After last week's disheartening loss to USC, the matchup with Army could have been looked at in two different ways. This would either be a game that would give the Cardinal an opportunity to take out the frustrations from seven days ago and come away with a convincing win, or it would be one that would create even more frustration if the team came out flat and emotionless and failed to impress. Well, it was a little of both.
The Cardinal took the opening kick off and went about exorcising their USC demons immediately. The opening drive was a work of art. Kelsey Young and Barry Sanders combined to rush for 23 yards on four carries, and Kevin Hogan completed his first four passes (to three different receivers) as Stanford marched easily to the Army 23. From there, Hogan settled into the shotgun on 2nd and 7, and licked his lips when he saw Devon Cajuste breaking free -- really free -- as he ran across the middle towards the left corner of the end zone. He was open by five yards or so, and as Hogan's pass floated down into his arms there was a tangible sense of relief. No, it wasn't technically a red zone score, but it was still a touchdown. It was only a 7-0 lead, but it felt like much more than that.
With all the uncertainty swirling around the team after last week's performance, there wasn't a single question regarding the defense. There were concerns during the summer about how that unit would respond to losses both from the field (Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner, Josh Mauro, Ed Reynolds, et al.) and the press box (defensive coordinator Derek Mason), but in shutting out UC Davis and limiting USC to only 13 points, new coordinator Lance Anderson and his group had shown the college football world that little had changed on that side of the ball.
It was more of the same on Saturday afternoon. Facing Army's quirky triple-option offense, Anderson had simplified things a bit for his squad. An option offense relies on misdirection and plays on an opponent's lack of discipline. If, for example, the defense swarms to the quarterback as he takes off running, he need only pitch the ball out to an uncovered running back. To succeed against a team like Army, then, defenders must focus only on their assignments. Instead of chasing the ball, an individual player must hold his ground and trust in two things: one, his teammates will also hold their ground; and two, if the play comes to him, he'll be ready.
Black Knight tailback Larry Dixon ran for 13 yards on Army's first play from scrimmage, but the defense tightened after that and forced a punt.
Unfortunately, the Stanford offense also tightened. After looking so impressive on the opening drive, Hogan and company struggled. Their next four possessions looked like this:
- 3 plays, 7 yards, punt.
- 7 plays, 25 yards, punt.
- Fumbled punt, turnover to Army.
- 4 plays, 20 yards, punt.
- 7 plays, 32 yards, punt.
Just reading that list is frustrating; watching it was excruciating. Receivers dropped passes, Hogan missed wide open targets, and th conversation on Twitter turned bitter. The offense was suddenly inept. The tension seemed to mount with each failed possession, and the crowd in the stadium began to voice its disapproval, either with groans of displeasure or actual booing. I began to wonder when the whole thing would cross the line from frustration to concern.
The good news, though, was that the defense continued to dominate. While the offense was struggling to find its way, the defense held down the fort. Take a look at how Army fared against the best defense the Pac-12 has to offer:
- 4 plays, 15 yards, punt.
- 3 plays, 8 yards, punt.
- 3 plays, 4 yards, punt.
- 6 plays, 2 yards, punt.
- 6 plays, 32 yards, punt.
- 2 plays, 2 yards, fumble.
And that fumble seemed to breathe some life into the Stanford offense, finally. Taking over at the Army 15 with just 1:28 to play in the second quarter, this was suddenly a huge moment in the game. If Stanford failed to score -- or, to a lesser degree, if they had to settle for a field goal -- they'd likely trudge to the locker room as if defeated. But if they could score a touchdown, there would be hope.
Hogan's first pass was for eleven yards to Ty Montgomery to earn a 1st and goal, and then he scrambled for a couple more yards to get to the Army 2. From there, Hogan looked to Cajuste. At 6'4" and 229, Cajuste is a nightmare matchup for any defensive back, especially in the end zone. Hogan called a fade to Cajuste, and basically flipped the ball high into the corner of the end zone in hopes that his receiver would outleap the defense and come down with the touchdown. It didn't work.
I don't like the fade play. To me, it feels like the offense is giving up. Unlike a run up the middle behind a dominant offensive line or a bullet thrown to a crossing wide receiver, the fade is almost a coin flip. Maybe the receiver will make the play, maybe he won't. Maybe the team will score here, maybe it won't.
While I was digesting all these thoughts, Hogan ran the same play to Cajuste, and this time it worked. (Which makes sense. The first play came up tails; this one came up touchdown.) The result didn't change my opinion of the play, but it did change the scoreboard, putting Stanford up 14-0 at the half.
The Knights stormed out of the break and mounted their best drive of the day, earning three first downs (one a daring 4th and 1 conversion from their own 34), as they marched all the way to the Stanford 33 for a 4th and 3. Head coach Jeff Monken initially kept his unit out on the field for another fourth down attempt, but when a false start pushed them back to 4th and 8, he chose to punt.
The Army punt was downed at the Stanford 2, and the offense came out ready to build on the momentum established by their last drive of the first half. They did so with the running game, and it looked like this: Young for 18, Young for 9, Sanders for 3, Sanders for 14, Sanders for 44. In five plays the Cardinal had devoured 88 yards to reach the Army 10, and the first half struggles seemed like a distant memory. (By the way, here's my solution to the Cardinal's running game issues. First, thank Ricky Seale for his service to the program and limit him to mop-up appearances. Second, admit that Remound Wright is a short-yardage back and nothing more. Third, use Christian McCaffrey as a receiving threat out of the backfield, perhaps in spread formations that tend to open the field a bit. Fourth, split all important carries equally between Young and Sanders. Done.)
So things were looking good, but when Kelsey Young appeared to score a touchdown two plays later, only to have it negated by a Dave Bright holding penalty, even the most optimistic Stanford fans must've started to worry. Were last week's red zone issues still lingering? Hogan was sacked on the next play for a two-yard loss, and the whispers of doubt started to get a bit louder.
No problem, though. Hogan simply looked to Cajuste again for another fade -- this time it looked a bit more like a pass than a jump ball -- and the score was Speed Racer 21, Army 0. Cajuste, a New York native, revealed earlier in the week that he still thinks about a dropped touchdown pass in front of more than 100 family and friends in last year's game at West Point. These two tweets -- one pre-game, the other post-game -- show that he's feeling okay about that now.
Time to make up for last year. New chapter, new day. The next nameless and faceless. Let's get it #gameday— Devon Cajuste (@speedracer13193) September 13, 2014
The Stanford defense, meanwhile, kept bringing the wood. The front seven was phenomenal all afternoon, led by Hank Anderson and David Parry, as usual, but it was also nice to see steady contributions (four tackles and a shared sack) from Aziz Shittu, who is emerging this season as the defensive force he was projected to be.
As always with this 3-4 unit, the defensive line did the dirty work, but the back seven got much of the glory. Linebacker Blake Martinez was all over the field and led the Cardinal with 11 tackles, and James Vaughters played like an absolute beast. Yes, he had six tackles and racked up sixteen negative yards with two TFLs, but what stood out to me was his intelligence and discpline against the option. He was in position all afternoon. Intellectual brutality.
Stanford's next offensive possession began early in the fourth quarter after an ill-advised fake punt was destroyed by Patrick Skov and gave the Cardinal the ball on the Army 35. Jeff Trojan made a great catch on an awful throw from Hogan to convert a 3rd and 6 to the Army 24, then McCaffrey had a nice 12-yard catch and run to earn a 1st and goal at the Army 8. Two plays later Montgomery took the direct snap in the wildcat and powered his way into the end zone for a touchdown and a 28-0 lead.
Another Army mishap led to the final Stanford touchdown. After an A.J. Tarpley interception gave the Cardinal the ball at its own 27, Hogan struck quickly. Ricky Seale ran twice on the drive for five yards, but the rest was all Hogan. He opened with a 10 yard pass to Montgomery, then hit Austin Hooper for 22. (There can no longer be any doubt that TightEndU is back, by the way. Hooper and Cotton combined for 5 catches and 56 yards against Army. In three games thus far Stanford tight ends (Hooper, Cotton, and Greg Taboada) have totalled 16 receptions for 226 yards and a touchdown, far exceeding last year's production (10/69/0).)
Facing 3rd and 5 at the Army 32, Hogan found Montgomery in the back left corner of the end zone, hitting him with a perfect throw and giving the Cardinal a commanding 35-0 lead. It was Hogan's last pass of the day, giving him a respectable stat line (20 for 28, 216 yards, 4 TDs). Also, it should be noted that the much-maligned quarterback now ranks 9th in the nation in passer rating. Not bad.
For Montgomery, it was his second score. On a day when Sanders and Young combined to rush for 138 yards and Cajuste scored three times, Montgomery was something of an afterthought, but he still finished with a respectable 104 all-purpose yards. Last week I speculated that Montgomery had a shot to break Glyn Milburn's school record for all-purpose yardage, but during Saturday's game it occurred to me that the greatness of Stanford's defense could prevent that. The Cardinal currently leads the nation in scoring defense (4.3 ppg), total defense (204.3 ypg), and passing defense (66 ypg). I'm guessing they also lead in this category -- Stanford opponents have only kicked the ball off five times in three games. A more porous defense might yield three or four scores a game, giving Montgomery many more chances and as much as 80 to 100 yards in kick returns. That won't happen too often this year. Something to watch.
The second string defense bent a bit on Army's final possession, but when the Black Knights made it deep into Stanford territory and faced a 4th and 1 from the Stanford 2, Coach Monken saw no need to kick a field goal. The defense turned them away, however, sealing the 35-0 victory and the second shutout of Stanford's young season.
The first half was certainly frustrating to watch, but the second half was a different story. The offense had three possessions before the backups took over to run out the clock, and the drive chart tells you all you need to know:
- 9 plays, 98 yards, touchdown.
- 8 plays, 35 yards, touchdown.
- 6 plays, 73 yards, touchdown.
The offense was efficient and methodical, and even though there are some lingering issues, there's much to build on as the team enters the bye week leading up to the September 27th game at Washington.
It's okay to breathe, everyone. Stanford Football is alive and well.