If you're going to travel 3,000 miles from Palo Alto to West Point to play a football game against an overmatched opponent at 9:00 AM, you had better win, and that's just what the Cardinal did on Saturday morning against the Army Black Knights.
The Cardinal took the ball to open the game, and most Stanford fans probably expected them to march down the field for an easy touchdown, but after a short run from Tyler Gaffney (the Committee of One) and an incomplete pass, Kevin Hogan fumbled as he was sacked on third down. It probably couldn't have been a worse beginning.
Taking over at the Stanford 25, Army ran only three plays before settling for a 39-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead. The Knights then forced another Stanford three-and-out and started their second drive at their own 30 before methodically moving the ball down the field, one option play after the other. They ran the ball ten times on the eleven-play drive, moving the ball thirty-eight yards before stalling and picking up another field goal, this one from forty-eight yards out.
There really wasn't anything for Stanford fans to worry about at this point, but it still felt odd to be down 6-0. Was it the cross-country trip? Was it the early morning start? If everything had been reversed, if Stanford's defense had forced a turnover and a punt, if the offense had run 16 plays to six for Army, if the Cardinal had jumped out to an early lead, it all would've made sense. As it was, things felt backwards.
That feeling quickly disappeared with Stanford's next possession. After a short eight-yard pass from Hogan to Ty Montgomery, Gaffney got the ball on four consecutive snaps and gained 41 yards, bringing the ball to the Army 26. From there we got our first look at redshirt freshman wide receiver Michael Rector. The coaches had been raving about him during the spring and summer, and after last week David Shaw expressed regret that he hadn't gotten the ball against San Jose State, but Rector was able to slip behind the Army defense. Hogan's pass was a bit underthrown and was deflected by the defensive back, but Rector was still able to gather in the ball for his first career reception and touchdown. (Just another Rinconada kid who made good.)
Stanford's next possession started at the Army 46 and it lasted only one play. Montgomery found himself in single coverage, dropped a double move on the defensive back, and was suddenly all alone behind the defense. Hogan floated a perfect pass into his arms for the touchdown and a 14-6 lead. On the Cardinal's next possession, Jordan Williamson nailed a 31-yard field goal to make it 17-6, and it looked like Stanford might run away and hide. Not quite.
Army's option attack has to be a headache for the defensive coaches and players. On each play the quarterback has the option of handing the ball to the fullback, handing the ball to the tailback, or keeping it himself. Within that basic framework there are dozens of wrinkles, but defending it properly demands the defense maintain focus and discipline. Defenders can't simply react to the ball, because they often don't know where the ball is. Instead, they have to stay true to their assignments. The player who has the fullback has to hit the fullback every time, just in case he has the ball. The defensive end assigned to the quarterback has to stay on him, even if he thinks he's about to pitch the ball. Finally, the linebacker who has the running back can't angle back towards the quarterback even if he's certain he can get there.
All of those assignments make sense, but the triple option is successful because even the best defenses struggle to remain focused and disciplined play after play after play. And so it was with Stanford. After performing well against the run for much of the first half, the Cardinal finally suffered a breakdown. On 2nd and 10 from the Army 25, quarterback Angel Santiago kept the ball and rolled out to his right, but then quickly pitched the ball to tailback Terry Baggett. Baggett bounced outside and streaked down the sideline for a 46-yard gain. Five plays later there was another breakdown, as no one took the fullback and Larry Dixon rushed up the middle for a fifteen-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 17-13.
Jordan Williamson would hit a 47-yard field goal at the gun to give the Cardinal a 20-13 lead at the half, but there was still a feeling that the game shouldn't have been as close as it was.
When Coach Shaw was caught by a reporter on his way to the locker room, he talked about the need to keep track of all three assignments when defending the option, and when the defense returned to the field for the second half it appeared that they had heard his message. Though they gave up first down runs (12 and 17 yards) on each of Army's first two possessions, they held strong both times, first forcing a punt and then a fumble from Santiago, perhaps because Private Santiago has no code. (The turnover itself was no surprise, just that it was Army's only one of the game. They led the nation in turnovers in 2012, and the Cardinal defense has now forced turnovers in 26 consecutive games.)
The Cardinal offense went to work at their own 43, and once again it was Gaffney and Montgomery doing most of the work. Montgomery had a nice catch for 27 yards to convert a 3rd and 7, and Gaffney ran the ball four times for 17 yards to bring the Cardinal to the Army 8 before a facemask penalty (on Gaffney) pushed the line of scrimmage back to the 23.
Facing 2nd and 16, Stanford came up with the prettiest play of the game. They lined up with wide receiver Devon Cajuste split to the left, Gaffney in the backfield, and Kelsey Young split right. Just before the snap Young headed towards Hogan on what looked to be a jet sweep (Montgomery had run the sweep four plays earlier for five yards), but Hogan snapped the ball and kept it as Young sprinted past. The Army safeties played tight to the line of scrimmage throughout the game, and even in this second and long they were only seven yards off the line; Young's fake pulled them even closer, and this would prove costly.
Cajuste took off on a post pattern, Gaffney, who had left the backfield just ahead of Young, took off down the left sideline, and Young followed about seven yards behind him. They had flooded the left side of the field with three receivers, and Army had only two defenders there to match them. Making matters worse for the Black Knights, both defenders went after Cajuste but trailed a yard behind him. A pass to any of the three would likely have resulted in a touchdown, but Hogan chose Gaffney, as he was completely uncovered. The pass hit Gaffney in stride inside the ten and he skipped into the end zone for the touchdown and a 27-13 lead.
The next Cardinal possession ended with two bad passes by Hogan into the end zone, the first an underthrown incompletion, albeit with an Army pass interference penalty, and the second an underthrown interception. Army took over at the 20 and three plays later found themselves at 4th and 1 on their own 29. They decided to go for it. It's easy to question their decision now -- there was still 12:49 to play in the game -- but it was a short yard, and if they had been able to cash in that drive for seven points, it would suddenly be a one-possession game.
Santiago kept the ball on the option and ran towards the left end of the line. Linebacker James Vaughters, playing tight to the line in anticipation of the certain run, was ready as the play came directly to him. He came into the backfield at the snap and was met by a running back; a successful block would have guaranteed the first down. Army's blocking technique is simply to dive at the defender's knees to take him out; the Black Knights' linemen and blocking backs spent more time on their bellies on Saturday than their great-grandfathers had on D-Day.
Anticipating the cut block, Vaughters essentially dove over the blocker and into Santiago's chest, stopping him well short of the first down marker. If the game wasn't over when the Cardinal got off the busses, it was certainly over when Vaughters made that stop. It took Gaffney just five carries to traverse the 28 yards Army had left, the last carry a one-yard plunge into the end zone with nine offensive linemen on the field, and Stanford led comfortably, 34-13.
With second string defenders in the game for the Cardinal, the Black Knights assembled one final touchdown drive that was notable only because of the player who scored. At 1st and goal from the Stanford 6, second-string quarterback A.J. Schurr looked to his right and saw a receiver sprinting open towards the corner of the end zone. The pass was perfect, and it was caught by a freshman wide receiver named Edgar Poe. The announcers made no mention of the significance of his name, and a Google search revealed no hint of any relation to the greatest American poet of all time, but if there is any justice in the world, he'll have a fine career at West Point, serve his country for a few years, and eventually sign with the Baltimore Ravens. We can only hope.
And so it was that the Cardinal came away with a 34-20 win on Saturday morning. It wasn't perfect, and there are two potentially serious injury concerns (defensive end Henry Anderson will have an MRI for a knee injury, and cornerback Barry Browning left with an undisclosed injury), but there are several positives to take from this game.
After the San Jose State game, it looked like the running-back-by-committee might be dead; now it's clearly buried. Tyler Gaffney carried the ball 20 times for 132 yards and a touchdown, and he also caught that 23-yard pass out of the backfield. Anthony Wilkerson, who is still listed side-by-side with Gaffney on the depth chart, got only four carries. I certainly had my doubts that Gaffney would be able to shoulder the load after a year away from football, but his baseball hiatus seems to have rejuvenated him. He's better now than he ever was, and after two games he's averaging just a tick under six yards per carry.
The other offensive star on Saturday was Ty Montgomery. In 2012 Montgomery had 213 yards receiving and zero touchdowns. In two games this season he already has 211 yards and two scores. If you just look at his statistics from Saturday (6 for 130 and a touchdown plus 30 yards rushing, something only two other Pac-12 players have accomplished in the past decade), there might be a tendency to downplay his numbers due to the competition, but there's much more to it than that. Montgomery's first two seasons were plagued by dropped passes, but so far in 2013 -- and especially in this game -- he's shown that he will catch any ball thrown to him. He has the speed to get behind the defense, as he did on the long touchdown, but he also has the strength and hands to battle with defensive backs and come away with the football. The Pac-12 is rich with talented wide receivers, but when the season is done I'm guessing that Montgomery's name will be mentioned near the top of the list.
Finally, there was James Vaughters, who probably had the best game of his Stanford career. He finished with four solo tackles, three assists, and a fumble recovery and generally played like a beast, most notably on that big fourth down stop.
In the end, the Cardinal got what they came for. Now they have six days to prepare for their first major test of the season when Arizona State comes to town this Saturday. I think they'll be ready.