Late Saturday night the Stanford Cardinal became the absolute last team in the nation to begin the 2013 season. (And it's my guess that most college football fans, either because they were asleep or they're DirecTV customers without the Pac-12 Networks, still don't know the Cardinal has played.)
Well, trust me when I tell you that the season has begun, and Stanford is 1-0.
The Stanford defense took the field first against San Jose State and their spread offense, a system which is spreading through the nation like a plague. Spartans quarterback David Fales threw for more than 4,000 yards in 2012 and led the nation in completion percentage, but he wasn't usually facing a defense like the 2013 Cardinal. The Spartans managed a first down, but the Cardinal quickly forced a punt, and the offense came out onto the field for the first time.
The 2012 game against San Jose State was notable because we were getting our first look at a Stanford quarterback not named Andrew Luck. Last night was equally notable, not only because we would see Kevin Hogan, Version 2.o, but also because we'd hopefully get a sense of what the running back rotation would look like. We got answers to both questions on the first drive.
Coming back after a year playing minor league baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, Tyler Gaffney had surprised some by landing on the top line of the depth chart, but David Shaw said several times throughout the summer that the Stanford running attack would be led by a committee of players, and that the starter would even change from week to week depending upon which player (presumably Gaffney or Anthony Wilkerson) was needed on the first play.
Apparently it was Gaffney who was needed early on; he carried four times on the opening series behind an offensive line that looked impressive. With David Yankey at left guard and Kevin Danser at right guard, the Cardinal can run power either left or right; each player is adept at drive blocking when the play is run to his side, and each can pull across the line when it's run to the other side. This opening drive featured a little of both, as well as the Hulk formation we've seen over the last few years. On a short 3rd and 1, backup guard Josh Garnett checked in at tight end wearing a nameless #98 jersey, and fellow lineman Kyle Murphy did the same with #94. With seven offensive linemen up front and two fullbacks packed tightly behind them, there was a lot of beef to lead the way for Gaffney. We saw the Hulk five or six times throughout the night, and it was successful each time.
True to form, all this power running did more than just move the chains. Gaffney was simply setting the table for Hogan to unleash play action. On first and ten from the San Jose State 40, Hogan faked the hand off to Gaffney, then dropped back and lofted a perfect pass down field to wide receiver Devon Cajuste. Cajuste gathered the ball in at the ten, then used his strength to pull a tackler into the end zone for the score. The junior wide receiver saw no action as a freshman and caught only one ball last season, but he won the starting job this summer and performed well on Saturday night. His combination of size and speed will likely make him a legitimate downfield weapon for Hogan this year.
San Jose State responded with the type of drive that teams will have to use to be successful against the Cardinal. The basic theory behind Derek Mason's defensive scheme is to pressure the quarterback while preventing receivers from getting behind the defense. They won't give up the big play, but they do have a tendency to give up yardage in small four- and five-yard bites, the idea being that it's difficult for teams to sustain drives like this on a consistent basis. The Spartans started from their own 25 and proceeded to chip their way down the field, covering 68 yards in 14 plays.
While you can probably expect to see the defense yield yardage between the twenties this season, it won't surprise me if Shayne Skov and company become one of the best red zone defenses in the nation. With the field shortened, the offense's options become severely limited, and quarterbacks and receivers will quickly feel as if they're in a fist fight in a phone booth.
And so it was here. After gaining a 1st and 10 at the Stanford 13, the Spartans stalled. Perhaps sensing that the game was in the balance even though the first quarter wasn't yet over, the Spartans called two timeouts before running their third down play. It didn't matter. With defensive end Ben Gardner bearing down on him, Fales was forced to throw an incompletion, and San Jose State settled for a field goal.
Stanford's second offensive drive led to another touchdown and a 14-3 lead, but there were a few interesting wrinkles along the way. The wildcat formation is still in the playbook, which makes sense since it was Gaffney who ran the point on those plays two seasons ago. Our first look at the wildcat resulted in a jet sweep to Kelsey Young that went for a two-yard loss. A few plays later we saw another version of the wildcat that makes more sense to me. When Josh Nunes was still the starting quarterback last season, Shaw would roll out the Hogan Package a few times a game for a change of pace. This year we have the Lloyd Package. Shaw has said before that he loves having a running quarterback, but I don't think that's exactly true. He likes the running part, he just doesn't like how those runs typically end. Andrew Luck's running was drastically curtailed under Shaw, and I don't remember a single designed run for Hogan last night.
Dallas Lloyd is the third-string quarterback, which makes him expendable. He's fast and mobile, and eventually we might see him throw a pass, which makes him a much more viable option behind center than Gaffney. He ran for seven yards on a play midway through this second drive. I'm guessing we'll see him for at least two or three plays a game from here on out, if only to give opposing defenses something else to prepare for.
Gaffney finished the drive a few plays later when he broke through a huge opening in the line, made a nifty move around a defender, then scooted into the corner of the end zone for a 14-3 lead. After the Stanford defense sacked Fales twice on the way to a three-and-out on San Jose State's next possession, it felt like Stanford was getting ready to step on the Spartans' necks, but they settled for a field goal on the ensuing possession, then the defense yielded a field goal, and the score was 17-6 at the half.
After opening up the second half with another field goal to make it 20-6 and forcing a quick punt from the Spartans, the Cardinal again looked to put the game away with a steady drive into Spartan territory. Hogan completed passes to nine different receivers on the night, and for four of them (wide receivers Kodi Whitfield and Jeff Trojan, and defensive-ends-turned-tight-ends Luke Kaumatule and Charlie Hopkins) it marked the first receptions of their Stanford careers. But the drive finished with a pass to the team's most dynamic receiver, Ty Montgomery. Montgomery took a pass from Hogan near the sideline around the ten yard line, then turned up field, knocked the helmet off of a defender as he barrelled through him, and burst into the end zone for his first touchdown since 2011. Montgomery caught four balls for 81 yards on the night, and there's no reason to believe we won't see much, much more of him this season.
With the lead now at 27-6, it seemed like the Spartans might finally be ready to die, but like cockroaches on a summer night, they refused to die. They went 65 yards in nine plays for their first touchdown of the night to make it 27-13, and when Lloyd fumbled the opening snap of the fourth quarter, things were suddenly a bit sticky. I can't say that I was really worried, but a Spartan touchdown at that point would've made it a one-score game.
No problem. On 2nd and 19 from his own 37, Fales found himself running for his life as Skov beared down on him. Knowing he had to avoid the sack to prevent a 3rd and impossible, Fales looked to be trying to throw the ball out of bounds, but it didn't quite get there. Last season's defensive playmaker, Ed Reynolds, raced over from his center field position, tiptoed on the right sideline, and made the interception just before falling out of bounds. It was a significant play, and not just because it essentially sealed the game. It also extended the defense's streak of twenty-five consecutive games with a defensive take away.
It only took five plays (four Gaffney runs sandwiched around a 42-yard pass to Montgomery) for the Cardinal to march fifty-two yards for their last score of the night and bring the final score to 34-13.
For a team with national championship aspirations, a win over San Jose State might not mean that much, but we learned an awful lot about this team.
First, the running-back-by-committee approach that we had been told to expect is not going to happen. Gaffney is the man. He finished with 20 carries for 104 yards and two touchdowns. Wilkerson's numbers (9 for 67) look nice in the box score, but the majority of that work (4 carries for 54 yards) came during the game's final drive as the Cardinal was running out the clock. Remound Wright, Barry J. Sanders, and Kelsey Young were the only other backs to touch the rock, and they totalled just nine yards on four carries. So what we have is a committee of one. (It should be noted that everyone is waiting for Mr. Sanders. His one carry came on the final drive, and he got a nice cheer in the stadium when his name was announced.)
Second, the passing game is much more aggressive than it was last year at this point. There was legitimate concern over the loss of tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, but the wide receivers stepped up their production, totalling 10 receptions for 161 yards and two touchdowns. In no game last season did the wide receivers come anywhere close to numbers like that. Also, Hogan looks confident and accurate, though he did fall into his old tendency of overthrowing deep receivers. It's not a huge concern at this point, but something for him to work on.
Finally -- and this is no surprise -- even though the offense is much improved, this is a defensive team first and foremost. Shayne Skov racked up nine tackles, Trent Murphy had two big sacks, and Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons are probably already the best corner back tandem Stanford has ever seen.
So after waiting an entire week and then all day Saturday to get out onto the field, the Cardinal can forget about being the last team to start its season and focus the long-term goal of being the last team to finish its season -- on January 6th in Pasadena.
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