The sun was still high enough in the sky above Stanford Stadium to filter through the light towers and surrounding trees and cast wide swaths of sunlight across the field as Christian McCaffrey stood near his own goal line to receive the first kick of the Cardinal's 2016 season. The last time we had seen McCaffrey on a football field had been on the first day of the year when he announced to the world -- or at least to those who didn't already know -- that even if he hadn't won the Heisman Trophy, he was undoubtably the best college football player on the planet, one of the best ever to play the game.
So when Kansas State's Ian Patterson put his foot into the ball and sent it hurtling towards McCaffrey, a fan could be excused for filling those last few seconds of anticipation with thoughts of all that happened in the previous autumn and what might unfold over the coming months. The summer had been filled with questions about the quarterback, concerns about a rebuilt offensive line, whispers about a stronger, faster McCaffrey, and dreams of a playoff berth -- the kinds of issues that are common to college football fans across America. But when he football finally fell into McCaffrey's arms at the 8, he returned it 28 yards to the 36, the season was underway, and those issues faded into the background.
Kind of. As excited as fans are to watch Stanford's Heisman candidate, all eyes were focused on Ryan Burns, the winner of Stanford's first quarterback competition in four years. We were told that while Burns would start, Keller Chryst would also see the field, and many observers (including me) speculated that the competition wasn't over, but had simply become public. As it turned out, we were wrong. Chryst played just one series in the first half and wouldn't return after that. Whether that was according to plan or a result of Burns's effective play, we can't know.
How effective was Burns? On this opening drive, he was perfect. After a quick six-yard run by McCaffrey, Burns dropped back on 2nd and 4 to throw his first pass of the day. He looked to his left, but when the pocket collapsed he stepped niftily around some pressure and calmly looked to his right for the best check down option in America, Christian McCaffrey. It was a simple eight-yard throw, but it gained a first down and likely settled some nerves. More important than that, this small play showed he was ready to run the offense. Two plays later, facing his first third down, Burns would hit Trenton Irwin for an easy nine-yard completion and a first down. Irwin, often described as the best route runner on the team, lined up in the slot and simply drove his defender off the line of scrimmage, then turned and sat down just beyond the first down marker and waited for Burns to put the ball in his lap. With all the speed in the backfield and on the edge, plus the size and skill of tight ends Greg Taboada and Dalton Schultz, we can expect to see this play a lot on third downs. It's just too difficult for defenses to defend.
On the very next snap, a 1st and 10 from the K-State 37, we saw another play that will be nearly impossible to defend. McCaffrey took a pitch from Burns and headed to his right, bringing the entire defense and every eye in the stadium with him. He then flipped the ball to wide receiver Michael Rector on the reverse. Rector sprinted back across to the left with fullback Daniel Marx in front of him, just about to engage a block. If Rector had waited just a second, or even if he had just chosen to cut to Marx's right instead of his left, he would've cruised to the end zone, but instead he was pulled down after gaining just a yard. Bryce Love, who's good enough to be the starting running back at every school in the conference but this one, was on the sidelines with an injury. Had he been in the game for this play -- and trust me, he will run this play once he gets healthy -- he'd have scored easily.
The drive stalled a few plays later when Cam Scarlett's first Stanford carry resulted in a three-yard loss on 3rd and 2, but Conrad Ukropina cooly pumped in a 50-yard field goal to give the Cardinal a 3-0 lead.
Stanford's other kicker, place kicker Jake Bailey, had a spectacular night, and it started here on a sequence I've never seen before. Offsides penalties are rare enough on kickoffs, but somehow the Stanford coverage team managed to leak ahead of Bailey twice, drawing a flag and a five-yard penalty each time. All Bailey did was put the ball on the goal line three times in a row, kicking first from his 35, then the 30, and finally the 25. Over the rest of the evening he'd pound three kicks into the end zone, but he was even better as a punter, averaging 46 yards a kick and pinning the Wildcats deep four times, on their 10, 7, 2, and 1, proving that not all of Stanford's weapons are on the offense. Bailey will be something to watch this season.
The Kansas State offense, led by Jesse "Don't Call Me Zach" Ertz, came out for its first possession and was largely ineffective aside from a 19-yard quarterback scramble, and the Wildcats were forced to punt from their own 46. McCaffrey fielded Nick Walsh's kick at the 3 yard line and broke off one of the most ridiculous returns you'll ever see. He was immediately surrounded by three Wildcats inside the 5, and all three players hit him simultaneously, but somehow our hero was able to spin free. Next he pulled his foot away from a fourth diving defender, zig-zagged through traffic while shedding a few attempted arm tackles, and finally broke free down the left sideline, exploding into daylight and igniting the Stanford crowd. By my count, seven different K-State players got a hand on him, but no one was able to bring him down. There was a flag on the play for an illegal block, which negated the touchdown, but it didn't make the effort any less amazing. After the game David Shaw would gently criticize the decision to field a punt inside the five (McCaffrey would explain that he "just let instincts take over"), but he did concede that it was "the best punt return I've ever seen that didn't count."
On his second drive of the day, Burns continued firing one completion after another in critical moments. He hit Taboada for 12 yards on 3rd and 7, then Rector for 15 on 3rd and 5, and finally back to Taboada for 25 on 3rd and 14, the final play of the first quarter. On the opening play of the second, Burns went to play action from the Wildcat 40. The Kansas State safety was already cheating towards the line for a run blitz, so when Burns looked to be handing the ball to McCaffrey, he was completely suckered. That left Rector alone in the slot against sophomore cornerback Duke Shelley, and it really wasn't fair. Rector flowed around Shelley like river, gaining five yards of separation by the time Burns's perfect throw hit him in stride in the end zone for Stanford's first touchdown of the game. (Rector also scored the Cardinal's first touchdown in 2015, remember? Perhaps a good omen...)
After another uneventful Kansas State drive (two first downs before a failed fourth down attempt), the Cardinal offense came back out on the field, this time with Keller Chryst, the man most expected to win the quarterback job. Just like Burns, Chryst threw his first pass to McCaffrey for an eleven-yard gain to shake any nerves he might have had. Then it was all C-Mac. McCaffrey rushed for three, nine, and seven yards on the next three plays before taking a fourth consecutive handoff that was designed to take him through the left side of the line. With all of his linemen flowing in that direction, McCaffrey shuffled through the crush of bodies and bounced back out to the right side and turned on the jets. His lead blocker? Keller Chryst. You might remember a crushing pancake block from Chryst that sprung McCaffrey for a touchdown last year against Arizona, and this was much the same. Shelley was the victim again. Chryst probably could have let him go, but he flipped him onto his shoulder pads anyway, just as McCaffrey was crossing the goal line for his first touchdown (that counted) since last year's Rose Bowl.
Now leading 17-0, the Stanford defense went to work, forcing a quick three and out from the Wildcats. Kansas State's next possession was better, though. Starting at their own 33, Ertz and company used six plays (and a Stanford pass interference penalty) to earn a 1st and goal at the 8. From there the Cardinal defense held strong, however, forcing the Wildcats to settle for a chip shot field goal that cut the lead to 17-3.
In the second half, things got a bit crazy. After putting themselves in a 1st and 20 hole on the first possession of the third quarter, Ertz managed to complete two passes to get a first down at the 38, but when he was sacked on the next play and knocked out of the game, Coach Bill Snyder sent in backup Joe Hubener and asked him to throw right away. His pass floated like a wounded duck, so bad and so off-target that safety Dallas Lloyd probably had time to call for a fair catch before cradling it for the interception. He returned it 26 yards, and the Cardinal was in business at the K-State 40, looking for the touchdown that would effectively put the game away.
But then we saw the first hint of Burns's inexperience. Burns never took a snap from under center in high school, and there were real concerns about that after he arrived on the Farm, so much so that he would often spend entire practices working on the quarterback-center exchange. But on 2nd and 6 he ran a play he should've been comfortable with -- a read option. Burns started to his right with McCaffrey on his left hip. He put the ball in his running back's arms, but when he tried to pull it back at the last second, the ball squirted loose and was suddenly going back in the other direction. Linebacker Charmeachealle Moore had scooped it up and rumbled down the left sideline for what looked to be a K-State touchdown until it was revealed that Moore had stepped out of bounds at the Stanford 29. The Cardinal defense yielded one first down from there, but once again forced a field goal, and the lead was now 17-6.
Suddenly the Stanford offense was sputtering. Their first six possessions of the second half looked like this:
3 plays for 4 yards; fumble.
3 plays for 7 yards; punt.
6 plays for 18 yards; punt.
3 plays for -1 yard; punt.
3 plays for 2 yards; punt.
Fortunately for them, the defense was playing lights out. After that last three and out by the offense, Jake Bailey pinned the Wildcats deep in their own end with a punt that was downed at the 2 yard line. Seconds later Jordan Watkins pulled down Ertz for a safety that gave the Cardinal their first points of the second half. Trailing 19-6 with 4:09 to play, the Wildcats caught the Cardinal sleeping and recovered an onside kick at their own 34. Beginning to feel some desperation, Ertz threw seven straight passes, completing three, including one to Dominique Heath for 44 yards and another to Isaiah Zuber for a 15-yard touchdown.
Looking back at it now it seems more serious than it really was, but after dominating the first half, the Cardinal found itself up by just six points. Thankfully they still had the best player on the field.
This play was relatively simple. McCaffrey took the ball from Burns, took advantage of a nice lead block from his fullback, then ripped through a wide open hole in the line. The Kansas State defense, no doubt feeling the momentum from that last touchdown and geared up to stop the run, was flying towards the line of scrimmage, but every defender was erased. By the time McCaffrey was five yards beyond the line, the play was over. He sprinted the rest of the way untouched. He had been bottled up for much of the second half, but this 41-yard run pushed him over 100 yards rushing for the fourteenth straight game and clinched the victory for the Cardinal.
Fittingly, the Wildcats' hopes were finally extinguished when linebacker Peter Kalambayi sacked Ertz for a fourteen-yard loss on 4th and 16. It was the defense's tenth sack of the afternoon (their highest total in three years), led by Kalambayi with 2.5 and Watkins with two. Four other players also recorded sacks in what was a fairly dominant performance.
"I can't express how excited I am about our [defensive line rotation]," Shaw said after the game. "It allows you to finish the game." Solomon Thomas was essentially unblockable and wreaked havoc in the backfield all night, but he couldn't have been so strong for so long without that rotation Shaw spoke about. In addition to Thomas and Watkins, Harrison Phillips had three tackles and a sack, and former tight ends Eric Cotton and Luke Kaumatule also contributed.
There is definitely work to be done on both sides of the ball, but this was still an impressive season opener. (If you doubt that, think back to last year.) Burns didn't throw his first incompletion until midway through the third quarter, finishing a respectable 14 for 18 for 156 yards and a touchdown, but more important than that, he managed the game well. He looked to secondary receivers, seemed comfortable changing plays at the line of scrimmage, and, perhaps most surprisingly, there wasn't a single delay of game penalty, an issue which has plagued the Stanford offense for years.
The talent level on the other side of the ball will take a huge leap when the Cardinal next takes the field in two weeks against USC, but this was a good first step. Stanford is 1-0. What's not to like about that?