By Sam Fisher
Well that was…interesting.
I don’t really know how to begin with my analysis of Stanford football’s 42-28 win against Arizona State Saturday, so I guess I’ll start with the dominant first half.
In that half, Stanford (finally) looked like a national championship contender. I’m not sure what was more impressive: dominating Arizona State’s potent offense or putting up 29 points against the vaunted Sun Devil defense. Oh, and senior punter Ben Rhyne was on point too, with a perfect pooch punt that fifth-year nickelback Usua Amanam beautifully caught out of midair inside the five-yard line.
What’s funny about the win, however, is that no new star broke out in the game. The lasting takeaway instead is that junior wide receiver Ty Montgomery and senior running back Tyler Gaffney are both as good as they seemed through two weeks, even against a very good defense.
Heading into Saturday, Gaffney had put up video game numbers: 236 yards on 40 carries with three rushing touchdowns and another through the air. While he didn’t match his 5.9 yards-per-carry productivity, Gaffney did pick up 95 yards on 19 carries and find the end zone twice — what more could you ask for?
It’s not just the stats that have been impressive for Gaffney; he simply looks better out there. We heard in the spring that he had added close to 10 pounds of muscle without losing any of his speed, but I didn’t realize what that would mean in terms of on-field performance until the month of September rolled around. His explosiveness, slipperiness and toughness have been spectacular, and now there’s no reason to think it can’t continue through the season — especially with fellow senior running back Anthony Wilkerson keeping him fresh.
On the same note, the first three weeks of Ty Montgomery’s season have been downright scary. The biggest disappointment of the 2012 season, Montgomery proved that injuries, and certainly not a lack of talent, was what held him back. He’s open pretty much every time he runs down the field, even splitting triple coverage against San Jose State, and has earned all four of his touchdown grabs on the season. And as a former offensive lineman, how can I not love a wide receiver who embraces contact like Montgomery? He doesn’t absorb blows; he delivers them.
But I would be remiss to talk about the positives of Saturday’s game without talking about the ugliness that was the fourth quarter.
None of us will ever understand what was truly behind head coach David Shaw’s decision to pull junior quarterback Kevin Hogan with 14 minutes remaining in the game and Stanford leading 39-14, because Shaw will never tell us. However, what we do know is that everything that happened from that moment on was borderline disastrous.
I’m not here to judge Shaw’s decision-making in hindsight; many coaches would pull their starters leading by 25 in the fourth quarter. I’m here to talk about what we learned from everything that transpired after the decision.
Unlike the 2010 Stanford Cardinal, this Stanford team showed that it has trouble keeping its foot on the gas pedal when it has a big lead. There are many possible reasons for this, the biggest of course being that it is hard to keep applying pressure without your starting quarterback in the game, but many of the players giving up touchdowns on defense were starters. For that reason, we can’t totally write off the three late touchdown drives as simply “garbage-time scores.”
Even more importantly than the lesson learned, however, Stanford received some negative repercussions for not putting the game away earlier. With only around seven minutes remaining in the game, senior free safety Ed Reynolds was still in the game trying to protect Stanford’s rapidly declining lead. On a blitz, Reynolds laid a helmet-to-helmet hit on ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly and was promptly ejected.
Though Stanford didn’t miss him the rest of the way on Saturday, Reynolds’ suspension carries over to the first half of next week’s contest. And with Stanford’s injury-created lack of depth at cornerback and free safety, this could be a huge issue against Washington State. If Stanford falls behind in that game early, blame the fourth quarter against Arizona State.
And for that reason, though Stanford was so impressive and started so strongly, the lasting impact of the 42-28 win is a bad taste in my mouth. Isn’t that a shame?
Sam Fisher was going through puberty when a two-touchdown Stanford victory over a ranked opponent only happened in dreams. Remind him how good he has it at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu, and follow him on Twitter @SamFisher908.