By: Ben Leonard
It wasn’t pretty in the early going, but ultimately the Stanford Cardinal found a way to win, riding a lockdown defensive performance and career days for Kevin Hogan and Bryce Love to a 31-7 win over the UCF Knights.
After nearly six whole quarters of play this season, Stanford had scored just six points — and no touchdowns. The offensive woes from last week’s 16-6 loss to Northwestern carried over in the first half, even though Stanford gained 201 yards in the period. Penalties, dropped passes, and poor execution plagued the Cardinal for the first 25 minutes, stalling many a promising drive. Big holes were open for Christian McCaffrey, but six penalties for 66 yards in the first quarter kept a bagel on the scoreboard for Stanford.
The most frustrating thing for the Cardinal was that they were getting a standout performance from their defense, albeit with UCF’s third-string quarterback Bo Schneider at the helm. Starting quarterback Justin Holman had to leave the game after just one series with a broken finger.
The Cardinal nearly forced three straight three-and-outs to start the game, and would have had three, had Aziz Shittu had not been flagged for a targeting call on third and seven. As a result, Shittu was ejected from the game, but won’t be suspended for next weekend’s marquee matchup against USC because the penalty occurred in the first half. Shittu’s injury left a major void on the defensive line, leaving just one reserve defensive lineman with real game experience.
But in the end, the void didn’t really matter all that much, as the defense shutout the Knights until the very end, holding them to just a measly 30 yards rushing on 29 carries. The momentum shifted late in the second with the score still knotted at zero, when Dallas Lloyd forced a fumble that Brennan Scarlett recovered. Stanford recovered and immediately scored on a 53-yard flea-flicker, with Hogan connecting with receiver Michael Rector for the score. The cornerbacks were up playing aggressively, something that Shaw noted and exploited. After that, the game never felt in jeopardy.
For as dominant the defense was against UCF’s run game, they weren’t any worse against the pass, holding the third-stringer Schneider, who played the overwhelming majority of the snaps, to just 46 yards passing, allowing him to complete just seven of his nineteen passes. The listed backup Tyler Harris finally picked it up for UCF, throwing for 105 yards, albeit when the Cardinal had a plethora of backups in when game was well out of hand.
As head coach David Shaw put it, the defense “played well throughout the entire game…Our guys played really hard…What I loved about them was that even though the offense sputtered early on, there was no division on our sidelines…100% support of the offensive guys by the defense…Once we got in a rhythm, it was fun to watch.”
But it took awhile to bust out of that slump, scaring many Stanford fans. Trigger-happy officials may have been partially to blame, as although Shaw didn’t take questions about the officiating, he acknowledged that he was ‘frustrated’ by some calls, which lead the meager crowd at Stanford Stadium to shower the Pac-12 refs with boos.
Another subject Shaw didn’t want the media to ask him about: his conservative punting philosophy. With the score tied in the first, he elected to punt from the 33-yard line. Last week, he decided to punt from the 37. He gave the media a glimpse into his thinking:
“When the score is tied, and you’re looking at a 51-yard field goal, you punt it. When you’re up, you take a shot. I wanted eveyone to know that there’s thinking behind this… it’s smart football. This is a field position game, and this will not change.”
But all in all, Shaw thought it was a “great bounceback win” for the team. Hogan keyed the W, throwing for a career-high 341 yards and three touchdowns. Love, the true freshman running back, made Hogan’s job a lot easier, showing off his shifty running on two big plays, one for 42 yards and one a 93-yard touchdown pass on a screen play, taking it to the house untouched. Love was quick to credit his teammates for the play, citing the “really good blocking, play design, and [throw].” The freshman was obviously just being modest — his blazing speed keyed the play, too.
Shaw spoke on Love’s role going forward:
“You know how we do things around here. We brought Kevin [Hogan] along slowly and spoon fed him — we did the same thing with Ty Montgomery and Andrus Peat as a true freshman. That’s how we feel about Bryce: Even though he’s not ready for the entire gameplan, we’re going to pick spots for him, both as a decoy and a primary guy to get the ball.”
Looking ahead at the elephant in the room, Stanford will travel to Los Angeles on Saturday to play USC at the L.A. Coliseum. Shaw was excited that he’ll “have Aziz [Shittu] back, and have a better rotation to keep guys fresh.” Shaw’s Cardinal will need to do a lot of things better against the eighth-ranked Trojans — they can’t afford another sluggish start.