Sept. 26, 2009
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STANFORD, Calif. - The opening kickoff was spectacular: Chris Owusu's 91-yard touchdown return.
Toby Gerhart's performance was too: a collegiate-high 200-yard rushing effort, the best for a Stanford rusher in 21 years.
But the Cardinal's most meaningful accomplishment was the victory itself: 34-14 over a Washington team coming off a reverberating upset of No. 3 USC a week earlier.
If Stanford (3-1) didn't prove anything to itself before 36,930 at Stanford Stadium on Saturday night, it did its best to catch the eye of others.
"We know where we are," said Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, nonplussed about his team's early success. He believes the Cardinal, which hasn't had a winning season since 2003, is Top 25 material.
"I do," he said. "I'll make my vote tomorrow."
Victories over schools like Washington State and San Jose State were one thing. No. 24 Washington is another. Now, with sole possession of first in the Pacific-10 Conference at 2-0, the depth of the Cardinal season will continue to hinge on a series of reputation-building games that continues with UCLA (3-0) next week.
But for now, Stanford has done a pretty good job, thanks largely to Owusu. The Cardinal sophomore returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown for the second consecutive week, catching the ball at the 9-yard line and finding a seam up the middle without being touched.
It was his third kickoff return for a touchdown this season, tying a Pac-10 single-season record held by USC's Anthony Davis (1974) and UCLA's Matthew Slater (2007). Though Stanford kickoff return records go back to 1965, it seems likely that no Stanford player has ever accomplished the feat, or come close to his stunning average of 59.2 yards for his six returns this season.
"We expect to start a game that way," linebacker Clinton Snyder
said. "Honestly. If we execute, it will happen. We weren't that surprised."
"I was surprised they kicked it to him," Gerhart countered.
Washington came back when Justin Glenn returned a backward pass 51 yards for a touchdown while a confused Stanford offense stood and watched, believing Andrew Luck's pass off surprised tight end Jim Dray was incomplete.
"Boneheaded," the redshirt freshman said of his indecisive pass. "Immature."
But Stanford overcame the mistake, and an earlier Gerhart fumble, by ... giving the ball to Gerhart.
"We ran `power' a lot," said Harbaugh of the off-tackle play to Gerhart. "It's become a signature play for us. It's what we do well. It's our best running play and it worked tonight."
Indeed. Gerhart took that play and ran with it, demolishing his previous single-game high of 148 yards and coming close to Jon Volpe's 1988 school single-game record of 220.
"I was angry," Gerhart said of his fumble that ended Stanford's first drive at the Washington 11-yard line. "I felt I let the team down. Going into the game, we emphasized ball security. I felt that was the only way they could beat us."
Gerhart made up for his miscue with two touchdowns, including a 60-yarder in which he sidestepped one tackle, broke another, and followed the interference of receiver Ryan Whalen into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown and a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter.
Stanford went on to dominate the line of scrimmage, rushing for 321 yards on 50 carries, holding Washington to 85 on the ground, limiting versatile Husky quarterback Jake Locker to 11 yards rushing and 183 passing, and forcing him into three turnovers -- two interceptions and one fumble.
"With our offensive line, we can't be stopped," said Luck, who completed 7 of 14 passes for 103 yards, and scored a clinching 9-yard bootleg run with 2:31 left for the final margin. "They decided to take it on their shoulders."
Defensively, it was more of the same, with constant pressure up the middle from tackles Sione Fua and Ekom Udofia, who collapsed the pocket and helped blockade the running game.
Safety Delano Howell intercepted two passes, including a pick at the 2-yard line that stopped cold the Huskies' first possession. The interceptions were the first in the collegiate career of Howell, who switched from running back this season. He even returned to offense for a few plays at slotback on Saturday.
So, whose day was it? Owusu's? Gerhart's?
How about Stanford's?
"Our guys played as hard as they could for as long as they could," Harbaugh said. "They left no doubt."
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics