By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 27, 2015
After a team has scored 40 or more points in four consecutive games and run for at least 312 yards in three straight games, it’s easy to look at Stanford’s 17-point victory last Saturday night and dismiss it as mundane.
Yes, the Cardinal came out on top, but the 31-14 win over the Washington Huskies, and the Cardinal’s 188 rushing yards, seemed just sort of…ho-hum. Quarterback Kevin Hogan had a fine outing, with 290 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, but his completion rate — 70.8 percent on 17 of 24 throws — seemed, well, ordinary compared to his performance against Arizona on Oct. 3 (17-19 for 89.47 percent).
The offense converted 6 of 14 third-down tries, which was nice, but hardly as stellar as the 8 of 12 conversions the team managed on the road against USC. On the opposite side of the coin, the Cardinal defense only let the Huskies convert 4 of 11 third-down tries — nice, but not quite as good as the 4-13 suffocation that the unit imposed on Central Florida back in September.
Really, there were only a handful of aspects of the game that surpassed the quotidian. One of those was time of possession, in which Stanford amassed an astonishing total: 40 minutes and 5 seconds, slightly more than twice the duration that the Huskies had the ball (19 minutes, 55 seconds).
The other amazing thing was — what else? — the performance of Christian McCaffrey. True, McCaffrey only turned in his third-best performance of the season against the Huskies: The super-sophomore tallied 303 all-phases yards at Oregon State and an astonishing 369 yards on Oct. 15 against UCLA. Even so, 300 all-purpose yards — 109 rushing, 119 receiving, 79 kickoff returns — is nothing to sneeze at, and the Coloradan do-everything athlete maintained his national lead in the category with 1,818 yards on the season, a per-game average of 259.7. McCaffrey now leads his nearest competitor, San Jose State’s Tyler Ervin, by slightly more than 40 all-purpose yards per contest.
And it’s worth considering who Stanford’s opponent was: A Washington squad that, despite being years removed from its heyday as a regular conference crown contender, fields an excellent defense. Going into Saturday’s matchup at Stanford Stadium, the Huskies had given up 101 points in six games and was allowing an average of 345 offensive yards per game, both the best marks in the Pac-12.
Afterwards, Washington still leads in the first category, but by a notably smaller margin given that it surrendered four additional touchdowns to Stanford. Meanwhile, the Cardinal, which accumulated 478 offensive yards on Saturday, surpassed the Huskies in total defense: Stanford’s defense is allowing 339 yards per game while Washington has fallen to second place with an average of 364 yards allowed.
In other words, the seemingly average numbers that Stanford recorded against Washington were attributable in part to their facing an excellent Huskies defensive unit. And even so, the Cardinal’s massive time of possession against UW lifted the team from third to first nationally in that category. (Coach David Shaw’s squad is logging an average 35 minutes and 36 seconds of offense per game.)
More importantly, the Cardinal has now positioned itself atop the conference with a 6-1 overall record and a 5-0 league mark. Its nearest rival in the Pac-12 North is Washington State, this Saturday’s opponent, which stands at 5-2 overall and 3-1 in conference. The division’s current third-place team is Cal (5-2, 2-2), whom Stanford will host on Nov. 21. WSU opened its season with a loss to a team from a lower division; the Golden Bears have dropped two straight games after a 5-0 start, and looked especially bad against UCLA, a team that the Cardinal steamrolled. With a victory in Pullman, the Cardinal will take at least a three-game lead in the win column.
In other words, if the Cardinal takes care of business, things are set up nicely for a return to the Pac-12 championship game in Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara — the very same site where the Cardinal walloped Maryland, 45-21, to close out last season with a bowl win.
Meaning that last weekend’s 31-14 victory might end up being not just an ordinary game but one step in the journey towards a championship. Keep your fingers crossed, Cardinal true believers!