For the second straight week, Stanford found itself slogging through a slow first half start. Though against a more formidable opponent in the 1-0 BYU Cougars, fresh off an inspiring win against Notre Dame, the Card faced their first deficit of the year. In Week One against San Jose State a tepid start meant leading just 7-0 after the first quarter, but against BYU in Week Two the host Cardinal trailed 10-0 in the first period. Both the offense and the defense took some time to establish themselves, though it was the Stanford offense that had most fans' concern.
Quarterback Trent Edwards threw for just 25 yards on 10 completions a year ago against the confounding Cougar defense, which employs an unconventional five defensive backs and employs deception with their angles of attack. Edwards was also ailing this week, after he injured his hand in the season opener against San Jose State. Edwards missed some practice time this week and had his swollen hand bandaged every day on the practice field. On the fifth play of the first Stanford series, Edwards fumbled the ball as he was hit hard and sacked, giving BYU excellent field position just 35 yards away from a score.
The Cougars converted and took a quick 7-0 lead. Edwards threw two incompletions and was sacked on third down of the next series. Stanford punted away and BYU looked to grow their lead. But the Cardinal defense made their first big play of the day when Julian Jenkins recovered a fumble by BYU's tailback, giving Stanford the ball on the Cougar's 30-yardline. Cardinal running back Kenneth Tolon had the starting nod in this game after his strong 96-yard game a week earlier, but he went nowhere in a hurry with his early attempts. On first down of this series, he was stopped for a two-yard loss, setting up Stanford for a passing down. Edwards again could not connect, which brought the kicking team onto the field. Michael Sgroi had missed his one and only field goal attempt in the opener, and he missed another long attempt on this 49-yarder. Like his miss against SJSU, the ball had plenty of length but was just wide.
The concern became much greater for the kicking game when Sgroi lined up for shorter attempts later in the half. Early in the second quarter he had a chip shot from the hash mark from 20 yards out and boinked it off the goal post. Later in the quarter he missed another chip shot, this time from 22 yards away. The inability to put points up on the scoreboard in scoring territory made for an uneasy feeling throughout Stanford Stadium, but Sgroi and his Cardinal teammates would rally in a big way.
After the first missed field goal, BYU took the ball 46 yards and kicked their own field goal to stretch the lead to 10-0. The Cougars were down to their second string quarterback at that point, after starter Matt Berry cut his hand in the first series and had to be taken to the locker room for ice and treatment. But Jason Beck found a groove, hitting 7-of-12 passing in his first two full series, leading to the 10 points. The BYU passing game was scheming for seams in the Stanford defense and started to pick up efficiency. Stanford's own passing game was wobbly, with Trent Edwards completing just one pass in his six attempts in his first three offensive series, plus two suffered sacks. When you are struggling on offense, defense and the kicking game, it is easy to fret.
"I was never worried," reports head coach Buddy Teevens of the 10-0 deficit in the first quarter. "I knew we had things we were capable of doing, once we took better care of the ball. We turned it over once and roughed their punter to give them too many opportunities."
What Teevens and none of the on-site or television audience could have predicted was the turnaround play that came immediately after that BYU field goal. Cougar kicker Matt Payne belted his kickoff 64 yards toward Stanford return man T.J. Rushing on the left (West) side. Rushing came charging out of the endzone and fielded the ball on the run at the one-yardline. The Stanford track star was soon at top speed and hit his holes in a blur.
"The wedge did a great job on that play," says Rushing of his return. "Once I saw Michael Okwo blocking the kicker, I knew I had a chance."
Rushing zigged toward the near sideline to evade a pair of BYU tacklers and then cut back to his left to wrong-foot Payne. The Cougar kicker had no chance catching the Stanford sprinter, who strolled into the endzone 99 yards later for a score. The touchdown return was the first for Stanford since Damon Dunn ran one back 93 yards against USC in 1996, and it was the third longest kickoff return in school history. Twice have Stanford returners taken the ball back 100 yards (1994, 1950).
For Rushing, it was a just reward as he has patiently waited to get his crack at the return game in this his third season on The Farm. He deferentially praised previous kickoff return standouts who played in front of him the last two years, including Ryan Wells and Kenneth Tolon, but we witnessed on this day why Rushing's blazing speed is a weapon begging to be unsheathed for the Cardinal. The Stanford junior has waited a long time for the opportunity. Though he saw occasional return repetitions last year, he has not tasted regular work as the lead return man before this year. His last return for a touchdown came in his junior year of high school at Pauls Valley HS in Oklahoma. Twice that year balls were kicked off to him, and he returned both for scores. Never again did a kicker in high school let him touch the ball, for the remainder of his junior season and the entirety of his senior season.
With points now on the scoreboard and their first momentum-seizing play of the game, you could feel energy come back into the home crowd. But Rushing's return score was not the most significant development in Stanford's first half turnaround. The special teams surge gave the Cardinal a spark, but it was the offense and defense that each got on track and turned the game. For the offense, it was inspiring play from Trent Edwards and some big yards after the catch by his receiving targets. On Stanford's next series, they started with the ball on their own four-yardline. Edwards connected with sophomore sensation Mark Bradford, who caught the pass in the middle of the field but turned it into one of the greatest highlight plays of the last several years. He made five or six cuts around and through defenders to turn the short pass play into a 76-yard gain. Two key blocks were thrown way downfield by fullback Kris Bonifas and center Brian Head, each springing Bradford free for the chance to keep running.
"It is the unselfishness of this team that most impresses me right now," comments Teevens. "On Bradford's catch and run, there were Cardinal jerseys flying all over the field making blocks. Guys just giving up their bodies."
Two more pass completions from Edwards brought Stanford to the two-yardline, but then Sgroi missed one of his short-range field goals that took almost all the wind out of the Cardinal sails. But a personal foul penalty was called on that kicking attempt, where a BYU player was flagged for jumping up to attempt to block the kick and then landing on top of a Stanford player. With new life and a new set of downs, Stanford took the ball from one yard out and scored immediately on a toss from Edwards to fifth-year senior Alex Smith.
Smith had already lit up the Stadium with his own fantastic catch and run, with a 43-yard effort in the first quarter that was soon erased by an Edwards sack and fumble. But make no mistake that Smith looked like every bit of the NFL player out on the field on this evening. On his big catch and run, he did something different from Bradford in that the senior shed multiple tackles in a show of power and determination. He would deliver throughout the game with a team-high six receptions totaling 87 yards and the one score.
"It has been a point of emphasis for me this year," says Smith of his physical play and yards after the catch (YAC). "I shouldn't be tackled. I was pretty upset after last week, actually; I should have had better YAC yardage... We had studied game film real hard, and I thought we had a good game plan coming into tonight. We knew some holes in their defense we could hit. We saw on film they left the tight ends open a lot. Nobody covered me so I went straight upfield."
Bradford and Smith exemplified the spirit of the offense as they pushed the passing totals to a significant multiple of last year's output against BYU's 3-3-5 defense, and Edwards also deserves a lot of credit. He had a hard week dealing with a battered body, and the redshirt sophomore took plenty more hits in this game. Rather than wilt, he grew stronger as the game went on, finally throwing for a career high 297 yards. For the second straight week, he avoided throwing any interceptions.
But behind the scenes, there is a good deal of credit owed to the coaching staff. During their July vacation, sandwiched between the late June football camps for high schoolers and their preparation for the August preseason Stanford training camp, they elected to take a week from their away time to come into the football offices. For that week, the offensive staff spent hours in meetings getting on the same page for this fall season, and they gameplanned the BYU game. By studying film of how the Cougar's unconventional defense operated last year, they formulated ideas and tactics of how they could increase the productivity in this showdown. 37 points and 369 yards later, their planning looks like a rave success.
Edwards reflects upon the preparation he received from coach Bill Cubit and the offensive staff that gave him so much more insight and confidence against the BYU defense. "They run that five-DB defense that can confuse you, but I just watched the two middle safeties this time to read what they were going to do," the quarterback explains. "Last year it was a blur but I had so much more confidence this time. We also made guys miss and picked up a lot of YAC yardage. You have to give credit to all the guys on the offense. But we're not comfortable yet - we have a lot to still improve.
After the second score, Stanford suddenly had the lead at 14-10, and the offense indeed found a new groove behind Edwards. But there was big adjustment made by the defense in the middle of the second quarter that truly changed the complexion of the game and dropped the hammer on the BYU offense. The Cardinal were increasingly getting picked apart by the BYU passing game, to the point where Stanford employed several downs of their dime defense (six defensive backs).
"They were running a lot of over-under crossing routes. If you're the quarterback and can sit back, you can find your targets," explains fifth-year senior safety Oshiomogho Atogwe of the BYU passing attack. "We decided to bring more pressure, which would make them throw bad balls."
Stanford started sending linebackers and safeties in a myriad of blitz packages, and BYU never scored again in the game. The signature play of that second quarter turnaround came when inside linebacker Kevin Schimmelmann fired through the offensive line and blasted BYU quarterback Jason Beck for a sack and a fumble. For the second time in the half, Julian Jenkins was the man to dive on the loose ball, giving Stanford possession on their own 39-yardline. The Card drove the final 2:35 of the half and again knocked on the door of the endzone, only to come up just short. As time expired they took a final field goal attempt, and this time Sgroi made good from 19 yards out.
The third quarter confirmed the lethality of Stanford's zone blitzes for the visiting Cougars. On BYU's first series they again faced an array of blitzers behind the three-man rush. As a typical example, Brandon Harrison and Jared Newberry loaded up on the right side of the offensive line and then twisted or delayed who would attack what gap. Newberry had a big pressure while a tight end was engaged with Harrison on one quarterback hurry and incompletion, so on the next play BYU prepared for another five-man rush. Stanford sent Jon Alston as a fourth rusher but sat back in their zones. Beck threw to his target receiver, but Stanley Wilson closed and made a perfectly timed play on the ball to knock it away. Atogwe then dove and snared the ball just above the ground for the interception.
"BYU had been getting their inside wide receiver open, so we decided to let the outside [linebackers] do their thing and we crossed in the middle," says fifth-year senior inside linebacker David Bergeron of another wrinkle the Cardinal defense provided. "It was a big change that Coach Christoff made that really worked. 35% of the time we knew what play they would run before the snap. We had a lot of confidence out there; it was just a matter of execution."
In the final seconds of the quarter, it was Bergeron shooting through the line of scrimmage on one of those crossing blitzes to hassle the Cougar signal caller. Beck saw his life flash before his eyes with the hard-charging linebacker closing on him, and he tossed up a hurried ball that was picked off by Leigh Torrence. Both of those interceptions came from the pressure employed by defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff, and both led to touchdowns. This is precisely what Stanford's defense is supposed to be capable of doing this year from this scheme - force turnovers and big plays. By the end of the game, the Cardinal had turned the ball over from BYU a total of seven times. In addition to the aforementioned turnovers, defensive end Casey Carroll intercepted a pass on the BYU seven-yardline after Beck was pressured; Atogwe stripped a receiver of the ball and Rushing recovered; and in the final minute, redshirt freshman Nick Sanchez made a spectacular diving interception. Four interceptions and three recovered fumbles - pretty impressive.
The offense did their part to convert on the rash of forced turnovers. The first touchdown of the second half came on a play we had not yet seen before from Trent Edwards in his Cardinal career. From the BYU 21-yardline, he scrambled to find an open receiver and drifted left toward the West sideline. It looked for sure like he would throw the ball away or run out of bounds for an insignificant gain, but the cagey quarterback instead saw 6'4" Justin McCullum come back to him in the endzone. As the BYU defenders focused on the scrambling Edwards and saw him in running mode, they left McCullum enough open room that Edwards saw fit to throw. As his body was moving left he flicked the ball with a sidearm motion and hit McCullum for an open and impressive score. The second touchdown of the half came with Edwards throwing a simple fade pattern from 24 yards out that 6'7" Evan Moore hauled in for an easy score.
The offense was clicking with Edwards at the helm, and it was a surprising twist after last year's game. The passing attack had less than zero effectiveness in Provo, but the Card still pulled out the win with big defensive plays and a standout running performance by Kenneth Tolon. Tolon also starred last week in the season opener, so he was given the start in this game. But the senior tailback struggled in the ground game this go-around, finishing with just nine yards on seven carries. Instead, it was redshirt junior J.R. Lemon, who was bounced from his starting role, who stood tall on this evening. Lemon came into the game in the second quarter, just as Tolon did in the San Jose State game, and he picked up consistent chunks of yardage. He finished the evening with a solid 4.4 ypc average, but maybe more important was his contribution in the passing game. Three times the offense called for a screen pass to Lemon, and three times he moved the ball forward effectively for a total of 28 yards. Stanford fans may be confused by the running back situation, with the "bench" player twice in two weeks taking the lead role in the ground game, but the lesson instead is that this coaching staff is committed to going with the hot hand. Regardless of whether Lemon or Tolon starts, the back who finishes will be the one who moves the chains. Fortunately, both backs have delivered thus far. Though he touched the ball just 17 times in this reserve performance, it was one of Lemon's better games in his Cardinal career.
Stanford's final two scores came on field goals, and it is with happiness that we report that Michael Sgroi finished this game hitting his final three field goals. The last shot was a 41-yard attempt, his first make from 40 yards and out he has hit since the 2002 season. Though the redshirt junior looked at one point in the game to be a kick away from being benched, he shook off his shaky start and finished well.
The 37-10 final score leaves us cautiously optimistic about this 2004 Stanford team. As we looked back at the 2003 season, the 2-0 start was not a telling indicator of the remaining success on the season, and part of that retrospective analysis sees the offensive struggles in the BYU win. In 2004, Trent Edwards compiled a career high in passing yardage and would have gone for more if not for the emphasis on running the ball late in the game to run down the clock. Combined with a breakout game for the Stanford defense, which held the Cougars to half the points that Notre Dame allowed a week earlier, and this looks like a better football team than the '03 version. We have to wait two weeks for the next test, as Stanford has a bye coming up on the schedule. Perhaps you might be interested in watching Stanford's most recent opponent square off against their next foe, when BYU and USC clash next Saturday.
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