During the week following Stanford's opening day win over San Jose State, observers close to the program and college football analysts across the country were in near unanimous agreement on the state of the program.
Several things were clear. The void left at the quarterback position was too great to fill, and it was affecting the overall performance of the offense. Of equal concern was the conservative nature of the playcalling, and there were some who even wondered if perhaps Coach David Shaw was in over his head a bit.
There were physical issues, as well. Though acknowledged to be a work in progress, the offensive line did little to instill any faith in the future with their performance in week one. If they couldn't establish themselves against San Jose State, how could they hope to protect a quarterback or lead a rushing attack against USC or Oregon or Notre Dame?
And what about the defense, with its supposedly dominant front seven and improved secondary? As the Spartans were marching up and down the field during that forgettable third quarter, it wasn't hard to imagine Pac-12 offensive coordinators salivating.
And then everything changed.
Saturday's opponent, the Duke Blue Devils, probably won't scare too many teams on their schedule this year, but they do hail from a BCS conference, and they entered this season with bowl aspirations. Stanford's dominant performance in all aspects of the game erased many of the concerns that lingered after the narrow win over San Jose State and raised expectations for the rest of the season.
As great as Andrew Luck's Stanford teams were, there were always questions about the special teams. Coach Shaw hired Pete Alamar as special teams coordinator, and his impact was felt early on Saturday night. After the defense shut down San Jose State's opening possession, Drew Terrell fielded the Spartan punt at his own 24 yard line and raced 76 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead before the Cardinal offense had even taken the field.
The Stanford defense seemed invigorated to be playing again with Shayne Skov, their spiritual leader who had been missing from the lineup for almost a year, and they stifled the Duke offense early and often. In Duke's first seven possessions, they ran 23 plays for 56 yards, and six of those possessions were three-and-outs. They softened a bit after that, allowing 24 yards on the Devils' seventh possession and a field goal on the next, but the Cardinal led 23-3 at that point.
Perhaps emboldened by that field goal in the final minute of the first half, the Blue Devils tried a surprise onside kick to start the second. It failed, and it only took four plays for Josh Nunes and the Stanford offense to make them pay for their temerity. Nunes hit Terrell for a nineteen-yard touchdown pass, and the lead swelled to 30-3. Even though the game wasn't over, the outcome had been decided.
Having given up the run game completely, the Duke offense was at the mercy of the Stanford defense. While the front seven pressured quarterback Sean Renfree, the secondary was free to forget about the run and lock down the Duke receivers. The result was a handful of interceptions, including a spectacular 70-yard pick six by safety Ed Reynolds to open up a 43-6 lead with 4:08 to play in the third quarter. (Fellow safety Jordan Richards had gotten an interception earlier, and Reynolds would snag his second of the game in the fourth quarter. He would return that one 50 yards, giving him a total of 121 return yards, more than the entire Stanford defense in 2011.)
From there it was just about managing the game, and Nunes did well. He did throw an interception, but overall he was 16 for 30 for 275 yards and three touchdowns (including a 27-yard beauty to Jamal-Rashad Patterson), numbers which are definite cause for optimism. Another good sign -- he spread those 16 receptions amongst eight different receivers and looked downfield much more than he did last week.
Establishing Nunes seemed to be the main focus of the gameplan. Even with the game firmly in hand for most of the night, the typically run-heavy Stanford offense leaned a bit towards the passing game, 33 passes to just 25 runs.
Is it realistic to expect that Nunes can take the experience from his two career starts against mediocre teams and somehow craft an upset of the second-ranked team in the country when USC comes to Palo Alto this Saturday? That's probably too much to ask of him by himself, but if the defense can maintain this level of intensity and the offensive line can continue to improve, the Trojans just might be in for a surprise. Again.
[Photo Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo]