The seventh-ranked and now 9-1 Cardinal passed a major test Saturday night in Tempe, coming away with a hard-fought, mettle-testing 17-13 victory after surviving an inspired effort by the ASU defense that held the fast-starting, high-scoring Cardinal to just seven points in the first half. Fortunately, the Cardinal had packed its defense for this challenging road trip as it would face an unfamiliar challenge, needing pulling out a low-scoring struggle in a game’s closing moments. It was one of those experiences that can bring a team together, where the offense and defense can both feel good about each other. It was clearly a team win.
Senior fullback Owen Marecic scored both Cardinal touchdowns on short runs and redshirt junior Heisman Trophy candidate Andrew Luck was once again an obvious difference-maker, leading his determined teammates on two critical fourth-quarter drives that kept alive a dream of a 2010 season.
With the Cardinal playing without its most-threatening offensive weapon in WR/KR Chris Owusu, senior Doug Baldwin came through with a big 10-catch, 122-yard night and the two Whalens made several a number of nice plays. Still, it was the late emergence of the Cardinal’s signature ground game, fired by tough running from true freshman Anthony Wilkerson, that finally wore down the Devils and led to their ultimate demise.
It wasn’t easy. This one had to be earned all the way to the finish. Coach Harbaugh was clearly impressed with the daunting speed of the Devil defense, referring to ASU as a fast, athletic, well-coached football team that easily could be 8-2 instead of 4-6. After seeing the Devils first-hand, it was hard not to admire their effort.
A few mistakes, more than a few penalties, and one monumental turnover cost ASU a shot at a major upset. Early in the second quarter, the Devils were poised to punch it in and take a lead after gaining a first and goal at the Cardinal two, but play-making junior safety Michael Thomas, who was credited with eight solo tackles on the night, forced a fumble by ASU QB Steven Threet at the goal line and it was recovered first by Richard Sherman and apparently then by Barry Browning in the end zone for a touchback that proved to be one of the decisive moments in the game.
While attention will be drawn rightfully to Luck’s clutch efficiency in crunch-time, the Card defense should receive a collective game ball. When the offense really needed the ball, the defense obliged with big-time stops. The stingy Stanford defense limited the Devil attack to just 268 total yards and was opportunistic in forcing key turnovers and getting a game-changing three & out after ASU had one final shot with 5:14 left to play.
As usual, linebacker Shayne Skov came up with several big plays and generally set a determined tone with his emotional, relentless play. The Mohawk-sporting menace recorded seven tackles, a sack, a tackle for loss, and forced fumble. Nice.
Facing a 13-10 deficit with 10:36 left in the fourth quarter and starting at its own 15, Stanford stepped up and produced a memorable lead-grabbing 11-play, 85-yard drive highlighted by a brilliant play-call on a critical third & one when Luck found senior tight end Konrad Reuland for a 13-yard drive-sustaining completion. It was a play that was added just this week, a throw option off of a sucker (naked bootleg) that Coach Harbaugh said had not been run before during his four years at Stanford.
Averaging more than 220 years per game coming in, Stanford really struggled on the ground against the quick-closing Sun Devils, rushing for 128 yards, but having just 30 yards on 25 carries through three quarters, with 65 of those yards from Wilkerson (#32). Luck didn’t find the end-zone, but was otherwise pretty outstanding, going 33-41 for 292 yards and, while he did throw two interceptions, one of them fortunately was called back on a defensive holding call.
In the second quarter, Luck showed off his poise and arm strength simultaneously, completing a 44-yard pass to Doug Baldwin (10-122) while literally in the grasp of an hostile ASU defender, a spectacular showcase play that will be added to #12’s already impressive career highlight reel.
Also making the season highlight film will be Wilkersons’ almost comical intentional flop on the final drive, when he broke free for a certain score, but smartly followed Harbaugh’s instructions and stopped himself just short of the goal line, sitting down in-bounds and safely securing the victory instead of succumbing to the tempting pursuit of individual glory. It also showed some respect for Dennis Erickson’s Devils, who deserved to have this game seen for the close battle it was.
In the post-game locker room, Coach Harbaugh complimented his team for coming through like champions and winning a tough, close game on the road. He was understandably annoyed by earlier suggestions that this game in Tempe would be a potential let-down or trap game, feeling that such suggestions insinuated that the staff and players would be preparing any less for this game than any other. He went out of his way to credit an inspired Sun Devils team that used its speed and tenacity to give the Cardinal all it wanted from this contest.
The Card will look to dig deep once again next Saturday at against arch-rival UC Berkeley. A hostile Memorial Stadium crowd will be lying in wait for the high-flying Cardinal. As we all know, anything can and will happen in the 113th edition of the Big Game.
Strangely, it is a bit difficult even to type the following statement: The 2010 Stanford Cardinal is… 9-1! Holy Harbaugh!
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