There are a lot of trite sayings associated with the game of football. Keep your feet moving. Stay low. Football is a game of inches. But for the Stanford football team, only one saying can describe its 44-14 win over Washington State on Saturday: it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
The No. 7 Cardinal (6-0, 4-0 Pac-12) only managed 10 points against the Cougars (3-3, 1-2) in the first half on Saturday, the worst scoring output in a single half from the Stanford offense all season. But quarterback Andrew Luck and the offense finally found a groove after halftime, piling on 310 yards of total offense and 34 points to keep the Cardinal’s 14-game win streak alive and well.
Stanford’s early offensive troubles started right away with a 2-yard loss on the Cardinal’s first play of the day. Then, Luck wound up and fired deep down the field and into the hands of defender Damante Horton, just the third interception of the season for Luck and the first that did not come as a result of a tipped pass.
“It was my fault for not putting the ball where it was supposed to be,” Luck told reporters after the game.
The Cardinal spent the rest of the half avoiding deep shots and focusing on short pass patterns, but Luck and his receiving corps couldn’t find much breathing room against a stubborn Cougar defense that only allowed 165 total yards in the first half.
But in a display that showed the impressive balance of the Cardinal, the Stanford defense stepped up in a big way to help out the offense, sacking Cougar quarterback Jeff Tuel three times in the first half and six times throughout the course of the game.
After a first-quarter field goal made the score 3-0 in Stanford’s favor, the defense responded again, forcing a second-quarter fumble that senior safety Michael Thomas took all the way down to the Washington State 20-yard line after dashing 33 yards with the football.
With the short field, Stanford jammed the football all the way down to the one-yard line before senior running back Jeremy Stewart smacked his way into the end zone on fourth-and-goal to make the score 10-0 and keep Stanford a perfect nine-for-nine on fourth-down conversions this season.
After the Cardinal defense forced another Wazzu punt on the ensuing series, junior running back Stepfan Taylor fumbled the ball for the first time all season and for the first time since his fumble against USC last year that led to Luck’s now-famous hit on USC cornerback Shareece Wright.
The fumble marked the first time all season that Stanford has turned the ball over more than once in a game, and the Cougars pounced on the rare opportunity by driving 40 yards for a score to make the score 10-7 at halftime.
But despite the sour first half, Luck and the Cardinal stormed out of the locker room after the break looking more like the team that captured last year’s Orange Bowl, particularly by focusing the offense on tight ends Coby Fleener, Levine Toilolo and Zach Ertz.
On the Cardinal’s first drive of the second half, Luck found Fleener with back-to-back passes for 71 yards then flipped another pass to Toilolo in the end zone to make it 17-7.
After a trio of punts, Luck once again found Toilolo for a touchdown, this time on a beautiful leaping catch from the 6-foot-8 junior, who spun around and dove 5 full yards into the end zone with a defender hanging from his back to extend the lead to 24-7.
Taylor redeemed his earlier mistake by taking a Luck shovel pass in from 8 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and Fleener found the end zone for the sixth time this season later in the quarter to make the score 38-7 and put the Cougars’ comeback hopes to bed.
But the scoring wasn’t over just yet–after the Cougars scored a late touchdown to make the score 38-14, freshman Ty Montgomery took the kickoff at the 4-yard line, spun off a tackler and zipped the final 75 yards all the way to the end zone, putting a final exclamation point on the 30-point win with Stanford’s first kick return for a touchdown of the season.
Luck finished the day with a 23-for-36 passing game, throwing for 336 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. It was the sixth time in his college career that he has thrown four touchdowns in a game. Fleener notched the highest single-game receiving total for a Cardinal player this season with 128 yards and a touchdown, and Taylor added 100 yards on the ground in addition to his touchdown catch.
With the victory, the 2010-11 Cardinal set the school record for the longest winning streak at 14. Stanford has now beaten its last nine opponents by more than 25 points and held its last 12 opponents to less than 20 points.
And on a day that started with an interception and ended with a kickoff return, it wasn’t how the Cardinal started, it was how it finished.
Stanford will get a chance to see if it can start a little faster this Saturday back on the Farm against the No. 22 Washington Huskies.