When the Cardinal took the field late Saturday night against the Washington Huskies for yet another in what seems to be an endless stream of night games, they did so with the confidence of a team that knows it is among the best in the country. The offense had led the way to five straight wins featuring escalating point totals in each contest, and on this game's opening drive, Kevin Hogan and company picked up right where they had left off.
The Washington defense was the best in the Pac-12 over the first half of the season, so many figured this would be a test for Stanford's evolving offense, but the Cardinal looked no different on the first drive of the game than they had in scoring 111 points in the previous two games against Arizona and UCLA. After a 38-yard kick return by Christian McCaffrey set up the offense in good field position, the Cardinal went about pounding the rock with nineteen yards on three carries from McCaffrey and 22 yards on two scrambles from a healthier Hogan, eventually reaching a 2nd and 1 at the Washington 21.
The boxscore tells you that Hogan threw a 21-yard pass to Austin Hooper for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead, but that's only part of the story. McCaffrey lined up in the backfield to Hogan's right, and both Hogan and McCaffrey flowed to the right after the snap. Hogan then faked a pitch to McCaffrey before setting himself and hitting Hooper, but even that doesn't get it. That quick fake encouraged a lineman, a defensive back, and two linebackers to take two steps towards the line of scrimmage just as Hooper was running his route through that group, and Hogan's fleeting glance towards the middle of the field froze the safety for just long enough to delay his rotation towards Hooper.
The play underscored the true nature of the Stanford offense. Many fans are still critical of the play calling and dismiss the offense as conservative and archaic, but nothing could be farther from the truth. This is the most creative and dynamic offense in football. In the seventh game of the season head coach David Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren are still rolling out plays that we've never seen before. More importantly, they're rolling out plays that opposing defensive coordinators have never seen before.
There is no offense in college football that is more difficult to prepare for, either from a physical standpoint, considering the pounding a defense must endure from the Cardinal's dominant offensive line, or a mental standpoint. Teams have to prepare for dozens of offensive sets that the Cardinal has put on tape, but they always have to know that they will also see something new. The Cardinal debuted several new plays on Saturday night, and the Husky defense -- the best Pac-12 defense west of Utah, by the way -- struggled.
But the defense didn't struggle as much as the offense. As expected, starting quarterback Jake Browning didn't play, leaving the signal calling to redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels, who was once a highly-touted prep quarterback, just like Browning. Carta-Samuels's first drive was fruitless, as he handed the ball three times to tailback Myles Gaskin. Gaskin's third carry came on 3rd and less than a yard, but defensive lineman Aziz Shittu knifed into the backfield to disrupt the play, and linebacker Joey Alfieri finished off Gaskin to force the three and out.
Stanford and Washington traded punts on the next two series before the Cardinal took over on their own 10 to start its third drive of the night. An initial first down was negated somewhat by a pass interference penalty two plays later, and Stanford faced a 2nd and 19 from the 13. This would be problematic for most offenses, but Hogan simply sent McCaffrey out on a wheel route. McCaffrey circled out of the backfield and jab stepped around the unfortunate linebacker assigned to him, and Hogan hit him in stride in the middle of the field. McCaffrey darted ahead to complete the 24-yard play, earn the first down, and remind everyone that he's pretty much always the best player on the field.
Three plays later the Cardinal unleashed another weapon as running back Bryce Love split out wide to the right, took a screen pass from Hogan, and skipped around defensive back Darren Gardenhire as if he were a statue. It was an easy twelve-yard gain and another first down.
But the first quarter ended with David Shaw staring at a 4th and 3 from the Washington 29. We've seen Shaw punt from that spot, and more recently we've seen him send out Conrad Ukropina to kick the field goal, but this time he blew everyone's minds by keeping the offense out on the field. This wasn't fourth and inches, so McCaffrey stayed in the backfield instead of Remound Wright, and he took the handoff to the left, bided his time behind his blockers, and eventually burst upfield for a seven-yard gain and a first down. McCaffrey rolled up 19 yards on the next play and then two more on the one after that before the Designated Vulture came in to finish things up. Wright scored from one-yard out and the Cardinal had a 14-0 lead.
The two teams combined for just two first downs -- one each -- over the next five possessions, but Stanford's was memorable. On the first play of their first possession after the Wright touchdown, Stanford ran an inside fullback screen to Daniel Marx, another play we haven't seen before. What made this play fun, however, was the contribution of Josh Garnett, the best guard in college football. After taking a couple steps backward to sell the pass, Garnett headed upfield ahead of Marx, hunting for someone to block. The prey he found was 196-pound freshman defensive back JoJo McIntosh, and the result was what you'd expect. Garnett put his 321 pounds to work on McIntosh and flipped him in the air like a rag doll without even breaking stride. Six months from now, as Garnett is walking across a stage to shake Roger Goodell's hand, this is the video that will be playing in the background. The drive would eventually fizzle, but that really didn't matter.
The Cardinal still held that 14-0 lead when the offense took the field at the Stanford 23 with 4:10 to play in the first half. Hogan wisely milked the clock as the offense marched down the field efficiently, featuring passes to Austin Hooper, Francis Owusu, and Devon Cajuste. Ukropina finished the drive with a 28-yard field goal at the gun and the Cardinal took a 17-0 lead to the half.
Stanford had dominated the first half, and it certainly felt like they should've scored at least once or twice more to put the Huskies farther back in the rearview mirror. This only seemed like a mild concern, however, until Washington picked up 43 yards on the opening kickoff, and Myles Gaskin strung together five consecutive carries to cover the 57 remaining yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to 17-7. (Okay, if we're being honest, there was no real cause for concern. Anyone who watched the first half knew exactly where this game was headed.)
But just in case there were some folks who were worried, Hogan and his Heroes put those worries to bed on the ensuing drive. The possession opened predictably enough, with two runs from McCaffrey and a third-down conversion from Wright, but soon enough the Cardinal faced 4th and 1 on the wrong 45, a situation that screamed out for a punt. But knowing the strength of his offensive line and the relative weakness of the Washington offense, Shaw took a chance and left the offense out there. With the Cardinal in their Sledgehammer Formation, a reverse wishbone with two fullbacks, one of whom is an offensive lineman in disguise, and Wright at the point, Hogan handed the ball to Wright who smashed through a hole on the right side of the line for a five-yard gain.
Wright has become Stanford's short-yardage back because of his skill, not just his strength. He has an uncanny knack of getting the most difficult yards in football, but he never does it the same way. On this play he made a quick decision and powered through the hole, but on the 3rd and 1 earlier in the drive he had to spin out of a tackle and dive across the marker. On the touchdown play in the second quarter, he launched himself into the air. He does what he has to do, and he's rarely denied.
On the next play, Hogan faked a handoff to Love, then looked towards McCaffrey who had once again circled out of the backfield. Hogan's fake had drawn the defensive back in a few steps, so McCaffrey -- the most dangerous player on the Stanford roster -- was uncovered down the right sideline. Hogan hit him perfectly, and McCaffrey raced the rest of the fifty yards untouched for his first touchdown of the game. McCaffrey was in the end zone again just a few minutes later, this one after a patient seven-yard run, and suddenly the Cardinal was cruising again, up 31-7.
(A quick note about that last touchdown drive. On 1st and 10 from the Washington 25, Hogan hit tight end Greg Taboada for a nice 18-yard gain to the 7. At first view I was impressed by the fearlessness of Taboada's play as he jumped high into the air, extending himself completely in the middle of the field and leaving himself vulnerable to all measures of violence (he landed without incident), but the replay shows something much more interesting. Left tackle Kyle Murphy is split out wide to the right as a wide receiver, and on the snap he calmly takes a step backward and starts jumping up and down, begging for the ball. Murphy played some tight end in high school -- and two years ago at Stanford, when there were no other options to be found at the position -- so I have no doubt he would've made the grab and plowed downfield for a big gain, but Hogan ignored him. We'll have to hope that we see that play again sometime...)
The Huskies put together a scoring drive following that Stanford touchdown to bring the game to its eventual final score of 31-14, and that was pretty much it.
Kevin Hogan was as efficient as we've come to expect, completing 17 of 24 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns, but the star of the game, once again, was Christian McCaffrey. Stanford's next Heisman runner-up had one hundred yards receiving AND one hundred yards rushing, plus those two touchdowns. His 79 yards returning kickoffs boosted his all-purpose total to an even 300 yards, improving his NCAA-leading average to 259.7 yards per game.
A few other notes about McCaffrey, seven games into what's shaping up to be an historic season for him:
- McCaffrey now leads the team in both rushing and receiving yardage, as well as receptions.
- His current all-purpose yardage total of 1,818 ranks ninth on Stanford's all-time single-season list. Should he hit his average next week, he'll vault into fourth place.
- He's one or two kick returns away from cracking the top ten on that single-season list.
- His string of five consecutive 100-yard games trails only Toby Gerhart's school-record streak of seven.
McCaffrey is putting together an impressive résumé that will be difficult to ignore come December, but nothing is more impressive than the wins he's helping his team string together. The Cardinal now sits at 6-1, and more and more pundits are beginning to think about Stanford as a legitimate playoff contender. Some have even suggested that the Cardinal doesn't need any help, that if Stanford runs the table, finishing with a win over Notre Dame and another in the Pac-12 championship game, they'd earn a spot in the playoffs even if four undefeated teams remain.
All of that remains to be seen, but there is one thing that cannot be argued. As we ready to carve our pumpkins here in the last week of October, Stanford is one of the best football teams in America.