense was unable to take control of the game with a touchdown, and the drive stalled inside the five. Williamson's 20-yard field goal gave the Cardinal a 20-17 lead, but when the cameras caught San Jose State head coach Mike McIntyre cheering and Shaw smirking, it was clear which team had actually won the series.
From here, though, the Stanford defense carried the day as they threw down three more three and outs before finally allowing San Jose State's only first down of the fourth quarter on their last possesion. Four plays later safety Ed Reynolds ended the suspense when he intercepted a Fales pass and clinched the 20-17 victory for the Mighty Card.
After giving up that second touchdown to tie the score at 17, the defense reminded us why so many experts have heaped so much praise upon them. The Spartans ran 17 plays and gained a total of six yards. Two of the five possessions resulted in negative yardage, and two ended with turnovers. Aside from two drives in the third quarter, the defense was stellar, just as expected.
The offense, on the other hand, is a work in progress. There were times when Nunes looked poised and polished, and there were other times when he looked nervous and raw. There were series when the running game looked unstoppable, and others when it looked embarrassing. Ten different true freshmen played on Friday night, including Andrus Peat, Josh Garnett, and Kyle Murphy on the offensive line, and that level of inexperience certainly could've effected the overall performance of the offense. Also, it's possible that Coach Shaw intentionally limited his playcalling in an effort to save a few things for later down the road, much as he appeared to do during the early weeks of last season.
Regardless of the reason, the offense needs to be better next week against Duke, and much, much better when USC comes to town. Today, though, the Mighty Card is 1-0, and that's never a bad thing.
[Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images]