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Football: Luck airs it out as Cardinal marches on

After three games, the Stanford football team is right where it wants to be–sitting with a perfect 3-0 record and boasting the nation’s longest active winning streak, currently 11 games dating back to 2010.

After steamrolling San Jose State 57-3 on opening weekend, crushing Duke 44-14 on the road and playing a flawless second half to roll Arizona 37-10 in the desert, No. 5 Stanford (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) gets a break from competition this weekend with an open date to prepare for a home matchup against UCLA on Oct. 1.

But even though Stanford has opened up 2011 with large margins of victory and a high national ranking, the start to the season hasn’t been all flowers and sunshine. The Cardinal hasn’t struggled to put up points or keep opponents out of the end zone, but a couple of speed bumps so far have been self-induced.

After scoring 27 points in the first half in the season opener against San Jose State, the Cardinal struggled to separate itself early against Duke and Arizona, leading the perfectionist Cardinal players and coaches to express concern as they head into the heart of the Pac-12 season.

“We have a lot of things to improve on, obviously,” said superstar quarterback Andrew Luck after the Arizona win, echoing the works of head coach David Shaw.

“We just need to establish a rhythm,” Shaw said. “We had a couple of nice drives in the first half. But in the second half we came out in rhythm. We need to start the first half like we start the second half.”

While Stanford did find its feet in both games to pull away for convincing wins, the nitpicking is a sign of just how high the expectations are on the Farm this season.

On offense, Heisman Trophy-candidate Luck has been predictably excellent so far–he’s racked up 786 yards and eight touchdowns against just one interception through the air, and added another touchdown on the ground with a scramble for a score in the first game of the season.

Luck’s quick start has also continued to ink his name into the history books beside some elite company; he passed 1970 Heisman Trophy-winner Jim Plunkett for the third-most passing touchdowns in Stanford history with his two touchdowns against Arizona.

The redshirt junior’s supporting cast has also been effective, particularly running back Stepfan Taylor, who has already gained 289 yards on the ground after rushing for a career-best 153 yards against Arizona.

Through the air, senior wide receiver Chris Owusu and redshirt senior tight end Coby Fleener have been Luck’s favorite targets, as Owusu leads the team with 227 yards receiving and Fleener has a team-best three touchdown catches. Both pass-catchers sustained injuries against Arizona, but neither appeared to be seriously hurt and will likely be able to return to the lineup soon.

The rebuilt offensive line has also done an excellent job of keeping Luck upright–the group returned just two starters from last season but has only allowed two sacks through the first three games.

But while the highlights so far have focused mostly on Luck and his companions on offense, the Cardinal defense has also been a force, holding opponents to just an average of nine points a game, ranking as the seventh-toughest scoring defense in the country.

Stanford lost five starters from the defensive side of the ball after last season, but the newcomers haven’t missed a beat. Key veterans have contributed to the success: senior linebacker Chase Thomas has 3.5 sacks to lead a defense that has 13 already, and junior linebacker Shayne Skov has a team-high 19 tackles, although Skov suffered a potentially devastating knee injury early on in the Arizona game, which could hinder the Cardinal’s title hopes.

Additionally, the special teams have been a bright spot for the Cardinal, with kicker Jordan Williamson a perfect 6-for-6 on field goals in his first year as the full-time placekicker.

With the combination of a deadly, efficient offense and a relentless defense, Stanford has already positioned itself atop the Pac-12. It stands as one of just three squads to still be undefeated, along with rivals USC and Cal.

The Cardinal appears to be in prime position to continue its winning streak, as Stanford’s next three opponents–UCLA, Colorado and Washington State–have a combined record of 4-5 so far.

UCLA appears to be in particularly dire straits already, with two losses to Houston and Texas on its record and critics already frothing about another poor season in the making under head coach Rick Neuheisel.

In his four years leading the Bruins, Neuheisel’s squad has yet to finish higher than eighth in the Pac-10 and has to go on the road to face Oregon State in its Pac-12 opener this weekend before rolling into Stanford Stadium next week in search of a signature win that could save a reeling season.

Stanford, on the other hand, will likely use the off week to improve on the one area it seems to be lacking in this season—making sure it finishes off opponents a little sooner.

“We challenged our guys at halftime to take the fight to them,” Shaw said after the Arizona game. “To be physical. To see if we could wear them down. That’s the philosophy we believe in. Our second half has got to be better than our first, and that’s what we did tonight. But we have to start faster.”

With eight Pac-12 games left on the schedule, it’s likely that the entire conference will be watching to see if the Cardinal does find that extra spark, because finding it could lead Stanford to something it hasn’t accomplished since 1999—a conference championship.

Stanford returns to action next weekend on Saturday, Oct. 1 as it hosts UCLA.

 

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