Luck, Owusu shred Wildcats; Stanford keeps BCS hopes alive
Playing at the center of the national stage, Stanford’s football team made a resounding statement on Saturday night.
The No. 6 Cardinal (8-1, 5-1 Pac-10) defeated No. 18 Arizona (7-2, 4-2), unleashing offensive fireworks en route to a 42-17 victory. The win keeps Stanford in the discussion for a possible berth in the Rose Bowl or another BCS bowl.
“We’re playing for a championship,” Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh said. “That’s our goal-to get to the Rose Bowl and win a Pac-10 championship. That’s all we’re playing for.”
The game featured two marquee quarterbacks in Stanford redshirt sophomore Andrew Luck and Arizona junior Nick Foles, leading some to expect the game to be an offensive shootout. Luck and the Stanford offense certainly fulfilled those expectations, tallying 510 yards, including 293 yards on 23-32 passing from Luck.
“We prepared ourselves for a shootout,” said junior defensive back Michael Thomas. “We had some goals in mind…if it came down to a shootout, we were prepared.”
The Stanford offense set the tone early in the game, scoring a touchdown on a 45-yard strike from Luck to junior receiver Chris Owusu, who was streaking wide open down the left sideline. The score indicated that the Card would be able to move the ball at will against an overhyped Arizona defense.
The Wildcats entered the game highly ranked in a number of defensive statistical categories. Arizona was seventh nationally in scoring defense, 10th in total defense and sixth in rushing defense and was recording almost 3.5 sacks per game. Stanford notched yardage marks well above Arizona’s season averages, especially in the running game-Cardinal rushers rolled up 217 yards against a run defense that had previously surrendered an average of 88.4 yards per game. Sophomore running back Stepfan Taylor, while held to a relatively low 82 yards, scored four touchdowns.
Stanford was able to move the ball against Arizona chiefly because it neutralized a Wildcat defensive line that features two of the best defensive ends in the conference, Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed. The Stanford offensive line contained both players all night, surrendering no sacks and giving Luck plenty of time to allow his receivers’ routes to develop and make plays. Elmore and Reed each had just one tackle on the night.
“I think our line took it personally, and they were excited about going against the best ends in the conference,” Harbaugh said. “Our guys wanted to prove something as well. More so than any other week, I think they had a mindset of proving something tonight.”
In the receiving game, Owusu led all receivers for both Stanford and Arizona, hauling in nine catches for 165 yards and a touchdown.
“Chris had a wonderful evening,” Harbaugh said. “He had a big play to get our first points on the board. He did a double move, made it at about 16 yards, and then got about 10 yards of separation.”
Owusu also made a diving catch to preserve a Stanford drive early in the fourth quarter. He dived forward to gain a little separation from two Arizona defensive backs and kept his hands under the ball to preserve the completion.
“That might be the best catch I’ve ever seen in person from the sideline,” Harbaugh said. “I thought that was an unbelievable catch.”
While Stanford’s offense moved easily against an exposed Arizona defense, the Stanford defense continued to play well. After a string of rough outings, the Card bounced back last week, shutting out Washington on the road. Facing an elite quarterback in Foles, the Cardinal rose to the challenge again, severely limiting the Wildcat offense. Despite rolling up 428 yards, Arizona only mustered 17 points.
Stanford’s defense also played well in the clutch. Though Arizona looked good on the stat sheet in piling up yards, it went just 7-16 on third-down conversions and 1-3 on fourth-down conversions. The Cardinal defense also played well in the red zone-the Wildcats only converted three of five red zone opportunities. Stanford killed three Arizona drives with clutch plays-one drive ended in an interception by senior cornerback Richard Sherman, one with a fourth-down pass deflection on the Stanford five-yard line by redshirt junior linebacker Thomas Keiser and one on an intentional grounding from Foles as he was being sacked for a big loss by sophomore linebackers Shayne Skov and Chase Thomas.
“Foles is a great quarterback, one of the best quarterbacks in the nation,” said junior safety Delano Howell. “It was great to play against one of the best.”
Uncharacteristically, the secondary led Stanford on the stat sheet. Howell and Sherman had 11 and 10 tackles respectively, and Michael Thomas and senior safety Taylor Skaufel added six tackles apiece.
The win over Arizona vaulted the Cardinal into the No. 6 spot in the BCS standings, up from No. 13 last week. The team is the second-highest ranked one-loss team, behind No. 5 LSU.
Stanford had the opportunity to impress a large number of poll voters during the primetime, nationally televised game. A BCS bowl game is no guarantee, however, even if the Cardinal manages to win out. There are many scenarios that could see Stanford in the Rose Bowl, a different BCS bowl or a lesser bowl, like the Alamo or Holiday Bowl.
Stanford’s apparent lack of significant fan support could be an obstacle in earning an at-large BCS bowl berth. Barring two losses by current Pac-10 leader Oregon, an at-large berth is the only way Stanford could get into the BCS. However, Stanford Stadium didn’t fill up anywhere near its capacity against Arizona. Significant chunks of the upper bowl were empty.
When asked about the lack of fan support, Harbaugh said, “All we were really concerned about was coming in here and getting a win. We’ll keep coaching and playing-we’re not worried about anything else.”
Harbaugh also addressed Stanford’s position in the polls.
“I’m not a guy who concerns himself with polls and things like that,” Harbaugh said. “But, speaking on behalf of my guys and Stanford football, this is a one-loss team that’s only lost to the No. 1 ranked team in the country. It’s probably about time they got some recognition.”
Miles Bennett-Smith contributed to this report.