During the days leading up to Stanford's season opener on Sunday afternoon in Sydney, Australia (Saturday night stateside), head coach David Shaw said that his primary goal was for the team to look prepared. Even though it was August 27th, he didn't want it to look like they were playing their first game of the season.
Stanford completely dismantled the overmatched Rice Owls in a 62-7 win that probably wasn't as close as the score might indicate. The game began with a lightning bolt that immediately erased any of the natural questions regarding the replacement of last year's running back production. Quarterback Keller Chryst came to line at his own 25 for the first play of the game and surveyed the Rice defense. He immediately checked out of what had been called in the huddle, and instead chose a handoff to Bryce Love. A massive hole opened up in the center of the line, and Love wasted no time in exploiting it. He wasn't touched until a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage, and then ran through two tackle attempts before breaking through and sprinting towards the right sideline. Only a shoestring tackle prevented the touchdown, so Love had to settle for 62 yards on his first carry of the season.
The announcers, of course, made a big deal out of this, proclaiming that David Shaw had found his replacement for Christian McCaffrey. While the run was impressive, it was nothing we haven't seen before. Even though there would be much more to come from him on this night, Bryce Love was not a revelation, he was just doing what Bryce Love does.
Two plays later, however, there was a revelation. On 2nd and 10 from the 13, Chryst found tight end Colby Parkinson in the corner of the end zone for Stanford's first touchdown of the season and a 7-0 lead. Few things are more run of the mill than a pass to a Stanford tight end, but it should be noted that Parkinson is a true freshman who was playing his football on Friday nights at this time last year. Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo, and Austin Hooper have two things in common -- they are all currently in the NFL, and they all redshirted during their freshman years at Stanford. The fact that Parkinson has bucked this trend speaks to his prodigious talent; with three older tight ends on the roster ahead of him, there isn't a need at the position, but Parkinson forced Shaw's hand. There would be more from tight ends as the night went on, and more from other true freshmen as well.
Rice's first offensive possession was a train wreck with more penalties (three) than yards from scrimmage (two), and the Stanford offense was back out on the field almost immediately. Love carried the ball once for fourteen yards, but this drive was notable for its diversity, a theme that would play out throughout the rest of the night. Chryst targeted five different receivers (including another true freshman, Connor Wedington; more on him later) as the Cardinal marched into the end zone for another score, this one a two-yard touchdown from junior Cameron Scarlett.
Another three and out from Rice gave the ball back to Chryst and the Stanford offense just a minute and a half later, and the result was much the same. Love continue to run through the Rice defense with little resistance, producing runs of 14, 7, and 10 to push over the century mark before the Aussie fans had finished their first cups of wallaby stew or ordered a vegemite sandwich, but this drive wasn't really about him. David Shaw seemed to be using this moment to send a message to the rest of the Pac-12 about the state of Tight End U. It's alive and well, in case you were wondering. Senior Dalton Schultz took a pass over the middle for a 16-yard gain and a Stanford first down at the Rice 46, and sophomore Scooter Harrington had a six-yard reception two plays later. After having connected with Kaden Smith and Colby Parkinson on earlier drives, that meant that Chryst had completed passes to four different tight ends in the first quarter.
How significant is this? The tight ends would finish the night with a total of 10 receptions for 142 yards and three touchdowns, which is downright frightening. Aside from the size and talent of these four players, defensive coordinators who study Saturday's film will also note their versatility. Different formations found tight ends lining up shoulder to shoulder with the right tackle, in the slot, or even masquerading as wide receivers split out wide, and there were also several two- and three-tight-end sets, all of which bodes extremely well for the Stanford offense.
Love finished this third drive of the game with Stanford's third touchdown, making the score 21-0.
Linebacker Peter Kalambayi pulled down Rice quarterback Sam Glaesmann for a sack on the final play of the first quarter, and he was already on his way to a sparkling day. He'd end up leading the team in tackles with five, and seemed to be around the ball all night. This sack came on fourth down and allowed the Stanford offense to pick right up where it had left off. This time it was Love and Scarlett tag-teaming their way down the field. Scarlett started with an 11-yard run, Love was next with 31, and then Scarlett took it home with a 29-yard touchdown run to make it 28-0.
A quick word about Cameron Scarlett. When he was recruited he was projected to be a power back reminiscent of Toby Gerhart or Tyler Gaffney, but last year the comparison leaned more towards Remound Wright. The expectation was that Love would get the bulk of the work this season, and Scarlett would become the short-yardage battering ram. While Love is clearly the primary back, it's also clear that Scarlett will be much more than just a touchdown vulture. He ran effectively all night long, gaining 59 yards and scoring three touchdowns on just eight carries. His most impressive play, though, came on the Cardinal's next possession. On 1st and 10 from the Stanford 35, Scarlett circled out of the backfield and found himself wide open on a wheel route. Chryst hit him in stride, but Scarlett bobbled it for ten yards or so before gathering it in and ending up with a 56-yard gain. Three plays later he plunged into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown and a commanding 35-0 Stanford lead.
It's going to be fun to watch what Love and Scarlett accomplish together this season. McCaffrey and Love combined for almost 2,400 yards rushing last season, and it's quite possible that Love and Scarlett will approach that neighborhood as well. On this night they'd combine for 239 yards (Love had 13 carries for 180 yards), so they're well on their way.
A field goal from Jet Toner capped the first half scoring at 38-0, and the Cardinal added two more touchdowns in the third quarter to make it 52-0. It seems excessive to outline every series, but there was a play in the Cardinal's second possession of the half that must be mentioned. With Ryan Burns in at quarterback, the offense began at the Rice 49. Burns dropped back and looked to the right towards wide receiver Connor Wedington. The play unfolded a bit strangely, as Burns's pass was either off the mark or directed at Wedington's back shoulder, but Wedington didn't seem to be expecting it where it was delivered. He turned in, but when he saw the ball to his outside, he simply reached out his left hand and caught the pass one-handed for a 33-yard gain. It was a jaw-dropping play, one that spoke volumes about the talent this player brings to the program. The Washington native was a long-time Washington commit, but those who follow recruiting will remember that he broke up with the Huskies the day his Stanford acceptance arrived. His flip to the Cardinal was thought to be significant at the time, but I can't imagine anyone outside the program thought his impact would be felt this early. (Perhaps we should've expected something when word broke that he'd be wearing #5 this season.) Wedington is an elite talent, just another weapon in what could be the most versatile Stanford offense in years. He led the team in receiving with 6 catches for 82 yards. True freshman.
Speaking of true freshmen, both Walker Little and Foster Sarell made their Stanford debuts, and Little's play was significant. With A.T. Hall at home with an injury, sophomore Devery Hamilton got the start at right tackle. Hamilton struggled a bit early on, and Little took over during the second quarter. Not only did Little get more time than Hamilton, he outplayed him, shoring up what had been a leaky right side of the line. It's going to be interesting to watch this going forward. Has Little vaulted past Hamilton? Does Hall have a job when he comes back? Might Hamilton move to one of the guard spots? Stay tuned.
Finally, there's K.J. Costello. Observers reported that he struggled a bit in the spring game, and it could be that his disappointing performance last April led Shaw to keep the playbook open when Costello entered the game at the start of the fourth quarter. It's not unusual for Shaw to keep the ball on the ground when he has a lead as small as 10 or 14 points in the fourth quarter, so it was mind-blowing to see Costello lining up in the shotgun and throwing the ball with a 48-point lead. He was impressive. He was only 5 of 9 for 80 yards (he also had a 25-yard scramble for a touchdown), but he looked confident, his passes were crisp, and he controlled the game. In many ways this season will be a referendum on Stanford's quarterback development process. Even though the Rice defense didn't offer much resistance, both Chryst and Costello passed their first tests.
As for the rest of the team, things get serious rather quickly after this. A 55-point win over Rice is nice, but a win over the highly-ranked USC Trojans in the Coliseum in Week 2 would be something else entirely.