The Cardinal defense did it all - it blitzed, it forced fumbles, it buried San Jose State quarterback Kyle Reed in eight body-jarring sacks. The Spartans' hopes for an upset were buried in the process.
The effort on defense gave Stanford's beleaguered offense an opportunity to find its groove, and behind tailback Toby Gerhart, the Cardinal scored 23 unanswered points after San Jose State put them in an early 10-0 hole.
The win moved the Cardinal back to 2-2 and into a more confident, happy place.
"You can definitely see the confidence building," Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Eight sacks, forced two turnovers, a big stop on fourth down. That's what we want from our defense. Getting to the quarterback, getting those turnovers. It was good to see. It was great to see."
And it probably looked pretty good to the Stanford offense as well. The Cardinal didn't solve their problems in the passing game and they reached the end zone only once before Gerhart's 2-yard score with 9 seconds left in the game.
But they did enough. And junior quarterback Tavita Pritchard did enough to hang on to the job that could well have been handed over to freshman Andrew Luck had he not performed.
Pritchard ran for the first touchdown of his career and completed 13 of 28 passes for a season-high 159 yards. He put Aaron Zagory in position to hit three field goals, including a career-best 52-yarder in the third quarter.
And he handed the ball off to Gerhart in the second half, which turned out to be a very important task. Gerhart, who ran for 140 yards against San Jose State last year before sustaining a season-ending knee injury, finished with a career-high 148 yards on 22 carries, 121 of those yards coming in the second half as he broke tackles and wore down defenders.
His late-game score was icing on a win already secure. The victory was won on the other side of the ball when Stanford's defense turned back San Jose State on its final possession to protect a 16-10 lead.
Unlike the opener against Oregon State, when the defense allowed the Beavers to march down the field and put a scare into Harbaugh, the Cardinal stopped San Jose State (2-2) cold when it counted.
The Spartans started at their own 36 and handed the ball over four plays later at their 33 when Reed was smothered by Stanford's Pat Maynor for a 7-yard loss on 4th-and-6.
Reserve defensive end Tom Keiser had two of Stanford's eight sacks on the previous Spartans possession, pinning them at their own 7.
"We were able to shut down the run and we were able to get after the quarterback," Keiser said. "It worked out because we put them in a position where they needed to make some plays and we were able to stop them."
Stanford came into the game with four sacks on the season. That tally now sits at 12, the eight sacks in the game the most since a 2003 victory over UCLA.
Harbaugh said defensive coordinators Ron Lynn and Andy Buh came up with the game plan early in the week to deal with San Jose State's spread offense, a gun-and-run scheme becoming increasing common in college football.
"We started clicking, mixing up the pressure and the coverage packages, kind of a fastball, curve," Harbaugh said.
Meanwhile, Stanford's offense built momentum as San Jose State's defense tired.
Spartans cornerback Coye Francies admitted the defense was a little "gassed."
"They kind of overwhelmed us at the end," Francies said. "I felt we were getting tired, a little beat down."
San Jose State initially worked Stanford's defense for a 10-7 halftime lead, much the same way TCU did a week earlier, with short high-percentage completions that served to keep the Cardinal offense off the field.
Reed completed 15 straight passes in the first half, and San Jose State had an 8 1/2-minute advantage in time of possession in the first half.
But the Cardinal were down by just a field goal at halftime after Pritchard rushed for the first touchdown of his career with 38 seconds left in the half.
E-mail Michelle Smith at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle