Oct. 25, 2009
STANFORD, Calif. -
Three days off never felt so good for the Stanford football team.
That was the reward for the dominating 33-14 victory over Arizona State that not only equaled the Cardinal's highest win total since 2001, but exorcised the bad karma of the past two Saturdays.
That 38-28 loss at Oregon State? That 43-38 loss at Arizona? Gone.
"We had two rough weeks," said Toby Gerhart, who rushed for 125 yards on 27 carries and scored a touchdown. "This week, we wanted to get back to the way we were. Get back to Stanford football."
The return of optimism manifested itself on plays such as safety Delano Howell's shoulder smash to the gut of Arizona State's Jamal Miles, forcing a second-quarter fumble that helped re-establish the swagger that had been missing in recent weeks.
It was epitomized in the relentless play of the Stanford offense, that included 237 total rushing yards and a seemingly flawless performance from redshirt freshman quarterback Andrew Luck, who completed 17 of 28 passes for 236 yards and no interceptions.
It showed in a 473-yard offensive display against a team that had one of the most highly regarded defenses in the Pacific-10 Conference, and in a defense that held the Sun Devils (4-3 overall, 2-2 in conference) to 290 yards.
"It was a complete game," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Not perfect. We talked about playing loose, playing focused, and doing the things you have to do to win ballgames."
Heading into a bye week before resuming its season against visiting Oregon on Nov. 7, Stanford faces its toughest tests yet - a four-game gauntlet that begins with the Ducks (6-1) and follows with USC (6-1), Cal (5-2) and Notre Dame (5-2).
Stanford (5-3, 2-2), in need of a single victory to become bowl eligible, will have to earn it by seizing a victory in any of the remaining contests.
"We have our work cut out for us," Luck said. "This is why we play college football."
After a pair of poor defensive performances, Stanford shook the lineup a bit, bringing in new starters at cornerback in freshman Quinn Evans and sophomore Johnson Bademosi. They helped hold the Sun Devils to 161 passing yards.
The Cardinal also gave opportunities to players like freshman receiver Jamal-Rashad Patterson, who had yet to touch the ball all season, but scored on a 22-yard reverse to open the scoring.
Sophomore Griff Whalen, Luck's roommate, had three catches coming into the game for 19 yards. He had two for 30 in this one.
And freshman Stepfan Taylor, in his most effective action this season, ripped off a clinching 33-yard run to close the scoring and finished with six carries for 66 yards.
"You get to this part of the season and you don't consider them freshmen any more," Harbaugh said.
A good start seemed essential given the need to regain confidence after the past two weeks. Chris Owusu helped provide it with a return of the opening kickoff to the 38-yard line to help Stanford gain an edge in field position that it never surrendered.
Meanwhile, the Cardinal held Arizona State without a first down until the final play of the first quarter and built a 24-0 lead by halftime.
Luck was a big reason why. Though he'll occasionally make an obvious mistake, he has not had a bad game in his maiden collegiate season and plays like a sage, with instincts and decision-making that belie his years.
He lofted a thread-the-needle pass to Konrad Reuland on one play, and then rifled the ball to Ryan Whalen on another. He executed play-action like a master, to keep the defense off him (he wasn't sacked at all), and to get the Sun Devils to think twice when he did hand the ball off.
"He was spectacular," said Harbaugh, who has been making similar comments all season. "I think we're seeing something special happening with Andrew Luck."
ASU cut the deficit to 27-14 on Danny Sullivan's 40-yard pass in stride to T.J. Simpson with 10:30 left in the game, and after many of the 33,090 fans at Stanford Stadium had headed to the exits. But Sullivan, a product of nearby Los Gatos High, was leveled by Thomas Keiser as he released the ball and limped off the field, not to return.
Stanford responded with a 78-yard drive that put the game away, culminating in Taylor's scoring run, and Arizona State was unable to move the ball after that, with 6-foot-8 freshman Brock Osweiler at quarterback.
"I think we kind of out-physicaled them tonight," Gerhart said.
But can Stanford continue to do the same against teams that are a combined 22-6?
That questioned remains unanswered, but Stanford is eager to be in a position to find out.
"This is where we want to be," Gerhart said. "We want to be in the upper-tier of the Pac-10. Each week is going to be like an NFL playoff game."
After a much-deserved rest, that is.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics