If you were one of the 26,950 in attendence today at Stanford Stadium, you may have seen an pleasantly foreboding site as the team rushed onto the field just before gametime. After three days of overcast cloud cover and intermitant rain (including scattered showers earlier this day), the sun broke through and cast a warm glow on the home Cardinal. As luck would have it, good fortune did shine on this Stanford football team early and often in their 38-27 win over Arizona State.
The game could not have started any better for the Cardinal. On the kickoff ASU was flagged for a holding penalty that pinned them back deep in their own territory. After a five-yard run and an incompletion, the Sun Devils went to the air on third down but Andrew Walter threw an errant pass off the back of redshirt freshman linebacker Mike Silva, who had just entered the game for Stanford's 3-4 pressure defense. For the second straight week a ball deflected into the air and was picked off by an opportunistic Trevor Hooper. The redshirt freshman safety returned it five yards to the ASU 11-yardline, and the Card were in business.
Stanford brought out three tight ends, with Brett Pierce and Matt Traverso lined up tight and Alex Smith offset in the backfield as the fullback. Chris Lewis was under center and faked a handoff to tailback Kenneth Tolon. The defense bit while Lewis rolled out slowly and deep in the backfield to his left. The fifth-year senior QB had only one defender in front of him, which he beat in the open field with a quick juke and then a race into the endzone. After just one play on offense and with 13:59 still remaining in the first quarter, Stanford took a surprising 7-0 lead. It was just the beginning.
ASU would punt on their next possession, giving Stanford the ball on their own 17. Curiously, J.R. Lemon was in as the tailback instead of Tolon, and the offense showed a power formation with Cooper Blackhurst as the fullback and two TEs lined up tight. Lewis again went to play-action and threw deep for Luke Powell, though incomplete. The play did not work, but the Sun Devil defense was plenty perplexed and would play the rest of the possession back on their heels.
"The success we had today throwing the ball deep was by design," head coach Buddy Teevens commented afterward. "They pressured us, which we knew they would do. They wanted to stop the run. J.R. did a great job taking the ball inside, and then we went to play action. We did a nice job today keeping them off-balance."
And Lemon did indeed put ASU back on the defensive with three productive runs to move the ball in the series, including a big seven-yard pickup on second down that ignited the drive. An 11-yard carry later would push the ball into Sun Devil territory and set up the big strike.
After three Lemon runs for 22 yards, ASU was looking to stop him and bit on play-action when when Lewis threw the deep fade pattern to true freshman Evan Moore that Cardinal fans have been clamoring for all year. Moore had a good yard of separation on the smaller ASU defender, and smartly used his hands to keep that separation as the high-arching pass dropped right to him at the seven-yardline. Moore would carry the tackler with him as he fell forward to the one-yardline. The 47-yard play was a career long for Moore and the second longest offensive play for Stanford of the year. On the very next play Stanford went with the triple-I power running formation and saw Lemon bulldoze his way into the endzone.
If you arrived late to the game, you were probably shocked to see Stanford up 14-0 with more than half the first quarter still remaining. That 83-yard drive was the Cardinal's longest of the year, and it incredibly took just 2:28 off the clock. Frankly those are very un-Stanfordlike offensive numbers these days, though perhaps times are a-changing.
It looked like the good guys would have a chance to really pile on when ASU fumbled soon thereafter. Redshirt junior free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe made an open-field tackle on running back Loren Wade and stripped the ball as they both were headed to the ground. Stanford nose tackle Babatunde Oshinowo made a quick dive and landed on the free ball, handing Stanford another golden opportunity in excellent field position at the Sun Devil 20-yardline.
But the Card would not convert as they committed their first blunder of the day. Chris Lewis forced a pass under pressure toward redshirt junior wide receiver Greg Camarillo. The ball was deflected by the covering defender, was tipped up into the air by another defender on the ground and then caught by ASU defensive end Jimmy Verdon. The visiting Sun Devils picked up two first downs but punted the ball away harmlessly.
Stanford mounted another long scoring drive, this one covering 74 yards on nine plays spanning the first and second quarters. The two key conversions came at the start of the second quarter, when Lewis hit true freshman Mark Bradford on the sideline for an eight-yard gain and a first down on a 3rd & 4 situation at midfield. On the very next play Lemon took the ball on a cutback to the left side and rumbled for a 32-yard pickup down to the 10-yardline. The run was the longest for Stanford from scrimmage this year, and it set up the redshirt sophomore tailback for his second score of the game. This one came up the middle on the next play for 10 yards, and to be honest it looked very easy. The drive took just 3:30, and Stanford was in complete command, up 21-0
Lemon in particular was picking up big chunks of yardage, seemingly running in open space at the point of attack. When the Sun Devil defense thought Stanford was going to run, play-action was converting in the air. When ASU responded to Stanford's spread offensive formations in anticipation of the pass, Lemon tore them up on the ground.
"The draw plays were just working perfectly," Lemon opines. "We did a lot from our spread formations, and the defense had just six men in the box. Any running back worth his salt could have run against that.."
The 225-pound tailback from Sandy Creek HS in Fayetteville, GA logged career highs of 151 yards on 34 carries. That game-controlling 4.4 yards per carry was more than Arizona State could handle. Though Lemon humbly commented on his workload afterward.
"As a running back you want the ball in your hands as much as possible," he admits. "But at the same time you don't want to be selfish. This was a team win."
The Sun Devils would make a surge, though, with their own quick-strike drive. They started the next possession with the ball on their own 33, and on second down Walter found a wide-open Derek Hagan in the flat. The 6'2" sophomore receiver headed up the left sideline and would run around and through a woeful set of attempted Stanford tackles. Leigh Torrence was the first to whiff, barely getting one hand on Hagan. Then Stanley Wilson and Oshiomogho Atogwe would miss. The final gasp came from defensive tackle Scott Scharff. Hagan would run the final 30 yards easily into the endzone for the score and a temporary shot of energy into the lifeless visitors.
But that would be their last score of the half, as their horrific offense struggled to do anything consistent. Andrew Walter did not complete a pass the next two possessions, and their one first down in three possessions came on a very questionable pass interference. Walter was chucking every other pass deep down the field, in search of the big pass play. But the plays were not connecting. Prior to a hurry-up offense ASU enacted in the final minute of the second quarter, Walter had completed only three passes other than the flukish 67-yard catch and run. And those three completions totaled just 15 yards. There was no balance in the offense, either, as the running game was given only token attention.
Stanford on the other hand was firing on cylinders. On their last possession of the half, they drove 86 yards for their fourth touchdown of the game. The drive featured more running by Lemon, but also three passes to the tight ends. The first picked up 15 yards to Brett Pierce, while the next two found Alex Smith in the middle of the field. That final toss hit Smith just short of the goalline, and he fell over backwards to cross over for the score.
28-7. 295 yards of offense. What a half.
In the second half, the plot line was not all that dissimilar to the UCLA game a week ago. With Stanford protecting a lead, the offense went into a very conservative game plan. After a completely balanced first half that saw 24 runs and 24 passes, the second half saw Lewis attempt only 10 passes versus 29 rushes. In the fourth quarter, the Card threw only one pass versus 15 runs. There were plenty of Cardinalmaniacs™ who hoped to see their boys really pour it on, or perhaps push the edge of the envelope on some offensive statistics. For example, Stanford was stuck on 279 passing yards for the final 14:54 of the game.
Conservative though the offense may have been in the second half of play, the Card did travel 75 yards on the opening drive. Lemon carried the ball on the first three plays, and he would run three more times on the possession. But the key play came on a 33-yard toss to a Luke Powell on a flag pattern that put the ball at the ASU 20-yardline. The drive would push all the way to the four-yardline, but Stanford had to settle for a 22-yard Michael Sgroi field goal.
While a field goal is often viewed as a letdown, this pigskin that split the uprights was cause for some celebration. Though almost at extra-point distance, this kick was the first successful field goal for Stanford since September, when Sgroi hit a 28-yarder. He had missed his one field goal attempt in each of the USC, Washington State and Oregon games. No field goals were attempted last week against UCLA.
After a dismal first half, the Sun Devils found a groove in the second stanza offensively, connecting on medim and long passes. The first half production rested completely on that 67-yarder, but Walter completed 15 passes for 249 yards in the final 30 minutes. That led to three more touchdown scores, with the first coming midway through the third quarter. The touchdown pass hit Skyler Fulton from 19 yards out on a play where the Stanford defensive backfield (Leigh Torrence, in particular) looked a little confused and blew a coverage. ASU went for the two-point conversion to try and bring the deficit to just two scores, but Walter strangely threw the ball away high out of the back of the endzone.
At 31-13, the game was possibly competitive, though Stanford came back on the very next drive with an answer. The Card drove 78 yards in 12 plays, with the score coming on an improbable 3rd and 18 situation. Lewis again went over the top of the defense, this time finding Evan Moore in the endzone on another fade pattern. Moore made a spectacular catch and managed to hold onto the ball despite severely injuring himself as he came down with the ball. The 33-yard score was the first of Moore's young college career, and it was the fourth score this year by a true freshman. Unfortunately it was also Moore's last play of the game, as he was carted out away to the locker room.
That pass play was the first play of the fourth quarter, though it would be Stanford's final pass attempt of the game. Trent Edwards came into the game at quarterback and on one 3rd & 10 dropped back to pass but he had his clock cleaned on a sack that drove him right into the turf. Stanford ran the ball every other play the remainder of the quarter. Unsurprisingly, they did not again threaten to score.
Walter and ASU, on the other hand, drove twice successfully in the fourth quarter to turn a laugher of a 38-13 game into an annoying 38-27 final. Their last score came in meaningless fashion with just 2:05 remaining in the game and trailing three scores. The Sun Devils burned their three timeouts in the last five minutes of the game to that end, and the touchdown came only on a bounce of good fortune when Derek Hagan snagged a deflected pass in the back of the endzone on a 4th & goal from the eight-yardline.
That sunshine that had cast a warm glow onto the players and fans at kickoff was replaced in the second half by a steady rain that slowly increased in intensity. The inclement weather made those in attendence all the more irritated at the late antics by ASU to make the score respectable. But Stanford's players were not the least bit down about being drenched when the final gun sounded.
Though the second half saw the visitors play a futile and irritating game of catch-up, this was a game to be celebrated - particularly on offense. And at the helm was a smiling Chris Lewis, who threw for 279 yards on 18-for-34 passing in three quarters. He threw two touchdowns and rushed for one more.
"He, like the offense, continues to grow," Teevens praises. "This has been a long process, especially for the young guys. Finishing people off is something we need to work on, but it's also something we aren't used to," he notes with a grin.
"I feel like I get more and more comfortable each game," Lewis adds. "Coach [Teevens] has really challenged us the last few weeks to improve our execution in the redzone. The offensive line is really coming together, too. Today was the best I've seen from the all season. I feel like we're just starting to shine - we've only scratched the surface."
Though this was an offensive breakout game for Stanford, you have to give a lot of credit to the defense for what they did to win the game in the first half. Though the 'D' did not come up with the sack numbers seen last week against UCLA, they put enough pressure on Walter to disrupt his timing on the long pass attempts.
"I don't know that we are doing anything different," redshirt junior defensive tackle Amon Gordon says about the defense's surge the last two weeks. "Everybody is just playing their responsibilities. Nobody has slacked off. When you work hard every week, good things happen. We have worked hard all year, and the good things were not happening for a while there, but it's coming now."
"This is what I'm used to," Gordon says of the two straight wins. "This is what we're all used to."
Gordon record the second most tackles on the day for Stanford with six, including one for a loss. But with ASU mostly passing the ball in the game, the defensive front seven for Stanford were not often in a position to make tackles. That fell to the secondary, where Atogwe led the team with 11 tackles, including six solo efforts. He had his won tackle for a loss, plus a pair of breakups and two forced fumbles.
Sophomore cornerback T.J. Rushing was second on the team in solo tackles with five, including the team's only sack (seven yards). Rushing and his fellow cornerbacks worked overtime in this game, chasing ASU receivers to all corners of the field while Walter played a super-sized game of lawn darts. The coverage was good for most of the game until the Sun Devils put together several rather sensational catches in the fourth quarter. The Stanford corners were also flagged for three pass interference calls.
Back on offense, Lewis did a balanced job spreading the ball around. Seven different targets caught balls, including seven to tight ends. Six of those went to Alex Smith, his highest number of the year. He now has 10 receptions in his last two games for 87 yards.
"I think we're just making more of an emphasis," he offers on the tight end involvement in the passing game of late. "They want to get the ball in our hands and see what we can do. Give credit to the coaches, though. They put together a good gameplan. There was definitely an emphasis this week in practice. I was prepared and ready."
The game pulls Stanford back to .500 at their current 4-4 record, which seemed like an unattainable goal just two short weeks ago when they were riding a four-game skid and had been blanked in Eugene. Now all of a sudden, they are two wins away in their final three from becoming bowl eligible. That is a possibility that has to be discussed by these Stanford players now. Teevens is not mentioning bowl games yet, however.
"It's one, two, three, four and then we're looking at five," he describes of the wins. "We never look too far forward, never look too far back. Just like our emotional consistency - never too high, never too low.
The Cardinal travel next week to Corvallis to play Oregon State, who had a bye this week. Stanford will finish the season with four of their final seven opponents taking byes before playing the Card. Notre Dame will also have a bye before the Thanksgiving weekend regular season finale at Stanford Stadium.
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