If you weren't able to watch Saturday's game and all you know is the 42-28 final score, I'm guessing that you're thinking one of two things: A -- That's a great win over a top 25 team in the Pac-12 opener; or B -- Four touchdowns is a lot for the defense to have given up. So if you were thinking one of those two things, you're right. It turns out the glass can be half empty and half full at the same time.
Once upon a time, when Oregon was the only team in the conference playing at breakneck speed, the sheer novelty of the no-huddle spread offense was enough to put even a quality defense at a huge disadvantage. But with UCLA, Washington State, Arizona, and Arizona State now running different variations of this trendy scheme, not to mention the fact that those schools don't have the personnel that Oregon has, it has suddenly become just another offense.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly has been as good as expected in the early season, throwing for over 300 yards in each of Arizona State's first two games (he'd finish this game with a season-high 367), and he started out well with three straight completions to move the ball near midfield. On 3rd and 9, however, Kelly dropped back and faced a fearsome rush from the Stanford defensive front, a taste of what he'd be in for for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Josh Mauro, starting in place of the injured Henry Anderson, had the right tackle beaten, but he quickly realized that his looping path was taking him too far upfield to the point where he'd no longer be a factor in the play. Proving that intelligence is just as important as strength when playing defensive end, Mauro quickly slammed the breaks and actually backed up a step or two to remain in his lane. Linebacker James Vaughters, meanwhile, was barrelling up the middle like a freight train, and he lowered his shoulder pads into Kelly's chest just a blink after the quarterback released an ill-advised pass. Because of Mauro's backpedalling, he had disengaged from his blocker and was clearly looking to deflect Kelly's pass; instead he simply caught it and rumbled 25 yards to the ASU 17.
Two plays later, on 3rd and 10 from the 17, Kevin Hogan kept the ball on a play action and flipped the ball out to Montgomery a yard behind the line of scrimmage. From there, Montgomery did the rest, zipping around a block and splitting two defenders to run untouched to the end zone for a 7-o Stanford lead.
After forcing a punt, the offense was back out on the field just two minutes later, and they picked up right where they had left off. On a 1st and 10 from his own 22, Hogan lined up in the pistol with Kelsey Young split wide to the right. Young sprinted into the backfield on the jet sweep, took the ball from Hogan, and continued up the left side of the field for a 32-yard gain. I will keep saying this until someone listens. Kelsey Young needs to get the ball at least five times a game. I won't rest until that happens. Unfortunately, this huge gain would be his only touch of the day.
Two plays later Hogan hit Devon Cajuste with an absolute bullet on a deep post pattern for a 34-yard gain that brought the ball to the Sun Devil 5 yard line, and three plays after that Gaffney was plunging into the end zone for a 13-0 lead. (Williamson's PAT attempt clanked off the right post.)
After another fruitless Sun Devil drive (three first downs and a missed field goal attempt), the Stanford offense returned to the field with Anthony Wilkerson as the feature back. Wilkerson runs like a man who's late for a plane. Instead of plowing through people, he's constantly shifting and dodging as he searches for the hole, all shoulders and hips. On this particular drive, he handled the ball on five of the six plays, and they went like this: rush for 8 yards, rush for 18, (Hogan pass to Cajuste for 26), rush for 3, shovel pass for 5, rush for 12. Those last twelve yards were a touchdown around the left edge to give Stanford a 20-0 lead.
At this point the Stanford defense began to do some serious damage. They forced a three-and-out immediately following the Wilkerson touchdown, then did even better when they next took the field. The Sun Devils started with a 1st and 10 at their own 10, and after an incompletion on first down, Aziz Shittu and Usua Amanam wrapped up tailback Marion Grice for a five-yard loss, then Vaughters did the same for a two-yard loss on the following play.
A short punt gave Stanford the ball on the Sun Devil 37, and it took just two plays for Hogan to find the end zone. Montgomery lined up in the left slot on 2nd and 3 and ran up field completely uncovered. Hogan's pass hit him in stride inside the five yard line, and Montgomery spun off of a defender and into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game and a 27-0 Cardinal advantage.
Believe it or not, it got worse from here for the Sun Devils. Forced to punt with only 14 seconds left in the half, ASU's Matt Haack actually had his punt blocked by his own teammate. The Devils form a three-man wall in front of their punter, and the Stanford defensive front simply overpowered the offensive line and pushed the wall backwards. Haack kicked the ball into the back of one of those players and then was forced to chase it down and kick it out of the end zone for a safety. 29-0.
It was probably the best 30 minutes of football that Stanford has played in quite some time; it was certainly the best they've looked all season. The offense was diverse, featuring two touchdown passes to Montgomery and a rushing touchdown each for Gaffney and Wilkerson, and there were also passes to Cajuste and Ryan Hewitt, as well as carries for Remound Wright and Kelsey Young.
Defensively, Derek Mason's crew had shut out one of the more prolific offenses in the conference. Entering the game there were concerns about the absences of starting defensive end Henry Anderson and nickelback Barry Browning, but Josh Mauro excelled in Anderson's spot, and safety Devon Carrington did a great job when called on to play corner. Also, rising stars Alex Carter and Wayne Lyons were excellent, whether they were defending passes or tossing aside blockers to make tackles on running backs.
Basically, the first half couldn't have gone better. When the camera caught ASU head coach Todd Graham exhorting his team just before they headed to the locker room, I actually felt sorry for him. "We're going to come out together, work hard, and we're gonna win this game!" Had he fallen asleep at some point during the first half? Had he hit his head? I had no idea what he was thinking, but I was sure we'd see more of the same in the game's second thirty minutes.
The Sun Devils took the opening kickoff and struck quickly, needing just 1:47 to cover seventy-five yards in six plays (58 of those yards came on two passes to wide receiver Jaelen Strong) to get their first touchdown of the game, a two-yard run by Grice.
That was easily explained, though. A quality team had been embarrassed in the first half, and now they were fighting for their dignity. Now that they had it, now that they had avoided the shutout, they'd surely curl up and die, satisfied with their seven points.
But when Kevin Hogan forced a pass under pressure and threw an interception on the next possession, there was a moment of concern, if you can really be concerned with a 29-7 lead. But those fears were quickly quelled when the defense forced a four-and-out (ASU eschewed the field goal attempt and went for it on fourth down), the offense drove 68 yards for a field goal to make it 32-7, and the defense came up with another big play, this one a punt block.
Facing 4th and 5 from the Stanford 45, the Sun Devils kept their offense on the field and looked to be going for it again, but then Kelly dropped back a few strides to ready for a pooch kick, something he's done before. Ben Gardner explained during the post game presser: "We had seen it on film. We had kind of a safe look in there just make sure the ball was punted. I just figured I might as well go for it."
Gardner went for it, and he got it. Kelly's punt never got any elevation and pretty much hit Gardner directly in the stomach before bouncing backwards. Gardner scooped it up at the 41, but was only able to rumble for ten yards before being tackled. (A clipping penalty pushed the ball even farther, and the Cardinal would take over at the ASU 16.) When asked afterwards if he was thinking about scoring, he didn't hesitate. "I was thinking end zone, man. I haven't touched the ball since eighth grade!"
Gardner didn't make it to the end zone, but it only took one play for Gaffney to finish the job. He took the ball from Hogan and followed his blockers, most notably David Yankey who was pulling across from his left guard position. The Sun Devil sea parted, and Gaffney skipped across the goal line untouched.
The fourth quarter was winding down and the Cardinal led 39-7. They had withstood ASU's best shot in the third, and now the Devils would surely accept their fate and return to the desert with their forked tails between their legs.
But here's where things got dicey. Aside from their final possession that came with 0:26 on the clock, Arizona State scored touchdowns on all three fourth quarter possesions, drives which covered 75, 57, and 67 yards but consumed a total of only 5:27 on the game clock. During the first three quarters I found myself marvelling at how sure the tackling was, specifically by the defensive backs. As recently as two years ago it was poor tackling that doomed the Cardinal defense against spread offenses like Oregon and Oklahoma State, but that has all changed, and that's a huge reason why Stanford's is the best defense in the Pac-12.
But those old problems were back in the 4th quarter. There were some second unit defenders in the game, but Shaw made two things clear afterwards. One, the second unit guys had earned their way onto the field, so the expectations for them were the same as for the starters, and two, many of the players missing assignments and taking bad routes were first unit guys.
Perhaps the most egregious error came as the Devils were marching towards their final touchdown of the night. Safety Ed Reynolds came on a blitz on 1st and 10 from the Stanford 11. Reynolds was able to rush the quarterback into an incompletion, but when he hit Kelly he led with his helmet and struck him in the facemask. He was flagged for roughing the passer and ejected from the game under the NCAA's new targeting rule. Arizona State scored three plays later to cut the lead to 39-28, but there is a bigger concern. Since Reynolds's infraction occurred during the second half, his suspension will carry over through the first half of next week's game against Washington State. Shaw didn't mince words afterwards, saying that "from the naked eye, I agree with the officials." So now Stanford will begin the game against the Cougs down two starters instead of just one. Definitely an area of concern.
Backup quarterback Evan Crower had been at the controls for the previous two series, but at this point Shaw had no choice but to put Hogan back in to finish the game. After yielding a first down when they were assessed a penalty for having twelve men on the field, the Sun Devils used their final timeout to stop the clock with 3:28 to play and the Cardinal facing 2nd and 17 from the ASU 40. Stanford had been playing different variations of their big packages throughout the fourth quarter, and the Devils had had no trouble stopping the obvious runs. Even facing 2nd and long, Shaw still stubbornly stuck with the same formation and the same running play -- or so it seemed.
Hogan faked the handoff to Wilkerson, and as the entire ASU defense crashed into the line of scrimmage, Hogan spun back around to the left and took off on the nakedest bootleg you've ever seen. He skipped around a defender at the first down marker, then ran another ten yards before falling to the turf without going out of bounds in order to keep the clock running. The game had been decided about two hours earlier, but now it was finally over. Williamson nailed a short field goal a few plays later, and we finally had a final score. Stanford 42, Arizona State 28.
Sure, it would've been nice if the Cardinal could've have followed the first half with a similar effort in the second, if only so the voters would've seen a 58-0 final score crawling across the bottom of their television screens in the morning, but Arizona State is not Nicholls State. The Sun Devils will likely finish as high as second place in the Pac-12 South, and when the nation's top-ranked teams are being compared in November, this game will sit firmly in the quality win section of Stanford's résumé.
Next stop: Washington State.