Leading up to their season-opener against San Jose State, Stanford made it clear that they hadn’t forgotten the scare the Spartans put into them in last year’s 20-17 victory.
This time around, the Cardinal displayed a more serious approach to their opponent to go along with a more dynamic playmaker under center as they rolled to a 34-13 win in front of a 50,000-plus sellout crowd on The Farm.
Quarterback Kevin Hogan’s numbers weren’t spectacular (17-for-27, 207 yards, two touchdowns) but he didn’t have to be as Stanford established a very balanced attack behind running back Tyler Gaffney, who rushed for 104 yards and two touchdowns and looked to be every bit the workhorse back the Cardinal need to replace Stepfan Taylor.
Returning after a year playing Class-A baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, Gaffney provided the tough inside yards on short yardage plays and showed bursts of speed that kept Stanford drives alive and wore down the Spartan defense. Multiple times during the game he left Spartan defenders either grasping at air or flat out ran through their tackles, most notably on his first touchdown run in the second quarter when he shook safety Simon Connette at the line of scrimmage and darted 16 yards untouched.
It was clear from the onset that Stanford was determined to establish the offensive balance that sets them apart from much of the spread-heavy Pac-12 these days, lining up in mostly power sets on their first drive, then spreading it out and going with three wide receivers on their second drive. They kept that mix throughout the game, and the Spartans rarely had an answer for either look.
With a size advantage on both sides of the line, Stanford dominated in the trenches, giving Hogan plenty of time in the pocket. While the Cardinal are looking for some new playmakers to step in for departed tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo, wideouts Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste had solid games on the outside and both hauled in touchdown passes, perhaps signaling a shift in the Cardinal passing attack.
Cardinal coach David Shaw acknowledged his team’s offensive mindset after the game.
“One of the things I learned early on as a player from Coach (Bill) Walsh, was you want to be balanced,” he said. “You want to be big and physical up front, but you also want to throw it. You want to get in and out.”
Shaw also acknowledged the fact that while most of college football is evolving offensively, his team is remaining true to their old school philosophy.
“There are not a lot of teams that look like us anymore, and that’s fine,” he said. “We don’t worry about trying to score as many points as we can. We want to control the ball. We want to score on every possession, and we want to play great defense.”
For two teams that claim to run balanced, West Coast offenses, the contrast was rather stark.
The Spartans seemed to acknowledge from the start the disadvantage they had at the line of scrimmage.
After their 24-0 victory over Sacramento State to start the season, I pondered the idea that coach Ron Caragher kept a lid on the real offense the Spartans would attack Stanford with — and they confirmed those suspicions out of the gate. A week after heavily featuring tight ends and fullbacks and quarterback David Fales spending a lot of time under center, Fales led a no-huddle spread offense with a lot of 4-5 receiver sets. Most of his passes were on three step drops, and the offense was heavy on quick and bubble screens in the first half.
San Jose State’s offense was fairly effective moving down the field, but the first half was a trade off of sorts–field goals for touchdwons — that favored the Cardinal, who took a 17-6 lead into halftime.
It was more of the same to start the second half, as Stanford extended its lead to 27-6 on a Jordan Williamson field goal and Montgomery’s 17-yard touchdown. An ensuing 9-play, 47-yard drive by San Jose State that culminated in a 13-yard touchdown pass from Fales to Noel Grigsby made things somewhat interesting, especially after a miscue by the Cardinal put the Spartans within striking distance early in the fourth quarter.
With (for some reason) backup quarterback Dallas Lloyd under center, a botched play-fake resulted in a fumble recovery for the Spartans. Down two scores, they began a drive toward midfield that only lasted four plays before Fales attempted to throw the ball away under pressure, only to see it hauled in by Cardinal safety Ed Reynolds — the same man who iced last year’s victory with a fourth quarter interception. It was Stanford’s FBS-leading 25th straight game with at least one takeaway.
The takeaway for the Cardinal is that they came out sharp in their season opener–knocking off some rust while still keeping a team that went 11-2 a year ago from ever actually contending for the lead. They established their offensive balance, controlled the line of scrimmage and acclimated some new playmakers into the offense. In the case of Gaffney, they welcomed back a solid rusher who has the makings of the classic workhorse back that has defined the Cardinal offense over the last six years.
With the Pac-12 — the North division especially–skewing toward fast paced spread offenses, game-planning week in and week out could actually favor the Cardinal. While they will spend most weeks preparing for similar offenses, their opponents will have a less familiar and more physical team to contend with when they face Stanford.
For the Spartans, it was a lopsided result but not a loss that should have lingering affects over the season as a whole. They appeared to come out of the game relatively healthy, and showed an offensive attack that favored their stacked receiving corps and should fare well in Mountain West play. Running back Jason Simpson, while not rolling up any impressive statistics (his 11 carries for 43 yards reflect the fact that San Jose State spent the entire game playing catch-up) showed the sort of burst and durability — against possibly the best defense in the nation–that could make him the every down back the Spartans need.
While Stanford has legitimate national title aspirations, for San Jose State it’s all about winning in the Mountain West — and nothing about Saturday’s loss suggested they can’t do just that. Caragher confirmed as much after the game.
“I told the team, it really is about the Mountain West,” he said. “I play to win the game. But if we get better and we learn from this and it helps us out in conference play, then great.”