With an All-American candidate at quarterback, who would have thought it would have been the arm of a halfback that opened the floodgates for Stanford's 2010 offense? Better yet, who would have thought it would be a question-plagued defense that made the lead stand up in a 35-6 opening day romp of Sacramento State?
After the teams shook out the rust and battled through a sluggish, scoreless first, it was senior tailback Jeremy Stewart who received the handoff and fired a 28-yard pass to wideout Chris Owusu in the early second, setting up what would become the first of five Stanford touchdown drives.
Two plays after the Stewart pass moved Stanford to the Hornet three, Stanford turned to fullback Owen Marecic, who responded with a two-yard touchdown off right tackle. Marecic practiced at linebacker throughout the offseason, but didn't see a single snap on defense today, much to the delight of Stanford fans worried about losing their All-American candidate at fullback.
"Yeah, they played around with me on defense over the spring and summer, but the closer we got to September, the more I knew in my heart that I'm a fullback," Marecic said. "I knew Coach would come to his senses eventually, and sure enough, he did."
Coach Harbaugh was wry when asked about where he might deploy Marecic in future weeks.
"I can't tell you about my plans for the defense, but I can tell you this: Owen Marecic is one heckuva fullback and we're going to use him there plenty," Harbaugh said. "He made me look good out there today. Of course, it's easy for all of us to look good when you've got No. 12 under center."
Indeed, after missing on his first two passes, quarterback Andrew Luck didn't miss much of anything the rest of the way, finishing 13-of-18 with 245 yards and a touchdown. His receivers shone, with no drops and two catches of tipped passes. Owusu had a career day with 150 receiving yards, and Ryan Whalen (27 yards, one touchdown), Levine Toilolo (24 yards) and Doug Baldwin (13 yards) rounded out the stat sheet.
Still, perhaps the offense's biggest surprise was Stewart, who finished with 107 yards and a touchdown on just 10 carries.
"Everyone talked about the incoming freshmen and all the young guys all summer, and I didn't hear my name hardly at all," Stewart said. "That fired me up. It's going to take a lot to replace Toby Gerhart, but I'm ready to do my share."
It may continue to be tailback-by-committee though, as projected preseason, as Stepfan Taylor made the most of his one chance. With the rout and the subs on in the fourth quarter, Taylor took his only touch of the game and sprinted untouched 42 yards down the right sideline for a score. While Stewart looked Gerhart-esque driving his legs and shedding tackles, it was Taylor who showed Cardinal fans speed at the tailback position they hadn't seen in a long while.
Andrew Luck had a one-yard draw in the third quarter and Ryan Whalen caught a 12-yard hitch in the second to round out the Stanford scoring. Kicker Nate Whitaker pulled a 26-yard field goal wide left to end the first half at 14-0, but was solid on kickoffs and perfect on his extra points.
All that scoring was more than enough cushion for a stingy Stanford defense. Under new coordinator Vic Fangio, the D pitched a shutout through 57 minutes, with the second string yielding a touchdown only after backup quarterback Josh Nunes fumbled on his own 12 to give the Hornets a short field. Sacremento State missed the ensuing extra point, converted just two of 11 third downs and gained only 158 yards on the day, as a more aggressive defensive strategy appeared to pay off.
The Card registered four sacks and 13 tackles for loss, with corners Michael Thomas and Jonathan Bademosi combining for three sacks off blitzes, and DT Sione Fua (three FTL) and DE Thomas Keiser (one sack) adding pressure up front. In fact, about the only players not to shine were Stanford's two biggest defensive stars, with Shayne Skov and Delano Howell each dropping would-be interceptions, with no one between Skov and the end zone on his drop.
"It's a team game," said Skov, who did manage to keep his cool after the drop, a feat he might not have been able to pull in his freshman campaign of 2009. "150 yards and the W: I'm happy. Besides, I'll have a few interceptions before it's all said and done, don't you worry." An apparent fourth down conversion on Stanford's most promising drive of the first quarter was nullified by a holding penalty. Between that penalty and three sacks allowed, Stanford's offensive line did struggle in an otherwise flawless offensive performance. "Ehh, that's my fault," Luck said. "It's like there was someone else in my head and he was just holding onto the ball for too long. I'll have to work on that for future weeks."
Notebook: The Cardinal are ranked fifth in the Pac-10 and 34th overall in preseason coaches' polls. Shayne Skov and Delano Howell are Preseason First Team All-Conference, with Owen Marecic, Ryan Whalen, Andrew Luck and Thomas Keiser Second Team.
Elsewhere in the country, No. 5 Virginia Tech handled No. 12 Boise State, 26-14, and No. 7 TCU escaped with a 24-19 win at No. 23 Oregon State in the week's marquee matchups.
Inspired by reading stories like this as a kid in the Michigan student newspaper on game days, the author hopes you enjoy reading this series every bit as much as he enjoys writing it. The 2010 season is being simulated on EA Sports NCAA 2011, with the author playing all Stanford games and simulating the rest in a dynasty mode. All statistics, game summary, rankings, player news and out-of-town scores are reported unchanged from game simulation. Got any ideas for future weeks, especially if they're funny? PM dannovi.
Are you fully subscribed to The Bootleg? If not, then you are missing out on all the top Cardinal coverage we provide daily on our award-winning website. Sign up today for the biggest and best in Stanford sports coverage with TheBootleg.com (sign-up)!