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Jaffe: Second half, tight ends key Stanford victory

In this week’s edition of Stat on the Back, I’ll take a look at Stanford’s 44-14 win over Washington State.

Number of the game: 2

What it means: There are two halves in a football game, and Stanford only looked like itself for one of them.

Why it matters: The Cardinal has been a second-half team all season. Stanford has been good in the first half, but after halftime, the Cardinal takes things to another level. In six games, Stanford has outscored its opponents 30-0, 27-7, 21-0, 28-12, 21-0 and 34-7 after the break. That’s 161-26 in total.

And that’s absurd. Stanford’s second-half points alone would rank the team 72nd in the country in scoring, ahead of four Pac-12 teams. Meanwhile, the defense has given up just four scores in the second half all season, and only one of these was against the first-string defense. In general, the Cardinal has looked virtually unstoppable in second halves all season.

No game was a better example of the proverbial “tale of two halves” than Saturday’s matchup with Washington State. Stanford came out flat with an Andrew Luck interception on the second play of the game, and things did not get a whole lot better as the half wore on. The defense responded well, setting the offense up for an easy touchdown to go up by 10, but another turnover was too much for the defense to handle, and the Cougars got on the board to cut the lead to just three before halftime.

While a 10-7 score at the break might not seem like the end of the world (it wasn’t, as it turned out), the bigger issue was the look of the team. Stanford looked like it was uncomfortable and frustrated, and the homecoming crowd at Martin Stadium felt like it was spurring its Cougars on to a big upset. This was the worst half Stanford has played this year, and possibly the worst first half in the past two years.

But, again, there are two halves in a football game. After the break, Stanford went right back to being its dominant self, looking every bit like a national-title contender in all three phases of the game.

Other notable numbers:

10-for-16, 89, 0, 1: Luck’s first-half stat line says it all in terms of Stanford’s performance: 10-for-16 passing for just 89 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. His first pass was severely underthrown, leading to his third interception of the season and the first that did not come on a tipped ball. Although he completed 10 of his remaining 15 passes, he still appeared out of sync throughout the half, and his low yardage total speaks to his struggles. However, after the break…

13-for-20, 247, 4, 0: Now there’s the Luck we’ve come to know and worship. Completing 65 percent of his passes isn’t necessarily indicative of a great half (he’s completed over 73 percent for the season), but 247 yards and four touchdowns speak for themselves. Luck looked like the best player in the country, throwing darts all over the field. Why was he so successful? Well, he remembered who his best weapons are…

11, 216, 3: Stanford has great players at every position, and the running backs and receivers have performed admirably. But the Cardinal’s biggest advantage over every team on its schedule–and probably over almost any NFL team–is its trio of unguardable tight ends. You may have heard of them.

However, you didn’t hear much about them in the first half. Luck only threw to the tight ends a few times in the first 30 minutes, as the trio combined for just two catches (both by Zach Ertz), 12 yards and no touchdowns. But after the break, Luck went back to his bread and butter. His first three passes of the second half were a 9-yard completion to Coby Fleener, a 62-yard completion to Fleener and a 10-yard touchdown to Levine Toilolo. Another touchdown throw to Toilolo and a fourth-quarter score for Fleener gave Stanford’s tight ends three touchdowns to bring their season tally to 12. In all, nine of Luck’s 13 second-half completions went to tight ends, and the trio combined for 216 yards, more than the entire Washington State team.

10: Wide receiver Griff Whalen–primarily a third-down outlet in the past–was targeted on 10 of Luck’s 36 passes. Whalen broke out with a career-high 92 yards last week against Colorado, and he set another career high with seven catches against Washington State. Whalen has shown the ability to go downfield and make moves in space, as he has assumed the No. 1 receiver role, which was expected to be held by…

81: No. 81, Chris Owusu, was yet again forced to the sideline by a crunching hit. Free safety Casey Locker appeared to target Owusu on a helmet-to-helmet hit, leaving Stanford’s senior flat on his back for several moments. Head coach David Shaw was justifiably livid about the non-call, and he kept Owusu out of the rest of the game because of a possible concussion.

Before the year, it was a widely held opinion that Stanford would need Owusu to be a major factor in the offense to help replace Ryan Whalen and Doug Baldwin. Instead, he’s been inconsistent, having some nice games (14 catches for 182 yards in the first two games) but also disappearing at times (11 catches for 127 yards in four games since) and dropping too many balls, including one into the hands of a Colorado defender last week. Now Owusu is injured once again, and it remains to be seen if he will ever make it back to being the explosive weapon he was in 2009.

188, 7: The Cougars entered the game ranked 13th in the country in both yards and points. Stanford’s first-string defense held Wazzu to just 188 total yards and seven points before the Cougars’ late touchdown drive in garbage time. That’s over 300 yards and 30 points below Washington State’s season average, showing that the Stanford defense didn’t rack up such great stats simply by playing bad teams. Oh yeah, and the six sacks certainly didn’t hurt.

5: Thanks to the combination of Luck, the running game and this stingy defense, Stanford currently ranks fifth in the nation in both scoring offense and scoring defense. And the Cardinal hasn’t done too poorly on special teams either…

96: What’s better than a 38-14 win on the road? How about a 44-14 win on the road? On the final play of the game, true freshman Ty Montgomery spun through a hole and took a kickoff return 96 yards for a touchdown. It was the first big sign of explosiveness from the Stanford return game, and that single return bumped the Cardinal from 85th to ninth in the country in kickoff returns.

Even more important to stat nerds like me is that it kept a stunning streak alive. Stanford came into the game with eight consecutive wins by at least 25 points, dating back to last year. That streak is the longest in conference history, going all the way back to the Pacific Coast Conference almost 100 years ago. The streak looked to be over when Cougar backup quarterback Marshall Lobbestael ran for a touchdown to cut the lead to 24 with just 13 seconds left. But Montgomery had other ideas, and just like that, the streak is up to nine. Of course, the most important streak is even longer…

14: It’s been over a year since Stanford lost a football game, and the 14-game streak is a new school record. Next up to challenge the streak is Washington, a team that lost 41-0 at home the last time it squared off with the Cardinal.

8: In the first BCS standings of the season, Stanford came in at No. 8. Among undefeated teams, only Kansas State and Houston were ranked lower. The Cardinal is fifth in the Harris Poll, seventh in the coaches’ poll and eighth in the computers but could get a boost if it beats the Huskies, who snuck into the BCS standings at No. 25.

 

Jacob is busy worshipping his Andrew Luck shrine and sticking pins in his LaMichael James voodoo doll. Try to get through to him at jwjaffe “at” stanford.edu and on Twitter @Jacob_Jaffe.