Though Saturday proved to be a tale of two halves, Stanford made a big statement under the national spotlight after two convincing but unremarkable wins to start the season.
In front of a sold-out crowd of 50,424 fans at Stanford Stadium, the No. 5 Cardinal (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) defeated No. 23 Arizona State (2-1, 0-1) 42-28 in its first conference matchup of the season — and the weekend’s only matchup between ranked college football teams. After jumping out to a 29-0 lead at the half, the Cardinal released its foot from the gas pedal — junior starting quarterback Kevin Hogan was pulled out of the game early in the fourth quarter before coming back on the final drive — and allowed the Sun Devils to score four touchdowns, three of which came in the fourth quarter.
Still, for the first time all season, Stanford showed how dominant it could be on both sides of the ball when playing up to its potential.
“I’m not going to apologize for winning a football game,” said head coach David Shaw. “I could care less about style points; I could care less about what it looks like. We played one great half and a solid third quarter and a bad fourth quarter. That’s bottom line. I didn’t give the guys fire and brimstone out there. There are teachable moments.”
“There was definitely a little bit of a feeling of a little bit of disappointment,” added fifth-year defensive end Ben Gardner. “We celebrate all wins, and we’re glad we got this one. But we’ve got to take a little more pride in playing our style of football, no matter what the situation.”
Fifth-year defensive end Josh Mauro made the first big play of the afternoon when he intercepted ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly on third-and-9. Three plays later, Hogan connected with junior wide receiver Ty Montgomery on a bubble screen for a 17-yard touchdown for the first points of the contest.
From there, the Cardinal offense kept on rolling and points kept on coming. Touchdown runs by senior halfbacks Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson were followed by another 30-yard touchdown reception by Montgomery, who would finish the game with four catches for 62 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“The biggest thing for us is we want to be diverse,” Shaw said. “You saw the play with Kelsey Young and Ty and Devon [Cajuste] making plays down the field. You saw us spread it out and run it, spread it out and pack it in and throw it…I’d love to see if anybody in the nation is playing as many guys as we are. Talking about playing five receivers and three tight ends, and seven or eight offensive linemen and three backs and three fullbacks. That’s our goal: to be as deep as we can be and as diverse as we can be.”
Meanwhile, the Cardinal defense wasn’t at all fazed by the Kelly-led, up-tempo spread offense. In addition to punting four times in the first half, ASU threw an interception, missed a field goal and conceded a safety. Fifth-year senior inside linebacker Shayne Skov — who would record his first sack of the season in the fourth quarter — and junior cornerback Wayne Lyons led the way with nine tackles apiece for the game, and the defensive unit as a whole racked up 10 tackles for loss and three sacks. Stepping up in place of the injured Barry Browning, senior defensive back Devon Carrington also came through with two pass breakups and five total tackles.
Stanford dominated in all three phases of the game early on. Through the first two quarters, the Cardinal more than doubled the Sun Devils’ offensive production while also limiting their running game to seven yards. And the breakthrough on special teams came when Stanford blocked a punt for a safety — Gardner also blocked a Kelly punt for a safety — that handed the Cardinal a comfortable 29-0 lead heading into halftime.
“I think it was just the front seven and back end working together like we know we can, like we’ve shown we can in the past,” Gardner said. “We were able to get a lot of pressure on ASU up front. That’s because we were able to shut down the run early. The first half, it seemed like everything was clicking.”
The start of the third quarter proved to be an omen for the fourth-quarter disaster, as a 2-yard touchdown run by ASU running back Marion Grice capped a six-play, 75-yard drive that injected new life into the Sun Devils offense. The Cardinal offense tacked on 10 more points — Gaffney scored on a 16-yard scamper for his second touchdown of the day — before the third quarter ended to extend its lead to 39-7, but just when it seemed that Stanford had the game all wrapped up, Shaw pulled Hogan out and put in his backup, junior quarterback Evan Crower, with over 14 minutes left in the game. The consequence: back-to-back three-and-outs on six straight runs that took less than four minutes off the clock.
The Sun Devils offense then caught fire at the right time. Kelly found tight end Chris Coyle on a 45-yard touchdown strike to get things started in the fourth quarter and then cut the deficit to 18 by hooking up with wide receiver Jaelen Strong for a 27-yard score. Both of those drives took fewer than 90 seconds, and though ASU’s next scoring possession took just a little longer, a comeback went from unlikely to probable when Kelly connected with Grice on third-and-goal for a 6-yard touchdown. With 6:18 still left in the game — plenty of time for the explosive Sun Devils offense to turn defensive stops into quick points — Stanford’s 32-point lead had vanished into a tenuous 11-point advantage.
“We’re going back to our mantra, playing 60 minutes of Stanford football,” Shaw said, “and today we played about 40.”
Following the two ugly series plagued by missed blocks with Crower under center, Hogan was finally put back into the game to stop the bleeding. The junior did just that when he fooled everyone on a 27-yard quarterback keeper to convert a second-and-17. Williamson then made a 24-yard chip shot to give Stanford a 42-28 lead. Four plays later, Cardinal fans could finally breathe a sigh of relief when sophomore cornerback Alex Carter ended the game with his first career interception.
“We just found a way to finish, and I’m glad we did,” Montgomery said.
Stanford continues Pac-12 play when it travels to Seattle next weekend to take on Washington State at CenturyLink Field. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. on ESPN.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.