In the face of its first Rose Bowl elimination game, the Cardinal stepped up in a big way.
The 24-10 win against UCLA Saturday wasn’t just a win, it was a win that sent multiple statements to the rest of the Pac-12.
The biggest statement was that the loss to Utah was a fluke, not the norm. Stanford seemed to play half of its quarters well and half poorly over the past few weeks. Amazingly, it had gotten to a point where I just wasn’t sure how good the Cardinal, or its vaunted defense, was anymore.
Saturday, we found out that Stanford can still physically dominate very good football teams and do so — at least defensively — for all four quarters. Fifth-year senior inside linebacker Shayne Skov was an animal on the field, combining with fifth-year senior defensive end Josh Mauro to shut down the read-option game alone. Junior strong safety Jordan Richards bounced back from a game where he looked exposed with a game where he looked like an all-conference player, flying around the field making great plays.
On offense, though the Cardinal certainly was not perfect, we got a glimpse at Stanford finding its identity again. Stanford converted eight of 10 third-and-short opportunities — six of seven running and two of three passing — and wasn’t afraid to go to senior running back Tyler Gaffney again and again and again (36 carries, 171 yards, two touchdowns and zero negative plays).
Junior quarterback Kevin Hogan was better as well. After an up-and-down last two weeks, Hogan was on for almost the entire game, finishing 18-for-25 with 227 yards, a touchdown and one interception (that wasn’t his fault at all). That average of more than nine yards per attempt is right on par with his strong early-season numbers and probably should have been even higher because junior wideout Ty Montgomery dropped a sure touchdown on the first drive of the game.
Speaking of Montgomery, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Saturday’s game for Hogan is that he was able to be successful without leaning on Montgomery. While Montgomery didn’t have a bad game by any means (five catches for 50 yards), his performance was nowhere close to the dominance we saw over the past few games. Still, Hogan remained poised and found other targets — namely Devon Cajuste, who had a career day before going down with a knee injury, which we’re hearing isn’t as bad as it initially looked. If Hogan can continue to play like he did on Saturday, it’s hard to imagine any team besides Oregon can beat the Cardinal.
And on the same day as Stanford’s bounce-back performance, a Utah team playing with and without a banged-up Travis Wilson lost at Arizona, reminding the conference that Utah’s good performance last Saturday night was just as fluky as Stanford’s bad performance, and it took every bit of flukiness for the Cardinal to leave Salt Lake City with a loss.
Utah wasn’t the only Cardinal opponent to lose in Arizona last night either. Washington continued its shocking downward spiral with an embarrassing 53-24 loss at Arizona State, a team that the Cardinal manhandled at Stanford Stadium earlier in the year.
I’m not sure how the Washington blowout loss will directly affect Stanford the rest of the way, but it’s certainly a reminder that playing on the road in the Pac-12 can be a surprisingly difficult challenge, no matter whom the opponent is.
That game also shook up the Pac-12 pecking order a bit, as there is no longer a clear fourth-place team behind Stanford, Oregon and UCLA. If Stanford can take care of business at Oregon State this Saturday, then the race for fourth becomes even more complicated, but it won’t include the Cardinal.
So as disappointing as the loss at Utah was, Stanford’s win over UCLA, combined with all of the other crazy results throughout the country Saturday, showed me that the Cardinal, somehow, is still alive for everything it wanted to achieve at the start of the year. Isn’t that something?
Sam Fisher would consent to a knee transplant if it meant returning junior receiver Devon Cajuste to full health. Recommend him an orthopedic surgeon at safisher ‘at’ Stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.