If you were sleeping on the other side of the country and couldn't watch Saturday night's game between Stanford and Central Florida, the sound that woke you up just before midnight was the collective exhale of Nerd Nation as the Cardinal showed that yes, everything just might be okay.
But, of course, if all you're seeing now is the boxscore and the 31-7 result, you missed a fair amount of hand-wringing in the game's opening quarter. Desperately needing to establish an offense that had yet to score a touchdown, the Cardinal opened the game with a disheartening three and out. How bad had things gotten? Fans were actually taking solace in the fact that Hogan had thrown the ball on 3rd and 14 rather than handing the ball off. Small steps.
Central Florida took the field for their first possession, led by quarterback Justin Holman. Quickly forced into a 3rd and 8, Holman dropped back to pass but was hit by Stanford's most dynamic pass rusher, linebacker Peter Kalambayi, and his pass fell incomplete. Holman left the field holding his throwing hand and would not return, a development which would hinder the UCF offense for the entire game.
When Kevin Hogan and his offense came out for their second possession, things looked much better. Kind of. The Cardinal strung together four first downs as they marched 51 yards, all the way to the Central Florida 33. The offense was varied, with runs by Christian McCaffrey, Remound Wright, and Bryce Love (much more on him later), as well as passes to Devon Cajuste, Michael Rector, and McCaffrey. They drove all the way to the Central Florida 18 and appeared to have gotten down to the 10 when Hogan ran eight yards on 3rd and 2, but Josh Garnett was flagged for an illegal chop block, an unfortunate tendency he's shown during his time as a starter. (Penalties would be a huge issue for the Cardinal all night, as they'd be flagged twelve times for an obscene 137 yards.)
After failing to convert the resulting 3rd and 17 from the 33 yard line, the punting team trotted out onto the field.
We went over this last week, but it's worth reviewing. Shaw could've opted for a 50-yard field goal. (Going for it 4th and 17 probably wasn't the best option, so I guess we'll give him a pass on that this week.) When Jake Bailey's punt rolled into the end zone, it meant the Cardinal had given up a chance for three points in favor of thirteen yards of field position. [Insert your own commentary here.]
After the two teams traded uneventful series, the Knights and second-string quarterback Bo Schneider took possession with 4:42 left in the first quarter. On 2nd and 1 from the Stanford 46, Schneider dropped back and threw a short pass into the flat to tailback Taj McGowan. The ball fell incomplete as Stanford's defensive linemen swarmed McGowan. Solomon Thomas had wrapped him up just after the ball had arrived and been dropped, and Aziz Shittu came flying in to help out. But Shittu lowered his head as he went for the tackle, and his helmet collided with McGowan's. It had all happened after the play was dead, but it didn't really matter. Shittu was correctly flagged for targeting and ejected from the game, further depleting Stanford's already paper-thin defensive line rotation.
At this point in the game, with the offense still looking listless and uninspired, this was a huge loss. We hadn't yet seen any indication that the Cardinal would be able to get the ball into the end zone, and it still felt like the only hope for victory would be with a dominant performance from the defense. With Shittu headed to the locker room, this suddenly looked less likely.
Stanford's struggles continued into the second quarter when another ten-play drive ended with another punt from UCF territory, this one from the 38, and Central Florida's offense perked up when they took that punt and drove sixty yards to the Stanford 38. But William Stanback, curiously listed on UCF's roster as an offensive lineman, took a handoff from Schneider and fumbled. Brennan Scarlett (where would we be without you, Brennan Scarlett?) recovered, and for the first time all season, the Stanford sideline showed signs of life.
That momentum seemed to carry out onto the field as McCaffrey ran nine yards on first down, giving the Cardinal an opportunity to take a risk on 2nd and 1. Knowing they could easily get that yard on third down if necessary, Shaw allowed Hogan to take a shot downfield. His target was sophomore Isaiah Brandt-Sims, who's the fastest player on the Stanford roster, no matter what Michael Rector might tell you. Brandt-Sims used that speed to get a step behind the defense, and Hogan hit him perfectly in stride, but the ball fell incomplete. Opportunity lost.
But after picking up the first down on the next play, Shaw got greedy again. This time he also got tricky. Hogan handed the ball to Barry Sanders, who then flipped the ball back to Hogan to set up the flea flicker, the same play every kid on every playground calls at least once a game. Hogan took that pitch, shuffled away from pressure in the pocket, and lofted a beautiful deep ball to the second-fastest player on the roster, Michael Rector. This time Rector cradled the ball easily at the ten and jogged into the end zone for Stanford's first touchdown of the season. It had been 85 minutes of game time and 179 hours of real time, but it was worth the wait. Stanford 7, Central Florida 0.
And suddenly, the Cardinal was a completely different team. The defense continued its dominant performance, forcing another three and out, and the offense came right back out onto the field and started driving again. Hogan completed passes to Rector, Cajuste, and Dalton Schultz, and it began to look like we might see a second touchdown in just a five minute span. But then the drive stalled at the UCF 35, and something amazing happened.
Instead of trying to convert the 4th and 6 or reflexively sending out the punt team, Shaw chose instead to try for the field goal. Keep in mind that only twenty minutes earlier Shaw had eschewed a fifty-yard attempt, but now he was sending Conrad Ukropina out for an even longer attempt, this one from fifty-two yards. (The only explanation is that Shaw had checked his Twitter feed after that first decision.) At any rate, Ukropina pumped his kick through the middle of the uprights with distance to spare. More important than those three points and the 10-0 lead, that kick just might have convinced Shaw to be a bit more aggressive in the future. We'll see.
The teams traded three empty possessions to open the second half before the Cardinal took over at its own 20 with 5:25 to play in the third quarter. On the first snap of the series Hogan looked to his right and flipped a swing pass to true freshman Bryce Love. The electric Love took advantage of two great blocks near the line of scrimmage, then broke a defender's ankles on his way to a 42-yard gain. My words can't do this justice; you have to watch it. And then watch it over, and over, and over again.
Hogan continued to lead his team downfield, picking up a key first down with a designed run of his own on 3rd and 6, and eventually capped the drive with an easy flare pass to McCaffrey for a seven-yard touchdown and a commanding 17-0 Stanford lead.
The offensive resurgence continued early in the fourth quarter when the Cardinal took over at its own 17. A questionable substitution penalty pushed the line of scrimmage back to the seven, and Stanford faced a daunting 3rd and 20. Normally this would be a give up down, but that was the old David Shaw. The new David Shaw -- or perhaps the angry David Shaw; he was furious with the previous penalty -- throws caution to the wind, damn the consequences.
So instead of calling for Remound Wright on a halfback dive, Shaw sent in a different play. With Love split wide left, Hogan faked a handoff to Sanders, then hit Love on what amounted to a wide receiver screen. The linemen sealed the edge perfectly, another blocker came across the play to seal the outside edge, Love made a nice move to shoot through the hole, and then he was gone. No one touched him for 92 yards, and just like that the Cardinal had its moxie back. That and a 24-0 fourth-quarter lead.
With the game well in hand, the only drama remaining was the possibility of seeing another Stanford quarterback and knowing for sure who had won the back-up competition, Ryan Burns or Keller Chryst. When the Cardinal offense came back out onto the field with six minutes to play, it was Chyrst who led them -- but Burns checked in two plays later. Even so, it seems like Chryst is number two, and we saw his first collegiate pass, a nice throw to Rollin Stallworth for twenty yards and a first down. (Of course, it looked like the pass might've been intended for Austin Hooper; the ball went right through his hands before Stallworth caught it.) On the next play, not wanting to be left out of the highlight reel, Sanders took a handoff, dusted off some of his father's moves, and skipped into the end zone for a twenty-yard touchdown and a 31-0 Stanford lead.
The Knights put together a nice drive with their third-string quarterback against Stanford's second- and third-string defenders to get on the scoreboard, but it hardly mattered. The final score was Stanford 31, Central Florida 7, but more important things happened on Saturday night.
- Thanks to several big plays, Kevin Hogan threw three touchdowns and passed for a career-high 341 yards, reminding us all of what he does best. Few quarterbacks are as accurate with the deep ball, and when his receivers don't betray him with drops, Hogan can be deadly in the vertical passing game. Hogan also ran the ball three times, which was nice to see.
- Christian McCaffrey didn't rush for a hundred yards as I had hoped (it's now been sixteen straight games without a hundred-yard rusher for the Cardinal), but he was still the most important player in the offense. With 66 yards rushing, 59 receiving, and 49 returning kicks and punts, he had 166 all-purpose yards. Not bad.
- Bryce Love introduced himself to the world. He had 135 receiving yards, and those two receptions were the type of plays that will force defensive coordinators to change the way they prepare for the Cardinal. Before Central Florida's final possession, Love had outgained the Knights all by himself.
- Brennan Scarlett and Solomon Thomas were dominant on a night when being dominant was important. Scarlett's transfer has been a godsend, and the prospect of watching Thomas for the next two or three years must be frightening for opposing offenses.
- The young defensive backs are exceeding even the lofty expectations we had for them based on early reports. They're big and physical, and once they can eliminate the pass interference penalties and begin to hang on to interceptions (a third pick was dropped on Saturday night), they could develop into the best unit in the Pac-12. Next weekend's test against USC's dynamic receivers will be fun to watch.
At this point, every team in the nation, even those sitting atop the polls, is a work in progress. We know now that last week's panic was unfounded, but we still don't know if the earlier predictions of Pac-12 and national championships are worth considering again. The season begins in earnest next week when the Cardinal travels south to play USC. Then we'll know.
[Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images]