A few answers are revealed, but many mysteries abound after Stanford’s 34-20 win against Army

September 16, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 16, 2013

Over the past four years, I’ve been fortunate enough to see my beloved Stanford football team play in person an average of once a season, despite living on the opposite side of the country from my alma mater. (I’m separated by a distance of 2,800 miles and 44 hours of drive time, according to my smartphone map program.)

I got my latest opportunity to cheer on my favorite team from the stands this past weekend when the Cardinal visited the U.S. Military Academy in upstate New York. West Point isn’t far from where I grew up, and I was lucky enough to be treated to a pair of tickets by a sibling.

So I was there in Michie Stadium when the team kicked off its second game of the 2013 season. After four quarters, fifth-ranked Stanford had earned a 34-20 victory over Army. But I found myself coming away with plenty of questions — some of them easily answered, some of them unanswerable at the moment.

Here’s a look at what I saw and what I wondered about after the Cardinal moved to 2-0 on the young year.

• Question: How good will Tyler Gaffney be this year?

Answer: Very. T-Gaff left no doubt that he is primed for a terrific season after posting his second straight game with more than 100 rushing yards. In fact, Gaffney — who took a break from football in 2012 to play minor league baseball — improved on his performance against San Jose State in the opener.

He rushed 20 times in each of the first two games, racking up 104 yards (5.2 yards per carry; long of 16) and two touchdowns against the Spartans and 132 yards (6.6 ypc; long of 25) and one score vs. Army. No. 25 went for two catches and 20 yards in the first game of 2013 and accounted for a single 23-yard touchdown reception in the second game.

Many folks thought that the Stanford ground game would miss a beat after the graduation of Stepfan Taylor. But all indications are that those folks thought wrong.

• Question: Why has David Shaw been talking about running-back-by-committee when Gaffney has been so spectacular in the early going?

Answer: Unclear. Maybe Gaffney played below his current level during preseason camp. Maybe his chief rival, Anthony Wilkerson, flashed far more potential during summer practice than he’s shown in the first two contests. Maybe Stanford’s coach wanted to make it harder for opposing coaches to prepare for the Cardinal.

Wilkerson ran for 65 yards and had two catches for 14 yards against the Spartans, but he rushed just four times for 11 yards and had no receptions when facing Army. Wilkerson was actually the Cardinal’s fourth-leading rusher Saturday — wideout Ty Montgomery had two end-arounds for 30 yards and quarterback Kevin Hogan got 15 yards on four runs.

Maybe Wilkerson will show better production as the season progresses. Or maybe it’ll turn out that Shaw was just having some fun at our expense.

• Question: How is Stanford’s receiving corps shaping up?

Answer: Solidly. Montgomery caught six balls for 130 yards. His 46-yard catch-and-run early in the second quarter went for a touchdown.

Michael Rector had just one catch for 26 yards, but he gave Stanford its first lead when he corralled a Hogan ball in the end zone.

Kodi Whitfield gained 20 yards on three catches, two from backup slinger Evan Crower; he was also the intended receiver for three throws that fell incomplete. (Interestingly, Hogan targeted Whitfield on three straight throws.) Jeff Trojan and Kelsey Young grabbed one ball apiece, for only seven and minus-one yards respectively.

Wideout Devon Cajuste was involved in just one play, albeit an electrifying one. The Long Island, N.Y., native — who brought out many fans in matching T-shirts bearing his name, number and the slogan “Got juice?” — appeared to catch a ball in the end zone, but it was deemed incomplete. Oddly, the ruling was upheld on review, even though replays on Michie Stadium’s video screen clearly seemed to confirm spectators’ initial impression that he had scored a touchdown.

It would have been great to see Hogan complete multiple balls to more than one player. Still, after a few years in which the Cardinal’s receiving talent has seemed lackluster, there have been encouraging early signs this season.

• Question: How good is Hogan going to be this year?

Answer: Unclear. While I came away from the game believing that we will see a definite uptick in performance by Stanford’s receiving talent, I’m not yet sure that Hogan will consistently perform at a Luckian level.

Hogan’s throwing numbers from Saturday were, well, solid but not outstanding: 11 of 18, 188 yards and three scores. Unfortunately, he was strip-sacked on Stanford’s third play from scrimmage, which set up a field goal that gave Army the first points of the game.

Early in the fourth quarter, with Stanford standing at the Army 24-yard line and seemingly ready to add to its 27-13 advantage, Hogan tossed a ball that was picked at the goal line by cadet Josh Jenkins. The Black Knights were forced to punt on the ensuing possession, but the mistake might have opened the door for Army to stage a momentous upset.

Don’t get me wrong — I think Hogan will likely turn in a solid campaign, and maybe even a stellar one. But just because he has a tremendous upside doesn’t mean he’ll reach that potential. And a middling quarterback outing against a better team than Army could very well lead to a blemish on Stanford’s record.

• Question: Is Stanford’s defense going to be as stout against the run this year as it was last year?

Answer: Quite possibly. True, the Cardinal surrendered 284 ground yards to Army, significantly higher than the 2012 per-game average of 97 (which was the fifth-best number nationally) and far more than the 35 yards that San Jose State gained in the 2013 season opener. But of course, Army is committed to the ground attack, running an unusual triple-option offense that gained a best-in-the-nation 370 yards per game in 2012. Against Stanford, the Black Knights attempted just 10 passes, completing six for 49 yards.

Army had some success when its backs were able to race to the sideline and turn upfield. But the cadets were far less prosperous running up the middle, which I found extremely encouraging. While Larry Dixon scored a 15-yard TD by running through the line, that was one of a very small number of plays in which the Black Knights were able to gain yardage by going up the middle.

Linebackers Blake Lueders and Trent Murphy and strong safety Jordan Richards each had one tackle for a loss; cornerback Wayne Lyons had two. Linebacker James Vaughters recovered a fumble for the Cardinal, and Josh Mauro (six solo tackles and one assist) topped a group of 10 Stanford defenders who recorded at least three total tackles. While I sense that this defense hasn’t fully gelled — whose has after two games? — this outfit could end up being just as nasty as hoped.

• Question: Is Stanford ready for a championship run?

Answer: Unclear. If the Cardinal turns in an all-around performance against any of its remaining foes that is as prosaic as Saturday’s was, frankly, this team could easily sustain two or more losses. But every contest is different, and we may well see Stanford players step up their game a notch as the opponents become tougher. If that happens, well, yes, then the Cardinal should be able to go toe to toe with any team in the nation.

Next weekend, the Cardinal hosts 23rd-ranked Arizona State in a nationally televised Fox Sports game. (Kickoff is 4 p.m. Pacific time, 7 p.m. for us East Coasters.) We could learn a heck of a lot from the outcome.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the team performs against a much stiffer foe.

• Bonus question: How good of a place is West Point to watch a football game?

Answer: Simply outstanding. The campus buildings and grounds, in the hills above the Hudson River, are both historic and gorgeous. And as much as I love college football, I greatly respect the U.S. Military Academy for being an institution of higher learning that is clearly committed to a mission that is significantly more important than winning college football games.

The school’s special character is reflected in many ways. Numerous instruments of war — tanks, helicopters, artillery pieces, personnel carriers — are displayed campus, many of which are explicitly available for public inspection. Also arrayed on the grounds are copious statues and plaques commemorating the men (I saw none of women) who have helped make West Point, the U.S. Army and these United States both formidable and admirable. There are many reminders of the courage, honor and above all sacrifice of those who have attended the academy or enlisted in the ranks of the army.

The weather for Saturday’s game was outstanding — warm enough to be comfortable for lightly clad spectators, cool enough to be comfortable. (A somewhat ominous midafternoon cloud cover yielded no rain but provided some relief from what otherwise might have been an oppressively bright sun.)

And believe it or not, as good as West Point looked last weekend, I know from personal experience that the campus at its very best when the leaves have turned. I don’t know when, but I definitely intend to return to Army in some future fall to watch the Black Knights play pigskin.

College football has no lack of venerable traditions and scenic venues. But West Point is among the very best, in my humble opinion. If you’re a college football fan, you should treat yourself to at least one trip there.

One Response to “A few answers are revealed, but many mysteries abound after Stanford’s 34-20 win against Army”

  1. […] Solid Verbal, hosted by Ty Hildenbrandt and Dan Rubenstein. Stanford entered the 2009 college football season with an unenviable recent history, having suffered seven consecutive losing seasons. But […]

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