UPDATE: Stanford has been ranked No. 25 in the Associated Press’ Top 25 poll following Saturday’s win. The Cardinal received 96 points in the weekly media poll.
Coming off of its first winning season since 2001, the Stanford football team rolled into Saturday’s season opener against Sacramento State with the highest expectations in head coach Jim Harbaugh’s four years on the Farm. The Cardinal (1-0) put on a clinic against the Hornets (0-1), scoring 38 first-half points en route to a 52-17 blowout.
On the offensive side of the ball, Stanford was playing its first game without Toby Gerhart, the running back who was the runner-up for last year’s Heisman Trophy and who was drafted in the second round by the Minnesota Vikings.
This year, the focal point of the offense is expected to be redshirt sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck, who made a convincing case that he was ready to take on that role. Luck went 17-23 for 316 yards through the air, tossing four touchdowns, a career high. He showed some mobility as well, running the ball three times for 18 yards.
“We came out very strong,” he said. “We made some mistakes, but that’s to be expected in the first game. It was a good first half performance — we didn’t do so well in the second half, but overall it was a good job.”
Led by Luck, the Stanford offense came out firing on all cylinders in the first quarter of the game. The Card scored touchdowns on three of its first four drives, two of them on Luck completions.
One play, an 81-yard strike to senior receiver Doug Baldwin, was the longest passing play by a Stanford team since an 84-yard pass against Washington State in 2000.
“I knew as long as I beat him off the line, Andrew could get the ball to me,” he said. “All week, we’ve been practicing that play. I did my best to run and Andrew did the rest.”
Stanford would score three more times in the second quarter, including a five-yard touchdown pass from Luck to redshirt freshman tight end Zach Ertz for Ertz’s first collegiate score.
With victory secured, Luck left the game late in the third quarter to be replaced by redshirt junior Alex Loukas, who secured the backup job in fall practice. While Loukas only had one pass attempt, he was the team’s leading rusher with 57 yards, including a 48-yard scramble.
“I had an opportunity to tuck the ball down and there was a wide-open hole,” Loukas said. “I got really excited and I thought I was going to fall over.”
Though Stanford’s passing game met with a lot of success, it wasn’t entirely without fault. Luck was blindsided twice by Sacramento State blitzers, one of which led to a fumble that was recovered by the Hornets.
Other than those incidents, the Cardinal offensive line held back the pass rush quite well, earning many of the plaudits it has received as one of the country’s best units.
The line also succeeded in opening holes for Stanford’s rushing attack, which is using a “backfield-by-committee” approach. With Gerhart’s departure, Harbaugh has chosen to use a rotation of several running backs to replace his production. If this game is any indication, it appears that the offense will feature one running back on each series, rather than constantly switching players on and off the field.
Headlining that rotation are senior Jeremy Stewart and sophomore Stepfan Taylor. While Stewart was limited to five carries for 21 yards before being removed from the game with a minor injury, Taylor took three carries for 17 yards and caught a screen pass for a 59-yard touchdown.
Three other backs — redshirt freshman Usua Amanam, sophomore Tyler Gaffney and true freshman Anthony Wilkerson — also saw significant playing time. After sitting out last season due to injury, Amanam showed a great deal of explosiveness, going for 51 yards on just eight carries. Gaffney and Wilkerson each chipped in with a short touchdown run in the second half.
After the game, Harbaugh addressed concerns that a rotation of backs would prevent the offense from getting into the same kind of rhythm it had last season.
“You can’t have too many players,” he said. “It’s not a problem that we have multiple good players at that position…I like having good backs and our team likes having good backs.”
While Stewart looks like a good bet to return in the near future, the prognosis does not look as good for another injured Cardinal. Redshirt freshman Levine Toilolo, Stanford’s starting tight end, looks to be done for the season after injuring his right knee on his only reception of the game. According to several sources, Toilolo has multiple cruciate ligament tears that will require surgery. Harbaugh also said that Toilolo’s prognosis was “dark.”
Stanford did not enter the game fully healthy, either. Two of its star players — junior wide receiver Chris Owusu and sophomore linebacker Shayne Skov — did not play in the game due to unspecified injuries. Harbaugh said that he expects both players back on the depth chart next week, but declined to give more details about the nature of their injuries.
On defense, Stanford used the 3-4 scheme introduced by new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for the first time to great effect.
The Cardinal run defense, led by sophomore outside linebacker Chase Thomas, junior outside linebacker Thomas Keiser and senior inside linebacker Owen Marecic, shut down the Hornet running game, allowing just 54 yards on 30 carries.
The second inside linebacker, redshirt junior Max Bergen, led the team with eight tackles and forced a fumble, which was recovered by Marecic.
“I thought our team did a good job with their alignments and assignments on both sides of the ball,” Harbaugh said.
While the front seven played well, Stanford’s secondary showed signs of the same difficulties that plagued it last year. Hornet receivers caught several balls with no defenders close to them, and Sacramento State’s two quarterbacks combined to go 15-27 with 113 yards passing. Though they managed to hold the Hornets, an FCS team, to no touchdown passes, the pass defense will need to improve for the Cardinal to compete against some of the Pac-10’s strong quarterbacks.
Stanford’s next game is this Saturday against UCLA in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPN.