Welcome back to the real world, Stanford football fans. Welcome back to the land of disgustingly tense fourth quarters, missed plays from all stretches of the roster and nearly botched games against 25-point underdogs that shouldn’t even come close to matching up with the Cardinal.
It’s icky here, I know.
After Andrew Luck outscored San Jose State 148-33 over the last three seasons, Stanford could only muster 20-17 on Friday night. But if there’s one good thing to be taken from this ugly season opener, it’s that it was only a season opener—which means a lot more than meets the eye. The Cardinal’s offense was purposely vanilla to avoid giving anything away on film before Pac-12 play, while new starters were breaking into their spots on both sides of the ball, which accounts somewhat for the lack of execution stressed by head coach David Shaw after the game.
Just as importantly, though, neither team really knew what to expect from its opponent before Friday. Neither team had significant tape on its opponent’s new starting quarterback, Stanford’s Josh Nunes or the Spartans’ David Fales, while any film study would require speculating back to schemes from last year. At the end of the day, this one came down to the athletes much more than the coaches, and the Cardinal’s athletes just didn’t perform up to expectations on Friday.
You’ve got to believe that Stanford will make some big strides this week before it faces Duke next Saturday, but for the time being, the athletes that struggled to pull out a close victory have shown us quite a lot. Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the Cardinal’s performance against San Jose State.
Quarterback: Josh Nunes did little things wrong here and there that Andrew Luck didn’t often do: a fumbled snap, several close calls on the play clock and a few throws that weren’t well placed. His stats (16-for-26, 125 yards) are a bit underwhelming after the Luck era. At the same time, he managed a two-minute drill decently at the end of the first half, seemed fairly composed and didn’t commit a turnover. Just what we expected—even hoped for—from the rookie slinger.
Shaw said in the preseason that 80 percent of the quarterback’s job would be keeping the team out of negative plays. I’ll take that weight into account for my own grade, and since the Cardinal was tackled for a loss seven times on Friday—more than double its average of 3.15 from 2011—Nunes still has his fair share of work cut out for him. Grade: B-
Running back: Stanford really missed fullback Ryan Hewitt Friday, not just for his run blocking but his pass-catching abilities. If his sprained ankle doesn’t heal quickly there will be some big trouble for the Card.
Stepfan Taylor kicked of his senior season with a strong performance, rushing for 116 yards, and junior Anthony Wilkerson kicked in a few good runs of his own. The 3.8 yards-per-carry figure is disconcerting for a running game that was supposed to be even better this season than last year’s, which averaged 5.3 (though it posted only 3.5 in the opener against these same Spartans). The Cardinal’s ground attack simply needs to be better. Still, I’m not putting this one on Taylor and Co. Grade: B
Offensive line: These guys just didn’t get the job done. Stanford was 2-of-13 on third down—sprouting from inconsistent rushing, which in turn resulted in third-and-longs—and was unconvincing from short yardage and on fourth-down attempts, even though it went 2-for-3. San Jose State successfully loaded the box and, as Shaw emphasized after the game, the Cardinal didn’t execute. The pass protection left a lot to be desired in the second half. Hyped freshmen Andrus Peat, Joshua Garnett and Kyle Murphy didn’t see a ton of playing time, and they’ll have to step it up to improve on Friday’s outcome. Grade: D+
Receivers: Elusive sophomore Ty Montgomery was practically Nunes’ only target in the early going, but his 49 yards on five catches are somewhat overshadowed by a late-game drop that could have gone for the victory-sealing touchdown. Senior Drew Terrell pitched in as expected and grabbed a score. I’ll be looking for freshman Kodi Whitfield—whom Shaw has been raving about all camp—to see more of the ball in future games, and for the entire receiving corps to make some more big plays. Grade: B-
Tight ends: Seniors Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo had a quiet start but finished with five combined receptions. Ertz made a diving, one-handed grab to set up a fourth-and-1 (conversion failed), and Toilolo’s only grab was of the leaping variety we’ve come to expect from the 6-foot-8 tree. Grade: B+
Defensive line: As is the usual for this front seven, there wasn’t much for San Jose State to work with on the ground (just 72 yards). By the second half the defensive line was having greater success with breaking into the Spartan backfield. They got the job done on a night when Stanford had trouble doing just that. Grade: A-
Linebackers: This was an underwhelming night for a group of linebackers that is supposed to be one of the best in the nation. Sophomore James Vaughters made some impressive tackles, but stud senior Chase Thomas was a non-factor at times and the Spartans handled most of the pressure (only one of Stanford’s three sacks was by the front seven). It seemed like the Cardinal was playing conservatively, but to succeed in the future it’s going to have to let its biggest defensive playmakers loose. Getting Shayne Skov back next week could light that fire. Grade: C
Secondary: Bend-but-don’t-break almost broke Stanford fans’ hearts on Friday. The open-field tackling—a huge concern last season—was stellar, but the coverage was porous at best and after the first couple drives, Fales was allowed to settle in during his first start. If the Cardinal gives up 216 yards through the air to San Jose State it won’t stand a chance in the pass-happy Pac-12. Senior nickleback Usua Amanam was Stanford’s best player on the evening with two sacks and a fumble recovery, and the good news is that the pass coverage came through in the final couple of drives, but the Cardinal’s inexperienced secondary has to stop gunning for picks and focus on breaking up passes. Grade: D+
Special teams: A huge kudos to Jordan Williamson for shaking off his Fiesta Bowl nightmare. Without his two field goals—including a career-high 46-yarder to end the first half—Stanford doesn’t escape with a win. His performance overshadowed freshman corner Alex Carter’s struggles on the kick return. Terrell had a nice punt return and though punter Daniel Zychlinski had more work than usual, he trapped the Spartans inside their own 20 three times. Grade: A
Joseph Beyda was planning on grading the referees too, but he didn’t want to embarrass them after they nearly placed the ball at the 20 after the game’s first touchback. Email him your opinion of the new 25-yard touchback at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu.