A Very "Special" Home
Dominant in every facet of the game and receiving a truly outstanding effort from the Special Teams units, the Stanford Cardinal football team cruised to a 42-17 victory against visiting the visiting San Jose State Spartans on Saturday night. In front of an "announced" crowd of 33,560 on "Kids Are Free" night, the Cardinal struck early and often against the Spartans beginning with an electric 94-yard kick return for a touchdown by fleet-footed Chris Owusu only ten seconds into the ballgame.
"On the kick return, it was a great scout look by our coach D.J. Durkin," Owusu said. "He did a great job scouting the kickoff by SJSU. I just caught the ball and there was a big seam there and I just wanted to make sure I hit it. I had a great lead block by Jeremy Stewart, my off-returner, and I just hit the hole as fast as I could. It was a good opportunity for us to establish ourselves at the beginning of our home opener and I'm really glad we got a win."
But really, Owusu's kick return was the just the start to a dynamic all-around Stanford victory. The Cardinal managed to score a touchdown in five different ways for the first time in recent memory. After Owusu's return running back Toby Gerhart rushed for two scores, defensive back Corey Gatewood picked off a Jordan La Secla pass and ran it back 24 yards for a touchdown, playmaking Richard Sherman ran a punt back 48 yards for a score, and Owusu caught a 22-yard touchdown strike from first-year quarterback Andrew Luck, who was making his Stanford Stadium debut.
"We had a kickoff return for a touchdown, a punt return for a touchdown and any time that happens it takes a lot of stress off the offense and it takes a lot of stress off the defense," Gerhart said.
Gerhart's presence on the field did a lot to take pressure off the Stanford defense as well. On his way to a 113-yard, two-touchdown game, Gerhart broke numerous tackles and wore down the Spartan defense as the Cardinal clearly met their goal of reestablishing the team's power running game.
"I feel like we got away from that a little bit last weekend in the second half and we wanted to come back out and reestablish an identity for ourselves," Gerhart said. "That was a big emphasis this week in practice, pounding the rock and going right back at them, getting mean and getting nasty and getting back to that identity that we had last year. Especially coming back for the first home game we wanted to re-establish ourselves and let everyone see this is how it's going to be."
The Cardinal defense matched Gerhart and the offense play for play, though. Behind huge nights from defensive end Tom Keiser (three sacks) and former Serra High School linebacker Will Powers (two sacks) Stanford limited the Spartans to only 228 yards of total offense.
And while Stanford fans have grown accustomed to standout performances from players like Keiser, Powers' big night likely caught many by surprise.
"He flashed a bunch of times," Harbaugh said. "It's knowing what to do but also making plays and Will made some plays tonight. He had a huge sack and made plays tonight and that was very encouraging as it was with many of our defensive players."
One of those players to whom Harbaugh was likely alluding was cornerback Corey Gatewood. With 12:21 left in the third quarter and the game's final outcome still very much in doubt Gatewood intercepted a Jordan La Secla pass and electrified the home crowd by running the ball back 24 yards for a touchdown and giving the Cardinal a commanding 28-7 lead.
"Sometimes when you get pressure you make a decision faster than you want to make it," La Secla said. "It was just a real bad throw. I threw it off my back foot. I can make that throw, but I have to get the ball down and kind of be a little more calm in that situation. I saw the pressure coming, it wasn't like it was a surprise."
Getting pressure on the Spartan's quarterbacks seemed to be theme of Stanford's defensive effort. The Cardinal blitzed on numerous occasions and were able to sack the Spartan quarterbacks a total of six times. While the team didn't blitz nearly as much in its first two games, Coach Harbaugh said the team is unlikely to revert back to a more conservative defense in the next few weeks.
"I think that's somewhat the identify of our football team," Harbaugh said. "We want to put pressure on, we want to get sacks, we want to get turnovers. We want to play sound defense and cover people and all those things, but it was more ‘Stanford Cardinal defense' tonight and that's the identity we want for our football team."
And while blitzing may be part the defense's new identity, the smash-mouth, Toby Gerhart-led running game is what most casual fans have come to expect from Stanford football.
With Gerhart and backup running backs Jeremy Stewart, Tyler Gaffney, and Stephan Taylor carrying the ball a combined 40 times, Andrew Luck only had a few opportunities to air it out.
The former five-star recruit completing just 9 of 12 passes, but for 170 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Aside from Luck's errant pass intended for Jim Dray in the red zone, which the red shirt freshman called, "another immature play by me," it was a successful home opener for the Luck, who looked confident running the Stanford offense.
"It was very good," Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh said of Luck's performance. "Andrew had some really nice throws. He had one bad decision in the red zone where he forced a ball into double coverage but a lot of things are learning experiences for him right now. When you can lead your team to a big win like this when it needs it, that's very encouraging as well."
Luck's only touchdown of the game came with 1:44 left in the third quarter when his rifle-shot pass connected with Owusu for a 22-yard score. That score gave the Cardinal a comfortable 35-10 lead.
Only moments later, however, Richard Sherman helped put the game on ice with a thrilling 48-yard punt return for a touchdown that was part of a most memorable day for the Cardinal's special teams unit.
"We had outstanding special teams play," Harbaugh said. "You just can't say enough about the job our guys did tonight. You tip your hat to Coach Durkin. I was very pleased with tonight and our guys do have an identity there and they love it they love playing on special teams."
Sherman's late third-quarter touchdown allowed the Stanford coaching staff to give playing time to a handful of younger players that usually only found playing time on the special teams units.
True freshman linebacker Shayne Skov probably made the biggest impact of the reserves, picking up four tackles in the fourth quarter alone. Cornerback Quinn Evans barely missed picking up an interception and a fellow sophomore, Johnson Bademosi also played well in limited action.
But there was one late-game substitution that overshadowed those performances. Seen anxiously pacing the sidelines and riding an exercise bike for much of the first half and third quarter, oft-injured offensive tackle Allen Smith made a triumphant return from multiple knee injuries late in the third quarter. His return to game action was recognized by an announcement by the public address announcer and generated an appreciative ovation from the Stanford faithful.
"Yeah, it's big," Gerhart said of Smith's return. "It's big
for him and it's big for us. He's been battling injuries for two years now, I
think. He was a stud offensive lineman when I came in as a freshman. He was an
everyday starter at left tackle, a first-round NFL kind of guy and he had an
unfortunate injury and battled back, but then hurt it again. As the week went on
he got more and more reps and he finished his weight-lifting routine he had to
complete to get cleared. He was just excited and couldn't wait to get out there.
He was like, ‘I'll be blocking for you and we're going to be pounding the rock,'
before the game started. To get a nice little warm welcome from the fans when
they announced that he was playing at tackle boosts his confidence that he's
going to help contribute to the offensive line and help establish our offense as
the season goes on."
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