Let's get one thing straight right from the jump -- there was never any drama or mystery surrounding this game. It was going to be a Stanford rout, and the game was over the moment it was scheduled.
Even so, there were dozens of important questions looming in the air, and the first was answered almost immediately. The last time we saw Ty Montgomery in a game, he was being helped off the field after a kick return during the fourth quarter at the Rose Bowl. That knee injury -- and then a subsequent arm injury -- had him wearing a yellow non-contact jersey during summer camp, and early reports indicated that he'd miss the opener against Davis and was questionable for USC the next week.
That outlook brightened over the past two weeks, and with 12:30 to play in the first quarter, there was Montgomery, standing back at his own 45-yard line waiting for UC Davis's first punt of the day. Montgomery has been one of the best kickoff return men in the nation during his three-year Stanford career, but with his recent injuries and his importance to the offense, some have wondered if he should be pulled off of special teams. When I asked David Shaw about this last month, his answer was direct: "He's gotta play. I'd hate to take the best kickoff returner in the nation, and not have him return kickoffs. That helps our football team. It's the biggest exchange of field position in the game, the kickoff return. He's just phenomenal at it, and he loves it."
Montgomery's answer was equally direct but more eloquent. He took the punt at his own forty -- and mind you, this was his first career punt return -- sprinted right to make the first man miss, found an alley on the right side of the field, and rocketed to the end zone for a 7-0 Stanford lead.
From there, things only got better for the Cardinal. After the defense stopped the Aggies for the second time, the Stanford offense came out on the field for their first possession of 2014. As expected, Kelsey Young got the start at tailback, and he carried four times for 21 yards on the drive. (That would amount to the bulk of his work on the afternoon; he'd finish the game with 7 carries for 37 yards.)
What was interesting about this drive -- and the Cardinal offense in general -- was that it was incredibly balanced and more interesting than the vanilla gameplans we've grown used to seeing in Stanford openers. Quarterback Kevin Hogan threw seven passes (completing five) to five different receivers, Montgomery lined up in the wildcat (TyCat?) and ran up the middle for an eight-yard gain, and Hogan finally finished the drive with a one-yard plunge for the touchdown.
In the second quarter, the offense really started humming. After the teams traded interceptions and punts, Stanford took over at their own 40 with 9:19 to play in the half. (A nice byproduct of having Montgomery returning punts was that the Aggies stopped kicking to him, choosing instead to angle everything out of bounds, resulting in punts of 30, 30, and 36 yards in the second quarter.) The Cardinal went to play action on the first play of the drive, and by the time Hogan looked up from his ball fake, he had Michael Rector breaking free across the middle of the field. Flexing his muscles a bit, Hogan planted his foot just inside midfield and fired a strike that met Rector at the goal line for six more points.
As big as Montgomery's punt return and this pass to Rector were, the most electric moment of the game came on the Cardinal's next possession. After taking over at the Stanford 46, Hogan faced a 2nd and 8 from his own 48. Young Christian McCaffrey, the true freshman who has been drawing nothing but raves from players, coaches, and observers throughout the summer, lined up in the backfield to Hogan's left. He ran a simple route, bending around the clashing linemen and opening up to Hogan just five yards beyone the line of scrimmage. Hogan's pass was high, but it didn't matter. (It's McCaffrey's pass-catching skills that separate him from other elite backs.) McCaffrey stretched high to make the grab, turned upfield, and simply vanished, running 45 yards untouched down the middle of the field.
This was more than just another touchdown, and it wasn't just a young kid getting a taste of action in a game that was out of hand -- it was an announcement. Some fans were surprised when Shaw hinted that we might see McCaffrey get some touches this fall, and the prevailing sentiment, I think, was that it would be foolish to burn up his redshirt year. But in the time that it took McCaffrey to race into the end zone, any doubt was erased. The future is now, and we can expect McCaffrey to be a big part of the Cardinal attack this season and in seasons to come. (We can also expect to see him in New York one day posing with a trophy, but that's a discussion for another time.)
Barry J. Sanders was the featured back on Stanford's next possession, rushing three times for twenty yards, but the Cardinal offense on this afternoon was all about the big strike (aside from Hogn's first quarter scramble, touchdowns came on plays of 60, 40, 52, 44, and 14 yards), and now it was time for Montgomery again. He took a simple hitch pass behind the line of scrimmage, took advantage of some amazing downfield blocking by offensive linemen as well as wide receiver Michael Rector, and coasted into the end zone. At no point during the run did he hit his top gear, and that's what was so special about it. He showed patience, and he trusted the play design, knowing that his teammates would show him the way. It was a beautiful run.
I mentioned the possibility of a Heisman in McCaffrey's future, but it will be interesting to see when the Heisman talk begins in earnest for Montgomery. He's already established as one of the most versatile players in the country and certainly the most dangerous return man -- and that was before he added the punt returning to his résumé -- but this year I believe people will begin to see him as one of the most dominant wide receivers in the game. With an otherworldly combination of size, speed, and strength, he's a nightmare matchup for any defensive back, and the quality of his receiving corps (Devon Cajuste was inactive today due to an undisclosed team rules violation) will prevent defenses from rolling all of their coverage completely towards him. When Montgomery arrived on campus three years ago he did so as the most heralded receiving prospect in school history; right now he's poised to make good on all that potential and take his place alongside Troy Walters as one of the greatest Stanford receivers of all time.
The Cardinal added a field goal to take a 38-0 lead into halftime, and that was about it.
Kevin Hogan came out for Stanford's first possession of the second half, but he rested after that, giving way to backup Evan Crower and eventually Ryan Burns. (I had hoped to see more of Burns, but all we got from him was a screen pass and a nice seventeen-yard run. He remains a mystery.) Crower looked like a backup, but he's definitely made progress and yesterday's work will only make him better. (His 8 of 13 line nearly matched all of 2013, when he was 10 of 15.)
The offense looked sloppy and lethargic for most of the second half, which is to be expected when all of the starters are looking on from the sidelines, but there were a few bright spots. For one, it's clear that the tight ends will make an impact this season. All three of the youngsters (Eric Cotton, Austin Hooper, and Greg Taboada) had receptions, highlighted by Hooper's four catches for sixty-three yards and a nice 14-yard touchdown grab on a fourth-quarter strike from Crower to give the game its final margin, 45-0. It will be nice to have those tight ends back in the offense again.
Oh, and there was also more from Mr. McCaffrey, this time a 44-yard punt return that ended one defender short of the end zone and left the freshman shaking his head. "That's something I'm gonna have to work on this week, making that last guy miss. I'm definitely not satisfied with that, but we'll fix it in practice." Love this kid.
As for the rest of the offense, the offensive line looked like a work in progress. There were two holding penalties by two of the new starters (Josh Garnett and Graham Shuler), matching the total from 2013, and a false start, but the execution was generally solid. We'll know much, much more about the Tunnel Workers at this point next week after they've faced USC.
We've gotten this far without a single mention of the defense. They were dominant. In fact, it wasn't until the final play of the game, a nine-yard pass completion, that the Aggies even managed to get the ball into Stanford territory, meaning they never took a snap on the downhill side of the field. Regardless of the level of competition, that's a positive.
The defensive line was impressive all afternoon, led by defensive end Henry Anderson, this season's #Partyinthebackfield party planner, and supported mightily by defensive tackle David Parry. Parry walked on at Stanford without a scholarship, and now he's starting for one of the best defenses in the country. When asked afterwards about the choice he made to come to Stanford without a scholarship, he explained, "Coming here, I was fairly confident in my abilities. I wouldn't have taken that chance if I didn't think I could contribute on this level." He's doing more than just contributing.
And now, finally, Cardinal eyes turn towards the USC Trojans. As much as Shaw preaches the need to take things one game at a time and never to overlook an opponent, Hogan revealed that that might not necessarily be the case. He was asked about USC, and it seemed like he had been thinking about them for a while.
"I feel great about where we're at," he said. "Coach Shaw just talked to us about the game coming up. It's not the Super Bowl, as some people might think. It's the next big game on our schedule, the next team on our schedule. I feel great. I had a lot of time this off-season to get ready for Week 2, and I feel really good with where we're at. I think we'll have a good plan and have a lot of good stuff to show them."
[Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]