Card Crush Spartans In Opener

Stanford statistically did very nicely Saturday night in their 2004 season opener. The 333 combined yards passing from three Card quarterbacks is more than any other performance since the 2001 season. The three points allowed by the defense are the fewest since 1998. No turnovers allowed were a plus. It was a well-rounded performance in Stanford's 43-3 win over South Bay rivals San Jose State.

It was the most lopsided win for Stanford over San Jose State since 1972, and it was one of the cleanest games we have seen the Cardinal execute in a long time.  But for head coach Buddy Teevens, who has handled the Spartans twice before in his West Coast coaching career but then seen the remainder of his seasons suffer, Saturday night's 43-3 win was a mixed bag.

"It was our first ballgame and we did some nice things," the third-year Cardinal coach reported afterward in the locker room.  "It was a clean game - one penalty through the third quarter.  We didn't convert some opportunities in the first half that I think we could have."

"I thought it was very positive," Teevens said of the Stanford defense, which allowed its fewest points since a 10-3 victory in the 1998 Big Game.  "I thought they played hard, but we need to improve our tackling."

The tone of the game was set right away by the Cardinal defense, unveiling for the first time their new 3-4 front installed in the off-season by defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff.  In its simplest view, the pressure brought by the new defense comes from a deceptive and balanced set where outside linebackers can bring the heat from either side.  San Jose State felt a textbook demonstration as they marched backward eight yards in their first series of the game.  Fifth-year senior "Sam" OLB Jared Newberry blew up a play from the strong side on 2nd down as he raced into the backfield and deflected a pass - nearly intercepting it and running in for an easy score.  On the next play, it was redshirt junior "rush" OLB Jon Alston coming from the weak side and plastering Spartan quarterback Adam Tafralis for a seven-yard sack.

On the next series, San Jose fared little better, again going three and out and this time marching backward six yards.  The Stanford defense made life difficult for the opposing passing game throughout the night, allowing mostly short completions and just 157 total yards in the air.

The offense looked like they would operate at commensurate efficiency, taking the ball on their first drive and racing to the endzone in just 59 seconds on three plays.  The score came on a 22-yard pass from redshirt sophomore Trent Edwards to sophomore Evan Moore on an inside slant, which would prove to be the most effective passing play for the Cardinal all night.

Stanford had excellent field position throughout the first half, given not only the suffocating Card defense but also some dandy punting by redshirt freshman Jay Ottovegio.  He had to boot the ball just three times in the opening 30 minutes of play, but he placed all three of those punts in near-perfection spots.  The first punt should have been downed inside the two-yardline, but redshirt sophomore gunner Marcus McCutcheon was ruled to have stepped in the endzone.  The next two punts were downed on the four-yardline and one-yardline.

The one concern for the Card, though, was that the offense did not take the field position from Ottovegio and the dominating defense and convert more scores.  The home team led just 7-0 late in the second quarter when they faced a crucial 4th and 2 on the San Jose 30-yardline.  Stanford redshirt junior kicker Michael Sgroi had missed a 42-yard field goal wide left in the previous possession, and this time Teevens elected to go for it on fourth down.

While most of the attending crowd, as well as the defending Spartans, likely expected Stanford to run the ball from their power formation, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit instead called for a fade pattern from Edwards to Moore on the right sideline.  The sophomore wideout was hungry for the ball on the key play, and told his quarterback "Just give me the ball" in the huddle.

Edwards and Moore have worked countless hours in the last few months on their connection chemistry, and it palpably paid off on this fourth down play.  The quarterback read the defense as they came up on Moore and changed the throw to come inside instead of outside to the sideline.  Edwards put the ball up high and the 6'7" Moore had to use all of his height to get just one hand on the ball.  He brought the pigskin down and then ran into the endzone as San Jose's diminutive and futitle cornerback unsuccessfully tried to stop Moore from behind.

"I threw it up and fortunately he came down with it," Edwards said of the deep slant throw to Moore.  "Evan ran a great route and it was a great playcall by Coach Cubit."

"He expects me to make that catch and that's just stuff that's not scripted but develops over time," Moore said of the unspoken adjustment he and Edwards made on the play.

Up 13-0, Stanford botched the extra point and left the ball in the hands of redshirt junior Kyle Matter, who was holding on the play.  The experienced quarterback looked to the endzone as he scrambled to his right, but he instead ran to the corner and just crossed the goalline for the two-point conversion.  It was just that type of day for Stanford and San Jose State, and it was just getting rolling.

That drive was capped off by one of the most outstanding plays by a Stanford receiver seen in years, but the more significant development came in the preceding 54 yards.  Fifth-year senior Kenneth Tolon came into the game to start that series after standing on the sideline the first quarter and a half.  Redshirt junior J.R. Lemon got the start at tailback after a superior preseason camp, but he had an uneven first half with less than three yards per carry.  Whether those running shortfalls were on Lemon's head or on the offensive line that didn't open holes for him, Stanford went to Tolon on the second scoring drive and saw him scamper for 5.5 yards per run (33 yards on six carries).

Tolon stayed in the game for the remainder of regulation, while the first team offense was on the field.  He totaled 96 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries and easily would have cracked the century mark - if only he was needed.  Tolon did not play in the fourth quarter, giving way to true freshman Ray Jones and the offensive reserves.  Nearly a hundred yards in less than two quarters of running is a standout performance, and the fifth-year back looked like the runner fans have hoped him to be.  He took the ball outside and ran it between the tackles, picking up yardage wherever he ran.  It is also notable that he never was tackled behind the line of scrimmage.

"It felt pretty good getting out of training camp.  I've been tired of hitting my own teammates," said the senior with a smile.  "I don't care when I get in, as long as I can play and do my thing.  I was just watching J.R. out there and taking my cues."

In the second half, Tolon helped the Card to move the ball on the ground, but they also discovered the aerial big play to an unlikely receiving target.  Redshirt junior Justin McCullum had suffered through injuries and the former receivers coach's doghouse the last two years, with just seven career catches for 64 yards to show.  But this year has been different for the 6'4" athlete, looking like a player reborn under the leadership of new wideouts coach Ken Margerum.  We have reported throughout the last month about McCullum's strong practice performances that forecasted a real role in this 2004 offense.  McCullum delivered on that promise in a big way in the second half, hauling in three passes for 115 yards.  

The first of those receptions was a 41-yard catch and run on the first drive of the third quarter that put the offense in a 1st and Goal, which was converted a play later on the ground by way of a Tolon touchdown.  Later in the quarter McCullum made a diving grab for his next big play and again set up the offense for a short score by Tolon.  The loose ball looked like it would hit the ground incomplete, but was somehow corralled as McCullum flipped onto his back.  The replay in fact showed that the Stanford receiver may have crossed the goalline for a touchdown on the play.  Then in the fourth quarter, to cap off his breakout evening, McCullum caught a 50-yard pass from redshirt freshman T.C. Ostrander that keyed a 96-yard scoring drive.

Ostrander came into the game in relief of Edwards as the score got out reach for the Spartans, but he was not the second Stanford slinger to enter the game.  Fifth-year senior Ryan Eklund was curiously called into action for one series before Ostrander led the final four drives of the game - all in the fourth quarter.  Stanford led just 29-0 in the third quarter when Eklund took the field, and it was probably not a coincidence that Trent Edwards left the game after his previous scoring drive.  Edwards carried the ball four yards into the endzone for Stanford's fourth score of the day and left the field gingerly holding his left arm.  He afterward described painful hits that he took to both shoulders, though both he and Teevens expressed unwavering confidence that the signal caller would be healthy next week.

The pounding Edwards took was one of the sore spots on an otherwise strong day for the Stanford offense.  They ran the ball well with Tolon at the helm, threw the ball efficiently with better than 10 yards per attempt, and they never picked up a penalty until the fourth quarter when the second team unit was on the field.  But Edwards took too many shots, which is troubling coming against an inexperienced and unheralded Spartan defense.

"Trent can play better.  It was his first ballgame," Teevens commented afterward.  "He did some nice things, but he took too many hits.  Some were his fault, and some were on the offensive line."

Film review will reveal where the offensive line had its faults, though it was notable that redshirt sophomore guard David Beall replaced classmate Josiah Vinson at right guard and then played the remainder of the snaps for the first team offense.  Still, Edwards understand that he has to play his role to more intelligently avoid those hard hits.

"I'm a little dinged up," the quarterback admitted in the locker room.  "I haven't been hit in seven months.  They brought the house...  I had some happy feet out there.  It was my first game of the season."

Eklund handed the ball off to Tolon for five of his six plays, which moved the ball effectively, but he did attempt one pass: the 24-yard diving snare by McCullum.  Ostrander played the entire fourth quarter for his first ever college action.  The Menlo-Atherton product has not seen live game snaps since his high school season two years ago, but he handled himself well.  The redshirt freshman threw for 122 yards on 5-of-10 passing, including the 50-yard bomb to McCullum and a 38-yard strike to David Marrero.  Edwards finished the day 14-of-22 for 187 yards.  No Stanford quarterback threw an interception, which never happened in 11 games for the Cardinal in 2003.

The visiting Spartans scored their only three points on a field goal, but it was a sad conclusion to a drive that they knew should have yielded a touchdown.  With 1st and Goal from the two-yardline at the end of the third quarter, they twice failed to move the ball forward.  On first down they had a run stuffed at the line of scrimmage; on second down they threw an incompletion.  On third down Lamar Ferguson took the handoff and found a sea of Stanford defenders in front of him, and as he reversed field and looked for daylight, he dug himself in a deeper hole.  He would lose 21 yards before he was brought down by Jared Newberry, setting up a 40-yard field goal.  The Spartans converted, though they lost their last bit of dignity on that drive.  They never threatened again.

Stanford moves on to next Saturday with a 1-0 record and will host BYU in another non-conference clash.  The Cougars are riding high after their upset 20-17 win over Notre Dame Saturday evening, giving more excitement to this matchup than anticipated.

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