As you'll notice, none of my keys to the game were concerned with Stanford keeping its foot on the gas pedal with a 29-point lead, so I'll address Saturday's disturbing fourth quarter in Lombardi's Look Back, which will come Monday. Despite Arizona State's furious comeback attempt, the Cardinal's 29 first half points proved to be enough for victory. Near-perfect early execution of the following keys was the primary reason why.
Emulate Wisconsin's Running Success
Stanford delivered its first truly masterful half of the post-Andrew Luck era. It came on the energy of creative playcalling and crisp execution. The Farm Boys borrowed much from the Wisconsin formula: Against the Sun Devils a week prior, the Badgers had rushed for 200-plus and 7.2 yards per carry using a clever mix of power rush and Melvin Gordon perimeter action. While emulating this success, Stanford also added passing prowess to the recipe.
The Cardinal finished the first half with 130 rushing yards on 22 carries (5.9 yards per carry) and 128 passing yards on 12 attempts (10.7 yards per attempt). Those eye-popping numbers were a result of Mike Bloomgren's unpredictable yet balanced playcalling. Kelsey Young's early 32-yard gain on a jet sweep represented perhaps the best example, as Stanford faked a handoff on identical motion from Young just a couple plays later to set up a pass downfield. Arizona State stepped into the ruse, and Kevin Hogan rifled one to Ty Montgomery open over the middle to set up the Cardinal's second touchdown.
Grade: A+ (Stanford highlighted its strengths and exploited Arizona State's weaknesses to balanced perfection the first half)
Party More Than Them
Stanford and Arizona State led the nation in both sacks and tackles for loss last year, but only the Cardinal dominated the Party in the Backfield Bowl on Saturday. Derek Mason's defensive creativity was on excellent display from the get-go, when he lined up outside linebacker Trent Murphy in a rather unconventional spot: over Arizona State center Kody Koebensky. Murphy proceeded to collapse the Sun Devils' pocket into quarterback Taylor Kelly and open an angle for linebacker James Vaughters. No. 9, dubbed the "freight train" by his teammates, forced Kelly into a horrible decision. Looking to avoid the sack, he planted a throw directly into Josh Mauro's open arms. (Vaughters, by the way, has played the best football of his life the past two weeks.)
That interception set the tone of Stanford backfield dominance. The Cardinal recorded 10 tackles for loss and three sacks compared to Arizona State's five tackles for loss and one sack. Throughout the first half, the Farm Boys constantly terrorized Kelly before he had the chance to set up and make throws to his playmakers downfield. As a result, the Fork's gunslinger went into the locker room averaging only 4.2 yards per attempt.
Stanford's two punt blocks demonstrated mastery of the line of scrimmage. The first one, which resulted in a safety, was the result of Luke Kaumatule and Blake Lueders' ferocious push toward the punter, which relocated an Arizona State blocker into the path of the kick. Ben Gardner later ruptured the line of scrimmage and abused Kelly as he was trying to quick kick. Afterward, No. 49 said that his punt stuff and subsequent recovery marked the first time since the eighth grade that he had touched the football.
"I used to be a beast," Gardner laughed.
He still is.
Grade: A+ (During their first half statement, Stanford turned Arizona State's front to Swiss cheese)
Get Up To Speed With Big-Game Intensity
Though Jordan Williamson missed the subsequent 51-yard field goal, Ty Montgomery's game-opening 50-yard kickoff return immediately set a dominant tone in Stanford's favor. It brought back memories of Montgomery's game-opening return against USC a year prior (Williamson also missed the subsequent field goal in that one).
Though the Cardinal initially came up empty on the scoreboard, they would not be denied for long. Mauro's interception set up an explosive Ty Montgomery bubble screen touchdown, and Stanford was off to the races. There was no question that David Shaw's team had come sharpened and ready.
Grade: A- (Stanford didn't capitalize on Montgomery's early return, but excellent early energy and focus paved the way to their 29-0 lead almost immediately thereafter)
Don't Center The Ball With Under 20 Seconds Remaining And No Timeouts
Thankfully for Stanford, it never came down to this versus Arizona State.
Stanford's grades to these keys are very good -- and deservedly so. It would, however, be irresponsible to ignore the Cardinal's glaring coaching, playcalling, and tackling deficiencies in the fourth quarter. Those are especially notable because Ed Reynolds' late targeting ejection/suspension, which only happened because Stanford mismanaged its large lead in the fourth quarter, will shelve him for the first half of the team's next game against Washington State. Lombardi's Look Back will cover the nitty gritty. For now, though, it must be emphasized that the Cardinal looked every bit the part of a national title contender while all their starters were in the game.
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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