Stanford kicked off 2016 under picture perfect sunshine at Stanford Stadium and gave its fans an equally gorgeous start on the field. Stanford was up 17-0 early in the second quarter and looked in complete control of the game as it headed into the locker room up 17-3.
Unfortunately, the Cardinal wasn’t nearly able to sustain its strong first half and the tenacious Wildcats forced them to scratch and claw their way past Bill Snyder’s team in a game that ended as Coach David Shaw said, “closer than it probably should have been.” The Cardinal’s offense averaged 7 yards per play in the first half, then turned in a six-play, 11 yard third quarter.
Stanford continued to struggle on offense into the fourth quarter, and a bumbled onside kick attempt only amped up the pressure. Fortunately, a Jordan Watkins safety and a punctuating 41-yard touchdown run from Christian McCaffrey off Power King ensured the 26-13 win, the first time Stanford had been held under 30 points since opening day of last season at Ryan Field.
So what are the big takeways from opening day 2016? There are three to prioritize:
First, Stanford appears to have a college-ready starting quarterback. Burns, like the entire team, played a bit unevenly. He completed his first ten passes and finished the first half averaging 13.5 yards per attempt. In the second half, he was 5-8 and averaged four yards per attempt. Let’s look at three of his first half throws for the big signs of optimism.
Burns showcased some nice skills and poise in his very first throw as a starter. Stanford came out five wide with Trips Left and Twins Right and Burns in the shotgun. Burns nicely went through all his progressions, then sidestepped a rush from his left, allowing his linemen to usher the oncoming defenders right and away from the quarterback. After sliding left, Burns comes back far right and finds McCaffrey for a first down. The poise, the footwork, the vision, and a strong arm all came into play for Burns on this first throw.
On his second throw, Stanford came out in its now preferred Trips Right Single Left Single Back formation and with the Trips, had tremendous route variety. The far outside receiver runs a deep vertical, the inner-most receiver, Dalton Schulz, ran a little squat route right at the first down marker, and Trenton Irwin, the middle man, runs an intermediate curl route and catches a strike from Burns to move the chains. A year after Stanford plagued its passing game with terrible route combinations in Evanston, this was a prime example of a very well-conceived play from ShawVitaGren and another excellent throw from Burns.
Stanford’s second drive saw the Cardinal come out in a tight formation. With the ball on the left hash mark, Stanford’s furthest receiver to the left was inside the numbers, and its furthest wideout to the wide side was inside the right hash. Daniel Marx was offset to the left a step behind and to the left of Left Tackle Casey Tucker. Burns took the snap from under center, and Kansas State sent its safety on a blitz. Along with the entire front seven, Duke Shelley keyed on the fake to McCaffrey, and by the time Burns had turned and looked downfield, Michael Rector had blazed past his man. Burns hit him in the end zone with a perfect pass for a 40-yard touchdown that capped a 10-play, 98-yard drive. This won’t be the last time teams over-commit to stopping #5, and if Burns is able to make them pay in this fashion, Stanford is back in line for a prolific season.
The second big takeaway is that Stanford’s offensive line remains a work in progress. Stanford seemed to be searching through the playbook for run calls that would work consistently, but as the second half demonstrated, there didn’t seem to be many codebreakers against an admittedly strong Kansas State front seven.
Burns took two QB sacks and Senior Right Guard Johnny Caspers noted his own struggles with pass protection. On the first of those sacks, both tackles were beaten. Casey Tucker was pushed nearly into Burns and Jordan Willis blew by A.T. Hall to cause the Burns fumble. Stanford will need to clean up this aspect of line play in order to succeed against USC in two weeks.
Finally, Stanford appears to have some legitimate defensive line depth after walking the tightrope at that position with essentially three players in 2015. Of course, the news that Harrision Phillips will be out of the USC game but not require surgery immediately tests that depth. Nevertheless, the revelation that was Jordan Watkins, as well as the use of Luke Kaumatule, Eric Cotton, combined with the usual fortitude of Solomon Thomas to allow Stanford to generate legitimate push deep into the fourth quarter against the Wildcats, something seldom seen in 2015.
Stanford has yet to run a play in the red zone this season, for those worried about “putting too much on film.”
The Cardinal was outgained for the game, but had the superior yards per play, 5.6 to 4.6 for K-State.
Special Teams was just as uneven as the rest of the squad. Ukropina nailed a big kick to open the season, but there was also the bumbled onside kick. Jake Bailey and Trenton Irwin did great work on the beginning and ends of punts, but yet the kickoff team needed three tries on one sequence to kick without offsides.
Burns, of course, had two uneven moments: the laser to Greg Taboada up the seam was incredible, but then he bungled the exchange with McCaffrey that led to the lost fumble.
I was not blown away from the outside linebacking. Stanford lost the edge way too frequently, and gutty quarterback Jesse Ertz had far too much success running up the backs of Stanford defenders to convert first downs.
Despite that, the big key to the game was Stanford’s Red Zone defense. Kansas State scored just one touchdown on three red zone opportunities.