There's no sense trying to come up with a clever lede for this story -- the Stanford offense is back.
Kevin Hogan was still not completely healthy entering the game (he had spent another week in a walking boot protecting that sprained right ankle), but he had no trouble directing the offense in the early going as the Cardinal picked up field goals of 38 and 41 yards from Conrad Ukropina on the game's first two possessions.
Fans are still traumatized enough by last year's red zone struggles that any Stanford drive ending short of a touchdown triggers flashbacks and handwringing, but there was no cause for concern at this point. Both drives were successful -- any drive that produces points is successful -- and we learned that the offense is still expanding. We saw a new wrinkle when Bryce Love lined up behind center in the wildcat, and one of Hogan's first completions was to true freshman Trenton Irwin, whose role in the offense continues to grow. Also, Christian McCaffrey thrilled the crowd with a forty-nine yard scamper on the second drive, the longest run of his short career. There will always be a tendency to wish for touchdowns instead of field goals, but the 6-0 lead didn't feel disappointing.
The Arizona offense, meanwhile, was disappointing. They were missing quarterback Anu Solomon who had been left behind in the desert, still recovering from the concussion he had suffered the week before. Backup quarterback Jerrard Randall is more comfortable running than throwing, so the obvious game plan is to play the run and force him into becoming a passer. That's easier said than done, however, as the Wildcats entered the game averaging more than 300 yards per game on the ground, thanks to Randall and running back Nick Wilson. The Stanford defense stood strong, however, allowing 17 yards on Arizona's first possession, then forcing a three-and-out on the second. The Wildcats wouldn't score in the first quarter, their first scoreless quarter of the season, and they'd rush for only 118 yards on the night.
After those first two drives failed to reach the end zone, the Cardinal offense finally reached pay dirt on its third try. The highlight of this drive came on 1st and 10 from the Arizona 41 when Hogan dropped back to pass, was bumped around a bit in the pocket, then fled to his left before making an awkward but perfect pass to Devon Cajuste for a 32-yard gain. Even though he wasn't healthy, he would still be able to make all the plays necessary, and this play was a beauty. Two plays later McCaffrey took a handoff from the 4, bounced outside to the left, and dove for the pylon for his first career rushing touchdown and a 13-0 Stanford lead.
Arizona got the ball back with 48 seconds left in the first quarter, but already it felt like they were in trouble. Juxtaposed with the Stanford offense, Arizona's offense appears to be running at warp speed. There is no greater contrast in the Pac-12, as Stanford runs the slowest offense in the conference, and the Wildcats are the fastest. This drive, however, was a head-scratcher. Still trying to establish the run, both with Wilson and Randall, Arizona moved down the field like a glacier, inching along one short gain at a time. It took them nineteen plays to cover 73 yards, and there were only two completed passes. Wilson rushed eight times for 27 yards, and Randall kept it five times for 17, but in the end the drive died at the Stanford 8, and the Wildcats settled for a field goal to cut the lead to 13-3.
After the Cardinal responded to that score with a touchdown of their own, this one a one-yard plunge by Touchdown Vulture Remound Wright that pushed the score to 20-3 with just 3:45 to play in the half, I felt comfortable enough to step away from the game for a quick dinner with the family. (The MightyWife had picked up WaBa Grill; those of you in SoCal should check it out for some teriyaki goodness.)
Anyway, it certainly didn't seem like I'd be missing anything, but imagine my surprise when I returned to the game fifteen minutes later and discovered I'd missed another Stanford touchdown. After forcing a three-and-out, the Cardinal offense had taken over at their own 27 with 2:34 to play. With a 17-point lead and so little time left in the half, it would've been a safe bet to assume that the conservative David Shaw would run the ball into the line of scrimmage a few times and head to the locker room, but that's not what happened. Instead, Hogan had dropped back to pass four times, hitting Devon Cajuste for nine yards, Michael Rector for six, then Rector for 42, and finally Wright for a 16-yard touchdown. That series of calls spoke volumes about Shaw's confidence in his offense and his quarterback, but more importantly it gave the Cardinal a commanding 27-3 halftime lead.
Arizona opened the second half with a touchdown drive that really did nothing but give them false hope. The 24-point halftime deficit had forced them to abandon the run almost completely, and even though Randall made two nice passes to cover the final 44 yards of the 75-yard touchdown drive, it was clear that the Wildcats would find nothing but disappointment if they had to continue relying on his arm.
If there was any flicker of hope dancing in the hearts of the most optimistic Arizona fans after that touchdown, McCaffrey crushed it like a cigarette butt beneath his boot when he took the ensuing kickoff and ran it back 67 yards to the Wildcat 29. McCaffrey would account for 21 yards on the short drive before graciously allowing the Touchdown Vulture to collect yet another one-yard score, and the lead was back to 24 points.
After a Wildcat three-and-out, the Cardinal offense started throwing haymakers. Backup quarterback Keller Chryst brought the offense out on the field at his own 23 and scrambled for nine yards before handing the reins back to Hogan. Hogan hit Francis Owusu for 18 yards, handed to McCaffrey for 17, to Love for 15, and then hit Rector for an 18-yard touchdown and a 41-10 lead.
But the plucky little Wildcats wouldn't give up. They responded with a steady eleven-play drive that produced seven points, but then Hogan handed the ball to Barry J. Sanders on the first play of the next drive, and Barry J took it to the house for another highlight reel score, this one good for 65 yards.
Up by 31 points with time still remaining in the third quarter, Coach Shaw was happy to keep Hogan beside him on the sidelines and give the rest of us a peek at the future of Stanford football. After his first drive ended with Stanford's first punt of the game, Chryst was able to get the offense back into a rhythm during his second stint on the field. He completed a twelve-yard pass to Irwin (no doubt the first of more than a hundred connections we'll see between those two over the next few years) and hit Greg Taboada to convert a 4th and 4 on the Arizona 31, but his biggest moment came facing 3rd and goal at the six. Having been given what was probably a run call, Chryst came to the line of scrimmage and noticed that wide receiver Rollin Stallworth had single coverage out to the right. Chryst checked out of the play he had called in the huddle, dropped back to pass, and floated a perfect ball into the corner of the end zone. Stallworth outleaped his defender and made the catch for the first touchdown of both his and Chryst's careers.
That play capped the scoring at 55-17 and put the Cardinal over the half-century mark for the first time since dropping 63 on Cal in 2013. The suddenly prolific Stanford offense has now scored forty points or more in three straight games for the first time since a five-game stretch back in 2011 when Andrew Luck was at the helm.
Speaking of quarterbacks, Kevin Hogan might have played the best game of his life. He had as many touchdowns as incompletions, finishing 17-19 for 217 yards and two scores. (When Chryst's numbers are added in, Stanford quarterbacks went a preposterous 21-23 for 256 yards and three touchdowns.)
The story of the Stanford offense, however, continues to be Christian McCaffrey. He topped the century mark for the third straight game, piling up 156 yards rushing on just 17 carries for a 9.2 YPC average, and he didn't even touch the ball in the fourth quarter. (Taken together, McCaffrey, Sanders, and Love combined for 274 yards on 26 carries for a ridiculous 10.5 yards per carry.) In five games McCaffrey has 601 yards rushing, exactly matching Wright's team-leading total from last season. But McCaffrey obviously does more than just run the ball. He piled up 260 all purpose yards on Saturday night, and he now leads the nation in that category, averaging 229.8 yards per game. Assuming that Stanford continues to win and McCaffrey continues to put up numbers, it won't be long before his name enters the Heisman conversation. I have no doubt that he'll one day continue the great Stanford tradition of finishing second in the Heisman voting.
But none of that really matters in the first week of October. What matters now is that the Cardinal sits atop the Pac-12 North with a 3-0 record and the most complete team in the division. Important games remain, but if there's one thing that's for sure in this topsy-turvy season it's this: the road to the Pac-12 Championship runs through Palo Alto.
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