All evidence provided thus far this season points to one inevitable conclusion: the Stanford Cardinal is rolling. With Saturday’s 37-14 drubbing of Notre Dame in South Bend, Stanford is now 4-0 for the first time since 1986. To put that in perspective, the majority of current Stanford seniors were born in 1989. Stanford has also captured the respect (however contingent it may be) of national columnists and poll voters. The Card come in at #9 in the AP poll this week, and a win this week at #4 Oregon would all but cement a top 5 ranking for Stanford on Sunday. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before we can address the Ducks, a shot at the PAC-10 title, or a Rose Bowl berth, we still have the Notre Dame game to break down.
As always, there are a number of superstar story lines worth mentioning. Irish stud inside linebacker Manti Te’o compiled a career-high 21 tackles and covered a remarkable amount of ground from his position in Notre Dame’s 3-4 base formation. To paraphrase the obnoxious and unperceptive Notre Dame NBC announcers*, Dayne Crist looked like what he is: an inexperienced and confused young quarterback, albeit a very hyped one. For Stanford, Andrew Luck was less than impressive (under 300 yards passing and a 1:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio) while Owen Marecic performed one of the most impressive feats ever seen in the modern era of college football. In just 13 seconds, Marecic scored once on offensive and once on defense, becoming the first Stanford player to do so since before Ford Motors unveiled the Model T. For his novel accomplishment, Marecic earned a close-up on Sports Illustrated’s front page today.
Yet notes about stars only convey so much about a contest. Stanford played nothing close to a perfect game. Though Luck grabs all of the attention as both a leader and potential Heisman Trophy candidate, Dayne Crist actually put up better stats than Luck did on Saturday. Crist threw for more yards (304 to Luck’s 238) and threw for one fewer interception (1 to 2), while the two quarterbacks each threw 1 touchdown with roughly the same completion percentages. However, those numbers are largely deceptive. Crist’s touchdown, and many of his passing yards, came in garbage time, when the fate of the game was understood and Stanford’s first team defense had long since left the field. Luck performed particularly well early, when the game was close and effective ball movement was pivotal to establishing momentum and quieting the Notre Dame Stadium crowd. Also keep in mind that Luck will almost certainly return to form soon, and a solid victory over Notre Dame without an A-game version of Luck speaks volumes to how balanced the Card is. With a great performance by Luck, Stanford is capable of obliterating opponents, as they did last week at home against Wake Forest.
But to successfully repeat that kind of annihilation against PAC-10 teams (Oregon, perhaps?) Stanford will need a reliable running game, which it displayed prominently against the Irish. Stepfan Taylor, who we’ve been talking about week after week, finally broke out and showed that he is capable of putting up number-1-running-back statistics. With 108 rushing yards on Saturday, Taylor appears to have settled into being the premier back on the team. He’ll never get Toby Gerhart-like rushing attempts and Stanford will stick with the committee approach, but unless Taylor gets hurt he will receive significantly more carries than Gaffney, Wilkerson, or Amanam. Marecic will rack up the 1-yard touchdown runs and Luck will throw for probably four times as many touchdowns as Taylor stacks up on the ground, but the sophomore halfback will be the featured runner in the Stanford offense.
And now the downer. Sure, Notre Dame has a rich football tradition, and beating the Irish in consecutive years for the first time in Stanford history is worth celebrating, but Brian Kelly’s squad stinks this year. With a sole win in 4 games, the men from South Bend will not be going bowling come December, let alone January. As such, Stanford fans should not delude themselves into thinking that beating Notre Dame is an indisputable testament to the national prominence of the Card.
However, Stanford has a great chance to assert itself as a legitimate Rose Bowl and possibly, however slim the possibility may be, a BCS National Championship contender with a convincing win in Eugene this Saturday. With the ABC national spotlight, the ESPN College GameDay attention, and a top-10 matchup on tap, Jim Harbaugh and Co. can pull off one of the biggest wins in the history of Stanford football.
And with that… you’ll have to wait until our weekly Football Preview on Thursday in order to read a more detailed look-ahead to the Ducks.
*The most humorous moment of the game occurred when NBC’s Mike Mayock circled the Stanford linebackers and guaranteed that at least one would blitz. Sure enough, all four stayed back in zone coverage.