A Polar Opposite
It seemed like it was a decade ago, since Saturday played out so differently. But there was a night just over a year ago that saw San Jose State outgain Stanford on a cool, damp evening in front of about 20,000 empty seats on The Farm. The Cardinal struggled on the ground and suffered through the air, where quarterback Josh Nunes averaged only 4.8 yards per attempt and Ty Montgomery dropped a potential touchdown pass. Back on that night, The Farm Boys escaped with a 20-17 victory, but their struggles set the tone for two months of offensive futility and a pair of losses that negated rugged defensive efforts.
Fast-forward 372 days. It's safe to say that the Cardinal are leaps and bounds ahead of their early 2012 pace. Stanford's 34-13 season-opening win over the Spartans, played this time in the dry September warmth in front of the second-largest crowd (50,424) in new Stanford Stadium history, opened with a flashback to 2011: Tyler Gaffney ran power right, and the rest was history.
The return to the bygone age of offensive fireworks continued with first-down sizzle just a few plays later. Kevin Hogan rifled a 40-yard touchdown strike to wide-open target Devon Cajuste off play action. Just six plays into the game, the Cardinal's offense had demonstrated more explosiveness than it had throughout all 60 minutes of its opener a year prior.
Cajuste's three-catch, 62-yard effort formally marked his arrival as a pass catcher on the Division I level. Last season, he primarily used his 230-pound frame to block on the perimeter. This time around, though, his combination of size and hands combination was needed to pick up some of the slack left in the wake of Zach Ertz's departure.
Emphasis on Explosiveness
Cajuste's role moving forward will be exponentially easier if Montgomery, his primary counterpart, continues to display the post-injury explosiveness he flashed Saturday night. Once San Jose State decided that No. 89 required extra defensive attention, Montgomery re-emerged in a new No. 7 jersey, after a nightmare 2012 season. Two of his catches made the highlight reels. In the first, Montgomery managed to tightrope the sideline into the end zone after blasting the helmet off a would-be tackler.
Stanford, of course, is sticking to its power-rushing guns, as evidenced by Tyler Gaffney's 20-carry, 104-yard effort and Anthony Wilkerson's propensity to hit open holes like a bolt of lighting.(He averaged 7.2 yards per carry.) Still, the attack is simultaneously transitioning to the perimeter. For while Luke Kaumatule and Charlie Hopkins both recorded their first career catches Saturday night, it's clear that this offense is intent on returning to the wide receiver well in 2013, after years of prolific tight end pass catching production.
Hogan's average of 7.7 yards per attempt, a 67 percent increase over Stanford's figure against San Jose State a year ago, illustrated the initial success of these downfield efforts. Marked improvement on third down is another testament to Stanford's progress: The offense converted on 12 of 15 opportunities (80 percent), compared to 2 of 13 a year ago. Hogan, whose offense converted 45 percent of third downs to improve upon Josh Nunes' 34 percent rate last year, is off to a great start in the effort to further better this critical efficiency number.
Stanford's coaching staff wasn't kidding when it repeatedly spoke of a receiving corps that would go six men deep, either. While Montgomery and Cajuste are pack's clear leaders, Kodi Whitfield and Jeff Trojan both caught passes, while Jordan Pratt saw his most extensive playing time yet. If Kelsey Young (only one touch) is considered a position unto himself, Michael Rector was the only conspicuously absent member of the group. The redshirt freshman's speed dazzled during the offseason, but he played only sparingly Saturday.
Moving forward, Stanford will certainly need Rector to play a larger role in the development of its deep passing game, which still left something to be desired against the Spartans. Hogan missed far on a few long shots, all to Montgomery, though it is important to credit the Cardinal's brain trust for unleashing the aerial attack in the first place. No. 8 has one more tune-up opportunity at Army to settle into his comfort zone before a dangerous Arizona State unit arrives. Given the excellent play of his offensive line, Hogan should have ample opportunity to find his long ball groove.
Defense Holds Steady
In 2012, San Jose State gained 288 yards of total offense at Stanford while quarterback David Fales averaged 6.2 yards per attempt. Stanford's 2013 defensive effort was statistically better: The Cardinal only allowed 251 total yards while forcing Fales to dink and dunk his way downfield to 5.0 yards per attempt. It should be emphasized that the Spartans' offense is no joke. Fales is an NFL prospect, while his talented quartet of receivers includes Noel Grigsby, the active FBS leader in receptions.
The Spartans' loss of stud tackle David Quessenberry to the NFL hurt them against the nation's best pass rush: Stanford racked up five sacks and seven tackles for loss, compared to only three sacks a year prior. (Plus, to the offense's credit, the score forced SJSU into more obvious passing situations.) Trent Murphy has added noticeable explosiveness to his country-strong frame. Both of his quarterback takedowns were particularly violent. After the game, he bemoaned the fact that he thought his unit played "soft". That's a thought which must be encouraging to Derek Mason, considering the fact that a supposedly weak physical effort from his troops still handled a potent offensive attack with ease.
A handful of remarkable throws fueled some San Jose State ball movement, but expecting anything else from such a talented offense would be unrealistic. The veteran Stanford defense remains a worry-free constant heading into week two, and it's becoming increasingly clear that Shayne Skov's remarkable explosiveness is back: His late split-second burst through the line of scrimmage shocked Fales into lifting a wobbly duck toward the right sideline, which Ed Reynolds snatched to deliver the game-sealing interception in the fourth quarter.
Stanford has now recorded a takeaway in 25 straight games, the longest such streak in the FBS. An opponent last went turnover-free against the Cardinal in late September 2011, almost two full years ago.
It's safe to say that only a balanced attack has the chance to derail Stanford's loaded defense in 2013, and the Farm Boys made sure San Jose State would not display such evenness by holding the Spartans to 35 rushing yards on 23 carries. The Cardinal's next opponent, Army, runs the football about 80 percent of the time. The Black Knights' triple option scheme may provide a unique challenge to Stanford, but their lack of size certainly won't: Army's offensive linemen average 254 pounds, a lower figure than all three of the Farm Boys' primary outside linebackers.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Insider for The Bootleg. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com and follow him on Twitter @DavidMLombardi.
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