In the eight-month offseason following Stanford football’s 2013 Rose Bowl victory, a host of questions surrounded the Cardinal offense. How would quarterback Kevin Hogan mature? When would the receivers step up? Who was going to replace Stanford’s all-time rushing leader, Stepfan Taylor? What about All-American tight end Zach Ertz? Some of those puzzles still remain unanswered, but Saturday night certainly provided satisfying clues towards solving them.
In front of a sellout crowd of 50,424 — the highest attendance at Stanford Stadium since the 2008 USC game — No. 5 Stanford (1-0) cruised past San Jose State (1-1) 34-13 in its season opener.
“I thought our guys played hard,” said head coach David Shaw. “I thought for the most part we played well. We had some periods in there where we maybe didn’t play our best football. But as a whole, I’m really proud of the guys.”
The Cardinal offense moved down the field with ease, never punting once the entire game and racking up 404 yards of total offense against an undersized Spartans defense. In his debut following a one-year stint in minor league baseball, senior running back Tyler Gaffney rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, while Hogan completed 17 of his 27 passes for 207 yards and a pair of scores.
“The first drive out there, I was light-headed and didn’t have my legs under me,” Gaffney said. “There were some butterflies, but after that, I started picking up things and felt more comfortable. It was like riding a bike.”
But the most surprising player of the game was junior wide receiver Devon Cajuste, who scored the night’s first points. After forcing the Spartans to punt on their opening drive, Hogan connected with Cajuste off play action for a 40-yard touchdown, giving the wideout just his third collegiate reception and first touchdown.
Spartan Quarterback David Fales, the most accurate passer in the nation last season, led San Jose State down the field with a barrage of short passes on his second drive. Though the Cardinal secondary had no trouble covering the Spartan receivers deep downfield, Fales took what the defense gave him with short, accurate completions underneath. Eventually, though, San Jose State had to settle for a field goal after stalling at the Cardinal 13.
“David Fales is a phenomenal quarterback,” Shaw said. “He is outstanding. You know, it’s special when you see a guy who can throw the ball the way he throws it. There were about five throws tonight that were Sunday throws as we call them; they were NFL throws, and he’s special.”
Stanford’s offense answered in a hurry on its next two drives by scoring a touchdown — a 16-yard run by Gaffney — and a field goal to take a 17-3 lead. The Spartans mustered another field goal late in the second quarter, but Stanford reeled off 10 unanswered points after halftime to increase its lead to 21. Junior wide receiver Ty Montgomery took the baton from Cajuste and propelled the Cardinal offense in the second half; Montgomery’s 4 receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown all came in the final two quarters.
On the defensive side of the ball, Stanford picked up right where it left off at the end of the 2012 season. Fales lived up to his reputation with 29-of-44 passing for 216 yards, but the Cardinal defense limited San Jose State’s running game to just 35 yards. Just as impressive was the fact that Stanford allowed only one touchdown in the Spartans’ four trips to the red zone.
“We tightened up in the red zone,” Shaw said. “Played great red zone defense, which is one of our calling cards. We don’t worry about what happens between the points. If we keep them out of the end zone…we’ll win games.”
It was déjà vu for senior free safety Ed Reynolds, as he repeated his late heroics in last season’s opener by intercepting Fales in the early fourth quarter. Reynolds’ pick came shortly after backup quarterback Dallas Lloyd, who appeared twice in the game in option packages, lost a fumble on a botched handoff. But when Reynolds got the ball back, Hogan took advantage of the momentum swing, hooking up with Montgomery for a 42-yard pickup before Gaffney punched it in from 2 yards out for the final 34-13 score.
“[Reynolds is] one of the best safeties in the nation,” Shaw said. “He’s proven that. We count on him first and foremost to be smart and be a good communicator. He and Jordan Richards did a great job on the back end making sure everybody knows the call and they know what their responsibilities are…I think Ed’s only lament is he didn’t have a chance to get both feet in bounds and get running.”
Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Trent Murphy, who led the team in sacks and tackles for loss last year, also impressed on Saturday night with 2 sacks and a big pass breakup in the third quarter. Classmate Shayne Skov was flying around as well, recording 9 tackles and a pair of quarterback hurries. But despite his great performance, Murphy was critical of how the Stanford’s vaunted front seven played, and stressed that the unit has a lot of room for improvement during the upcoming week.
“We played average out there,” Murphy said. “On Monday, Tuesday, we need to do a lot more tackling drills and things like that…I felt like we were pretty soft up front. We didn’t play as physical as we can, that’s for sure. There were too many yards after the catch, yards after first contact.”
Stanford will travel to the East Coast to play Army next Saturday before hosting Arizona State on Sept. 21.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.