The Cardinal took the game's opening kickoff and went to work immediately, taking yardage in gulps and moving down the field with an efficiency reminiscent of years past. The second play of the drive was a handoff to Barry J. Sanders, who started inside before quickly bouncing out to the right for a 21-yard gain. Kevin Hogan hit Ty Montgomery on the left edge (this would be a recurring theme) for 22 yards, and Sanders ran to the right again for 29 more. Three plays for 72 yards and the Cardinal was in business with 1st and goal at the Washington State 7. The red zone.
There are dozens of things that can go wrong on a single football play, and the maddening thing about Stanford's red zone offense is that they seem to have mastered them all -- penalties, turnovers, dropped passes, missed receivers, missed blocks, missed field goals -- you name it, they've done it. On second down, Hogan rolled out to his right, spotted Devon Cajuste sprinting across the middle of the end zone, and hit him in his hands for what should've been a touchdown. But Cajuste couldn't make the catch -- a catch he definitely should've made -- and two plays later the Cardinal settled for a field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Enter Connor Halliday, he of the bionic arm and Nintendo stat line. He completed his first pass of the night to Isiah Myers for eleven yards and a first down, but David Parry and the Stanford defense introduced themselves to the Cougar quarterback over the next three plays. Parry powered his way through the middle of the Washington State offensive line to force an early throw and knock down Halliday on second down, then did the same on third down, crushing Halliday in the ribs as his pass fluttered harmlessly to the turf and the drive came to an end. (This would be another recurring theme.)
Hogan and his offense came back out onto the field, and the Cougar defense responded with a three-and-out, but not the kind they had probably hoped for. After Remound Wright ran for a modest six-yard gain on first down, Hogan hit everyone's favorite freshman, Christian McCaffrey, on a swing pass to the left. It turned out to be a backward pass, so it shows up on the stat sheet as a rushing attempt, but it was effective either way. McCaffrey gathered in Hogan's pass behind the line of scrimmage, then scampered up the sideline for another big gain of 24 yards. Once again, the Cardinal was attacking the perimeter of the Washington State defense, and they were having great success.
So what do you do after gashing a defense with runs and passes to the edges? You strike deep down the middle. Hogan dropped back on the third play of the drive, gave a token fake to his running back, then looked up and saw tight end Coby Fleener, I mean Eric Cotton, streaking down the middle of the field with no defender in the same zip code. His pass hit Cotton perfectly in stride for a 39-yard touchdown and a 10-0 Cardinal advantage. Three plays, sixty-nine yards. Big chunks.
On Washington State's second possession, we got a glimpse of Mike Leach and his Swing Your Sword mentality. Halliday completed his first three passes of the drive, but that wasn't good enough for a first down. Looking at 4th and 1 from his own 34, most coaches in America would've punted without thinking twice, but there's not much evidence to indicate that Leach thinks once, let along twice. He kept his offense out on the field, and they converted with a three-yard pass to Robet Lewis. Three plays later the Cougs had another 4th and 1, and this time they earned the first down with a two-yard pass to Jamal Morrow. (Halliday would complete 42 passes to 9 different receivers on the night.)
Halliday looked deep on the next play and found one of his favorite targets, Vince Mayle, for 41-yards down the left sideline, significant for more than just the big gain. It was the first pass play of 30 yards or more allowed by the Stanford defense this season; they had been the only team in college football not to have given up such a play. Two plays later Halliday hit Mayle in the back of the end zone for a touchdown that trimmed the Stanford lead to 10-7.
After a few uneventful series by both offenses, Washington State punter Jordan Dascalo aimed a low kick directly at Montgomery. (Unlike pretty much every other team on Stanford's schedule, the Cougs insisted on kicking to Montgomery all night. It wasn't such a good idea.) While the ball was still in the air, I turned to my daughter and said, "I predict a touchdown right here." Montgomery took the ball, moved gently to his left, darted through a hole, and suddenly only the punter stood between Montgomery and the end zone, between me and my prediction. Dascalo managed to guide him out of bounds, but Montgomery's 46-yard return set up his offense on the WSU 16. Hogan had already used one tight end for Stanford's first touchdown, and here he involved the other two. First he found Austin Hooper for 13 yards to secure a 1st and goal at the 3, and three plays later he hit the third tight end, Greg Taboada, for the touchdown and a 17-7 lead.
Midway through the second quarter, with the lead still at ten, the Cardinal began a drive from their own 30. After using Wright and Sanders to earn a first down at the 44, Hogan went to play action on the next play. The Cougars were blitzing, but the extra rusher was picked up easily, giving Hogan time to wait for Michael Rector to streak past his defender. Rector had to fight through some pass interference, but Hogan's pass was placed perfectly and Rector reeled it in for a 43-yard gain to the WSU 13. When McCaffrey took a short pass down to the three on the next play (he had lined up as the slot receiver), it looked like the Cardinal was getting ready to break the game open.
Things fell apart on the next play. Fullback Patrick Skov took ball on 1st and goal. He was stopped about a yard short of the goal line, but as he was being tackled he foolishly extended the ball, hoping to break the plane of the end zone. A Washington State defender knocked the unprotected ball out of Skov's hand, and the Cougs recovered it. Instead of 2nd and goal from six inches away, it was Washington State ball.
There were more missed opportunities on Stanford's next possession. Taking over at his own 44 with 2:30 to play in the first half, Hogan immediately found Rector for a 22-yard gain into Cougar territory, and two plays later he hit Montgomery for eighteen more, setting up 1st and 10 at the 16. After an incompletion to Montgomery on the next play, Johnny Caspers and Kyle Murphy were called for holding on consecutive snaps, pushing the line of scrimmage all the way back to the 36. (Stanford fans were definitely spoiled by the technical efficiency of the offensive line last season, and it would've been foolish to expect another year with only two holding penalties, but the 2014 unit has been plagued by flags, and the situation must be addressed.)
Facing 2nd and 30, Hogan was able to complete passes to Kelsey Young and Devon Cajuste to gain back 16 yards and give Williamson a makeable 37-yard field goal attempt at the gun, but Williamson pushed it right, sending the Cardinal into the locker room on a sour note.
The second half couldn't have opened better for the Cardinal. Washington State opened with a modest gain on first down, but when Halliday dropped back to pass on second down, he was met by a rhinoceros named David Parry. The Rhino bulled through the line and ploughed into Halliday's midsection just as he released the pass, which was then intercepted by Blake Martinez.
Three plays later, on 3rd and 11 from the WSU 35, the Cardinal appeared to cash in that turnover for six points. Hogan saw Montgomery running deep, and Montgomery was able to muscle his way to the ball for an apparent touchdown. But before the Stanford band could get more than a measure or two into "All Right Now," the officials were huddling in the middle of the field. The penalty was for an illegal shift. Devon Cajuste, split out wide left on the opposite side of the play, had noticed that he was lined up on the line of scrimmage, covering the slot receiver and thereby making him ineligible. He quickly shifted back six inches to make the formation legal, but the officials ruled he had done this as the ball was being snapped. (My DVR told a different story.) The touchdown was nullified, and it was 3rd and 16.
When Hogan passed to Montgomery for ten yards on the next play, the Cardinal was in no man's land. At 4th and 6 from the WSU 30, they were too close to punt, but just on the outside of Jordan Williamson's shaky range, so Coach Shaw elected to keep the offense out on the field. Hogan's pass to Rector inside the ten-yard line was right on target, but a Cougar defender, who clearly looked to have arrived early, disrupted the play and turned the ball back over to his offense. There was no flag on the play, and Shaw was livid. His protest of the call was so deliberate -- he walked a good ten yards out onto the field, all the way to the numbers -- that I thought he was trying to bait the officials into flagging him, just to prove a point, but they kept those flags in their pockets.
When the Cougs took over on their own 30 following that failed fourth down attempt, Halliday went to work doing the only thing the Stanford defense would allow. With a series of dinks and dunks, he moved his team slowly down the field, gaining yardage in nibbles. They'd eventually move the ball as deep as the Stanford 17, but when an intentional grounding penalty pushed them back, forcing a 46-yard field goal, the drive had actually covered a net of 42 yards in 14 plays. Yes, the lead had been cut to 17-10, but the Cougars had had to work for it.
Stanford's defensive philosophy over the past several years -- and certainly when facing spread teams like Washington State -- has always been to pressure the quarterback; allow passes to be completed short, not long; and tackle receivers immediately after the catch. The idea is that if chunk plays are avoided, offenses have to be incredibly efficient to put together long scoring drives. Analysts often characterize Stanford's defense as a "bend-but-don't-break" scheme, but that's a backhanded compliment that doesn't get it right. The defense is suffocating. They punish teams physically (Halliday limped off the field following most Wazzu possessions) and mentally, as they simply aren't able to do what they're used to doing.
Following that field goal, the Cougars finally decided not to kick the ball to Montgomery, but the result was the same. Kicker Erik Powell attempted what looked to be an on-side pooch kick, but Jeff Trojan -- King of the Onside Kick Recovery -- simply called for a fair catch at the Stanford 39. Hogan led the offense from there, finishing the drive with a second touchdown pass to Taboada, the third tight end touchdown of the night.
At 24-10 with just over four minutes left in the third quarter, it certainly felt like the Cardinal had the game in hand, but Halliday continued to sling it, completing 9 of 13 passes on a 16-play drive that ended with Halliday's best play of the night. Facing 4th and goal from the 3, Halliday dropped back and rolled hard to his right, fleeing the pressure of the Anderson Boys, Henry and Kevin. Just before being pinned in by the right sideline, Halliday planted his foot and fired a pass back against the grain towards the middle of the end zone. It was probably the most ill-advised play he could've made, but it found its target anyway. River Cracraft snagged it in the shadow of the goalpost for the touchdown, and the Cougs were still hanging in, down by just seven points at 24-17.
Stanford's next possession stalled out at the Washington State 17, and Williamson surprised everyone in the house by nailing a 34-yard field goal. Stanford had a 27-17 lead. On the one hand, it felt like that ten-point lead would be enough on this night, but on the other, it was hard not to look back at all the missed opportunities. The Cardinal could easily have had another 21 points or more, but instead the Cougs were within striking distance. As usual, the defense would have to seal the win.
Naturally, they did just that. The Cougars wouldn't score again. They went backwards on their first possession after that Williamson field goal, giving up five yards before punting, and even though they earned a first down on their next possession, a penalty and a Stanford sack only allowed them to gain five yards on eight plays the next time they had the ball. That sack was interesting and highlighted a difference in this year's Stanford defense. Due to the nature of the Washington State offense (no threat of the run, stationary quarterback, inexperienced offensive line) the Cardinal pass rushers were stunting and looping all night long. Rather than rushing straight ahead and staying in their lanes, the defenders were able to use speed and misdirection to confuse Halliday's blockers. So while David Parry was bulldozing straight ahead, Aziz Shittu, A.J. Tarpley, and Peter Kalambayi were swooping around the corners of the line like jackals.
Kalambayi, in particular, wreaked havoc all night, and he deserved a huge assist on Tarpley's sack. Kalambayi had lined up on the far left of the line, then took off running to his right at the snap. How fast is he? When Stanford was still recruiting him and the coaches came to watch him in a track meet, they expected to see him in the shot put or the discus, but they were stunned to see him lining up in the 100 and 200 meter sprints. I don't think Halliday would be surprised to hear that. On this play Kalambayi was able to sprint all the way around the melee at the line of scrimmage and arrive on the scene just as Tarpley was planting Halliday in the turf. Only a sophomore, Kalambayi is probably the most athletic pass rusher we've seen in a Cardinal uniform in the past twenty years, and it will be interesting to watch how he's used over the course of his career.
Remound Wright added a beat-the-spread touchdown to make the final score 34-17, and while the game might've been closer than it should've been, a win is still a win. Considering what's been going on in the rest of the conference, the Cardinal is in no position to quibble about style points. Even though there were too many penalties and a handful of missed opportunities, this was still the first time the offense has looked like the offense we hoped to see this season, and the defense continued to be dominant. If the offense can continue to improve, and if the defense can maintain its level of play, this Stanford team could still be headed for its third straight Pac-12 championship. Now wouldn't that be something?
[Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]